FGM in the UK: A Silent Crime

In 2003, laws concerning female genital mutilation (FGM) were updated, making it a specific offense in UK law to not only conduct FGM but also to aid or assist in someone else performing it. This legislation aims to give more protection and justice to the vulnerable women and girls affected. 

Despite these efforts, the first FGM conviction only took place this year, with a mother convicted earlier this month after performing FGM on her three-year-old daughter in the summer of 2017. The jury came to a guilty verdict in less than a day as a police search of the woman’s home while on bail uncovered disturbing evidence of witchcraft that further incriminated her and demonstrated her intent.

These included cow tongues pierced with nails and wrapped in wire, notes with names of social workers, police and others hidden in fruit, and a picture of a social worker in a jar of pepper. Supposedly, the spells were intended to stop the investigation by preventing people from speaking about the case. A photographed note, supplied by the Met Police, reads, “to everyone who I don’t know who talk about I have freezed u mouths never talk shit about me think about leave my name out of mouth [sic].” 

It is a positive step that a conviction for FGM in the UK has been achieved, but it begs the question: why has this taken so long? FGM is far from rare, but there are huge challenges in uncovering cases and aiding victims coming forward, leading to flawed and widely varied statistics about its prevalence. The vast majority of cases worldwide occur in central Africa, with Somalia, Sudan, Egypt, Mali, Guinea and Sierra Leone having FGM rates of, according to UNICEF, over 88% across the female population. In Somalia the rate has been estimated to be as high as 98%.

As such, cases registered by the NHS in the UK are often the result of FGM abroad, taking place before the victims emigrated to the UK. Between April 2017 and March 2018, nearly 5,000 cases of FGM were recorded by the NHS in a new study, with most victims being African immigrants that had suffered FGM abroad as children. The Black Health Initiative estimated that between 1,761 and 2,667 women and girls have undergone or are at risk of FGM in Leeds alone. Furthermore, as FGM is most often carried out or overseen by family members, many victims are forced to choose between staying quiet or condemning their own family to criminal charges.  

In order to combat the horrific abuse of women and girls, the focus must be the education and empowerment of women in those communities affected by FGM. Emphasis should be on the support of victims, creating a safe environment for them to open up and enabling a dialogue that challenges the cultural and social norms of those advocating FGM. The driving forces behind this abuse centres on maintaining the perceived purity of girls before marriage and discouraging illicit sexual activity, as well as social pressures that exclude uncut girls as cursed, unclean or unfeminine. These prejudices must be changed over time with grassroot projects and dialogue within at-risk communities. 

In the meantime, cases of FGM should be approached and prosecuted in the same way as other instances of violent child abuse, with cases mandatorily reported to child protection authorities and lengthy sentences given to those found guilty of a brutal crime against some of the most powerless and marginalised people in society. It is yet to be seen what the sentence for the convicted mother will be, but more criminal charges against other enablers of FGM must follow if we are to begin to end the suffering caused by FGM.

Michael Keating

IMAGE CREDIT: Chris Cronin