Female Genital Mutilation (“FGM”) is a blanket term for a broad range of practices performed on girls and women, mostly in infancy or early childhood. The practices constitute partial or total removal of the external female genitalia or injury to the external genitals for non therapeutic reasons. Often the reasons given for practicing FGM relate to ancient beliefs surrounding women’s fertility, that it is perceived to promote chastity and maintain fidelity in married women.
Since 1985 FGM has been outlawed in the UK. Yet it has taken nearly 30 years since the Prohibition of Female Circumcision Act was passed (further legislation being passed in 2003 as the Female Genital Mutilation Act) for the first prosecution to be announced.
This appalling fact is made all the worse when contrasted with other EU countries. France does not have any specific legislation against FGM and yet 100 people have been prosecuted in connection with carrying out the practice. Spain, Italy, Sweden and Denmark have also had trials relating to carrying out FGM. And yet the UK, with its specific legislation, has failed the estimated hundreds of thousands of girls and women who are believed to have been subjected to this practice since it was outlawed.
Dr Dhanoun Dharmasen and Hasan Mohammed allegedly carried out the practice at the Whittington Hospital in November 2012 following childbirth; their prosecutions were announced by the Director of Public Prosecutions Alison Saunders this week. In June 2013 I attended a seminar where Ms Saunders was then the Chief Crown Prosecutor for CPS London. There, she announced that she was personally overseeing five potential prosecutions relating to FGM.
Let’s make no bones about it. FGM is a human rights issue and it is child abuse.
FGM is a violation of a girl’s human rights in the absence of any medical necessity. It violates a girl’s integrity. It violates a girl’s right to the highest attainable level of physical and mental health. The UN recognises the practice to be discriminatory and a form of violence against girls and women.
So what can be done to help end the practice? To date, the UK has adopted a piecemeal approach to FGM as opposed to their EU counterparts. France implemented a national action plan to eliminate FGM encompassing the examination of children perceived to be at risk and the education of individuals who may wish to carry out the practice on their children.
The UK needs an all encompassing policy. Seventeen year old Fahma Mohamed’s call on Michael Gove to ensure teachers and parents are informed about FGM is a definite step in the right direction. Gove’s agreement to write to schools reminding of them of their duty to protect schoolgirls is even better. However, I do not believe a reminder is enough. Education professionals must be trained in the signs to look out for. They must learn that there is a ‘cutting season’ when girls are often removed from school in order for the practice to be carried out.
But educating the educators is not enough. Healthcare professionals and those in social services must be given training. Most importantly, these professionals must be given the confidence by way of training to identify the girls who are at risk and to reach out to them and their families.
It is estimated that thousands of women have been treated in London hospitals following FGM. Has this information been reported to the requisite authorities? Was the Whittington Hospital aware of Dr Dharmasena’s practices? Thankfully an individual from the Whittington raised concerns to the police in relation to this prosecution. There must be an onus on hospitals to report the instances of FGM to which they are alerted.
There is no doubt that the prosecution of Dr Dhanoun Dharmasena is sending a strong message to the communities in the UK that carry out this practice. However, a lot of victims do not come forward as there is not an automatic right of anonymity. Imagine having to give evidence in open court about such a sensitive issue. Imagine knowing your identity can be printed in newspapers. Imagine your community knowing that you had complained to the police and then co-operated with a prosecution. Not an easy prospect and I applaud the individual who has come forward in Dr Dharmasena’s case. Often the people who mutilate women in this way are senior figures within the community. Anonymity for FGM victims is a must.
However prosecution alone will not end FGM. We must engage communities to say that this practice is not acceptable, that it is against the law and that it is abuse.