LONDON (TrustLaw) – Thousands of girls are at risk of female genital mutilation in Britain. Below are some questions and answers on this highly secretive and hidden crime.
How prevalent is it?
No one really knows. More than 20,000 girls are at high risk of FGM in England and Wales and 66,000 are already living with the consequences, according to the best estimate. But this figure is based on 2001 census data. Recent migration patterns and an increase in births to women who have had FGM suggest the numbers could be much higher.
Comfort Momoh, a London midwife who runs a clinic for women who have had FGM, said she used to see 200 to 300 women a year in the late 1990s but now sees between 400 and 450. There are around 15 clinics in the country.
Campaigners say it is hard to tackle FGM without proper figures and are pushing the government to update the data. They say the best way of monitoring FGM is through maternity wards and want it made compulsory for hospitals to record all births to women with FGM.
Who does it?
Contrary to popular perception in Britain, FGM is not an Islamic practice. It is also advocated by Christian communities as well as followers of indigenous beliefs. FGM is found in 28 countries in Africa, and pockets of the Middle East and Asia. It was also once practised in Britain and the United States as a “treatment” for hysteria, masturbation and epilepsy.
Although many people believe FGM is a religious requirement it predates Islam and Christianity and is not mentioned in the Koran or Bible. Communities in Britain who are most at risk include Somalis, Sudanese, Sierra Leoneans, Egyptians, Kenyans, Nigerians and Eritreans. FGM is also found among Yemenis, Kurds and Indonesians.
The Somalis and some other groups practise the most extreme form of FGM which involves closing the vaginal opening to create a “chastity belt of flesh”, as one campaigner describes it.
Jane Ellison, chairwoman of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on FGM, says midwives are seeing more women with FGM. The number asking to be sewn up after birth or returning for a subsequent birth having obviously been sewn up again “does not suggest that this is a habit that is dying quickly enough for any of our liking,” she adds.
Why is it so hard to tackle?
The first problem is that it is a very secret practice, says Ellison – you couldn’t wrap more taboos into one subject.
“You’ve got race, you’ve got culture, you’ve got aspects of post colonialism in terms of the western world telling Africa and other parts of the world (what to do), then you’ve got female sexuality, girl children’s sexuality and you’ve got the most private part of the body,” she says.
“You name it, everything conspires to make this an issue that large numbers of people do not want to talk about.”
Another obstacle is that the leaders in some of the communities where it is most prevalent are often male and socially conservative and the women have low levels of English.
Is it illegal?
There was an outcry in 1982 after the BBC screened a documentary on FGM in Sudan followed by a short clip of FGM which showed that it was practised by private doctors in London.
It was made illegal in the United Kingdom in 1985. The law was replaced by the Female Genital Mutilation Act in 2003 which also made it an offence to arrange for a British resident to have FGM overseas. The maximum penalty is 14 years in prison.
Despite the law, it is believed many girls are taken to Africa and the Middle East during the summer holidays to undergo FGM.
No one has ever been prosecuted for FGM in Britain.
Why has no one been prosecuted?
Fear of being branded a racist is a pretty strong factor. Professionals like teachers, health workers, police and social workers are often nervous about interfering in what is seen as a cultural tradition.
France, which has taken much stronger action against FGM, generally expects migrant communities to assimilate, whereas British professionals are trained to embrace cultural diversity. Campaigners say many professionals are either ignorant about FGM or confused about what to do.
A second major problem is the evidence needed to secure a conviction. Children are highly unlikely to testify against their parents in court, particularly if it means their mother or father could be sent to jail. In France, where the legal system is different, the child is not required to pursue her parents through the court. She can be represented by a person named as her guardian by the judge, or a relevant organisation may intervene.
Campaigners say it should be possible to prosecute in the British legal system on the basis of clinical and circumstantial evidence without having to put the child in the witness box.
What impact would a prosecution have?
Campaigners do not want a swathe of prosecutions but say a couple of trials would act as a powerful deterrent.
Ellison argues it is also important to back up activists in African countries who are trying to stamp out the practice.
“What’s ridiculous is that we’re treading on egg shells in Britain whereas these (campaigners) are so robust,” she says.
“One of the things that has been said to me by a number of African campaigners is ‘Come on don’t let us down. We’re trying to say it’s wrong and it’s not helpful if people are getting messages back from extended family members who’ve moved to the West and are saying it’s tolerated or it’s not prosecuted’.”