Warning: discussion of female genital mutilation
Recently a mother became the first person to be convicted in the UK for female genital mutilation (FGM). She was jailed for 11 years for mutilation of her child; her original defence was that her daughter reached for a biscuit, “fell on metal and it’s ripped her private parts.” Whilst exemplifying a seemingly ridiculous claim given to medical practitioners at Whipps Cross Hospital, this is only the 4th FGM case brought to courts in the UK. Further, this is despite the fact that many girls end up in hospitals for injuries relating to FGM, circumstances in which their parents often provide similar far-fetched excuses.
There are many reasons for FGM and not all of them can be adequately captured within this short piece. However, common reasons include tradition, religion (although it has never been a religious requirement), social acceptance and for family ‘honour’. Without being too graphic, there are several forms of FGM. Most notable of these is the removal of the clitoris.
Upon doing further research into the topic, I was horrified to discover the process of deinfibulation. Infibulation is a form of FGM involving the narrowing of the vaginal opening by creating a seal. However, to give birth, this seal must be opened. This often occurs on the night of a woman’s wedding, with a razor blade. As if this was not traumatising enough, a pattern of infibulation and deinfibulation may occur after the birth of one child and before the birth of the next one.
Despite the Female Genital Mutilation Act 2003 and subsequent Serious Crime Act 2015, which seeks to safeguard potential victims and punish those who commit and aid FGM, there has only been one successful conviction. Why is this? Despite rising investigations into accusations of FGM, particularly in ‘cutting season’ there remains a lack of evidence due to the domestic nature of the crimes. Victims are often scared to give evidence and many, including teachers and health workers, are reluctant to report their suspicions. Once reported, cases are difficult to build and convictions almost impossible to gain. However, some believe that the real change will not be made in the courtroom; rather education is needed to stop the practice. Hibo, author of the memoir ‘Cut’ stated that FGM ‘may be part of your culture or belief, but you live in a country where this is seen as child abuse’. It is important to separate the cultural nature from the practice so that it can be seen and investigated as a form of child abuse. The reluctance to investigate stems from a hesitance to appear to be infringing upon another’s culture or religion, the practices of which are protected in the UK by living in a free and democratic society. However, this reluctance needs to be eradicated in order to protect the children concerned.
There have been claims of a double standard arising as Western society condemns FGM and yet women frequently pay for plastic surgery which can include the removal of ribs, the inserting of silicon into breasts and other temporary fillers. However, a distinction is to be made between the consensual choice of women paying for body modification, and the invasion of a young girl’s body. Both can lead to permanent scarring, infections bleeding and irritation. Whilst these forms of body modification can appear just as bizarre to those unfamiliar to it, almost as much as western society finds FGM bizarre, there is a clear difference of consent. Some women have had a positive experience of FGM and plan to continue the tradition with their daughter yet, they still recognise the need for consent and ‘proper’ medical practice. Parallels are also drawn to male circumcision. However, this is a separate issue which whilst is worthy of discussion, often does not result in the same level of intrusion, trauma and medical implications which arises from FGM.
There is not a simple solution to end or at least make the practice of FGM safe. It is a highly complex issue, but it is important to raise awareness of the issue, so as to create a higher demand from the public to ensure the safety of children living in the UK, who may be subject to such practices. UNICEF estimates that there are around 137,000 cases of FGM in England and Wales today, however, for such a widespread crime there is not nearly enough attention or calls for more to be done by the government to protect potential victims.