LONDON (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – Women in communities in Britain with roots in countries where female genital mutilation is practised fear that a push for more prosecutions of FGM cases is being used to score political points before a general election next year, a U.N. expert on violence against women said.
Britain made FGM a criminal offence in 1985, but did not tackle the issue vigorously for many years and announced only last month the first prosecution - of a doctor accused of performing FGM on a patient after she had given birth at a London hospital.
Rashida Manjoo, U.N. special rapporteur on violence against women, said she had met mothers and daughters from communities affected by FGM during a 16-day visit to Britain.
They told her they had mixed feelings about the way the issue was being tackled, and were worried about the implications for families if there were more prosecutions. FGM, which involves the partial or total removal of external genitalia, is typically organised by the women in the family, and is practised mainly in parts of Africa and the Middle East.
"They do not agree or tolerate the harmful practices, but at the same time there seems to be a lack of consensus about criminalisation being the right way to go," Manjoo told a news conference in London.
"(They think) ... is this now something to do with politics and an election coming up and certain issues becoming hot topics and FGM and early and forced marriage becoming the hot topic?" Manjoo said, adding that FGM and forced marriage had "always been there".
"Is there something else going on? This is what the communities are worried about - is this part and parcel of some picture that they can't see?"
Manjoo, a South African lawyer, was appointed special rapporteur on violence against women in 2009. Since taking up her post, she has visited Italy, Croatia, Bosnia, and now Britain.
She said she was concerned that the focus in Britain was often limited to certain harmful practices such as FGM, child marriage and forced marriage, while ignoring the damage done to all women and girls as a result of the country's sexist culture.
"Have I seen this level of sexist culture in other countries? It hasn't been so ‘in your face’ in other countries," Manjoo said, referring to the media's portrayal of women, including photos of topless women published daily on page 3 of the top-selling tabloid, the Sun.
Two years ago, British writer Laura Bates set up the website EveryDay Sexism inviting women to document their experiences of sexism, harassment and assault, from wolf whistles and lewd comments in the street to bottom-pinching, groping and rape.
Manjoo said at the end of her trip to Britain that the consensus was that the British justice system was not equipped to address or responsive to the specific needs of women and girl victims of violence.
She also told reporters the Home Office (interior ministry) had denied her access to Yarl's Wood, one of 12 centres Britain uses to detain asylum seekers while they wait to be sent home or have their case examined.
According to media reports, hundreds of women are detained in Yarl's Wood, which was at the centre of allegations last year of sexual abuse and inappropriate sexual contact between inmates and guards.
Manjoo said she had no idea why her request to visit the centre was turned down. "It is disturbing that I was denied entry. If there was nothing to hide, I should have been given access," she said.
Home Office officials were not immediately available for comment on Manjoo’s remarks.