Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) has been a prominent topic in the press recently, particularly in the UK. This is with very good reason as FGM is an extremely debilitating procedure, which involves the intentional altering/injury of the female genital organs for non-medical purposes. Whilst being illegal in the UK, it is clear that this has not deterred many communities, who still practice the procedure behind closed doors. So how can we protect the vulnerable people who are still being missed by the system?
What is FGM?
It is firstly important to note that this is a procedure which has no health benefits and results in both long term physical and psychological trauma. FGM can also be fatal. Some of the physical damage can lead to severe bleeding and problems urinating, and later cysts, infections, infertility as well as complications in childbirth and increased risk of new-born deaths. Terrifyingly, the procedure is traditionally carried out by individuals with no medical training. This is a horrifying experience; anaesthetics and antiseptic treatments are not generally used and the practice is carried out using knives, scissors, scalpels, pieces of glass or razor blades.
So who are performing these procedures and why? FGM is known to be practised in at least 28 African countries, as well as countries in the Middle East and Asia. In the UK, FGM tends to occur in areas with large populations of FGM practising communities. The origins of FGM present a difficult question, as the exact roots of FGM are very complex and numerous. This makes it difficult to determine when or where the tradition of FGM originated. Justifications of the procedure generally refer to tradition, power inequalities and the ensuing compliance of women to the dictates of their communities.
More and more people are becoming aware of this practice, and it is now recognised all over the world as one of the most serious violations of the human rights of girls and women. The World Health Organisation (WHO) have described this as a reflection of ‘deep-rooted inequality’ between men and women, showing discrimination between the sexes in one of its most extreme forms. The majority of cases involve minors, which means that FGM also serves as a harrowing demonstration of the violation of the rights of children happening today. Young girls between infancy and age 15 are most at risk, however adult women are often also subjected to the procedure against their will. UNICEF, one of the largest charities campaigning for children’s’ rights, reported last year that more than 125 million girls and women alive today have been cut in the 29 countries in Africa and Middle East where FGM is concentrated.
FGM in the UK
To many of us, the idea that such practices happen so close to home is hard to understand. Nevertheless, the UK is fighting its own battle against it. The UK has seen thousands of women needing treatment in hospitals as a result of suffering FGM. FGM was made illegal in the UK in 1985 and had been regulated by legislation since. It is also illegal to arrange for a child to be taken abroad for FGM. If caught, offenders face a large fine and a prison sentence of up to 14 years.
While France has seen 100 convictions, there has yet to be a single prosecution in the UK. This is despite estimates that over 60,000 women and girls have undergone FGM in England and Wales. Statistics put together by BBC London have suggested that 3,939 FGM patients had been treated across 31 NHS hospital trusts within the capital alone. This does not even account for those subjected to the procedure, who have not been discovered. This really brings home the question of why there has not been a successful UK prosecution since criminalisation nearly 30 years ago?
What needs to be done?
Whilst it is a saddening fact that there have been no convictions in the UK, it is frankly not that surprising. A conviction against someone performing this procedure would clearly involve vulnerable women and children alienating themselves from their communities and families by breaking traditions. Also, young victims are often unaware that they are victims; they don’t ask for help because they don’t realise they need it. This in itself makes them a part of most in need of the state’s protection.
It is obvious that legislation alone is not enough to protect women and children from this devastating procedure. Geeta Rao Gupta, UNICEF Deputy Executive Director, believes that the challenge is now to ‘let girls and women, boys and men speak out loudly and clearly and announce they want this harmful practice abandoned’. This is exactly what Fahma Mohamed, a schoolgirl in Bristol, did by calling on the Education Secretary Michael Gove to write to every school in England to ask them to help protect girls from FGM. There have also been victories for campaigners in Scotland, as schools in Scotland have also been told that all teachers should receive training about the issue and that parents should be educated too.
The Crown Prosecution Service have stated that they believe the momentum gained by campaigns against FGM will lead to convictions being made in the very near future. It is clear that we need to keep talking about this and educating young people so they know their rights. However, I suspect it is going to be a long battle until the day that FGM is consigned to the history books.
By Kiran Mehta