Can we realistically put an end to Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) or do we need to invent new ceremonies of entry into ‘womanhood’ so as to exorcise this evil that has plagued us for centuries?
The UK has a problem, an FGM problem, at first glance, it makes no sense. FGM was outlawed throughout the UK over three decades ago when the Prohibition of Female Circumcision Act of 1985 passed on 16 of July and came into force on 16 September, same year. This Act was replaced by the Female Genital Mutilation Act 2003 which came into force on 3 March 2004, extending the reach of the law to FGM that are carried out on British citizens while abroad.
Thirty years later, and amidst immense pressure, The Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) was finally ready to bring its first case to the insides of a courtroom, and, it couldn’t even make it stick. It took only thirty minutes for the jury to acquit Dr Dhanuson Dharmasena, charged with re-infibulating a woman after childbirth, who, at age six, was subjected to FGM in Somalia. His co-accused, Hasan Mohamed, charged with aiding and abetting was also acquitted.
In February this year, the second case to be brought before a crown court in Bristol, collapsed, the judge ordered the jury to return a not guilty verdict, acquitting a father charged with allowing his six year old daughter undergo FGM. The police, who investigated the case for two years promised to learn lessons from the case.
Before we consider what lessons there are to be learned, let us establish what the facts are.
What is Female Genital Mutilation?
According to the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (NSPCC), female genital mutilation (FGM) otherwise known as cutting or female circumcision is the partial or total removal of the external female genitalia for reasons that are non-medical.
FGM may be performed by someone with no medical training, though in some cases, trained midwives and medical personnel carryout these crimes. Unsterilised knives, scalpel, broken glass, blade are some of the choice instruments, anaesthesia is seldom an option, victims, irrespective of their age are often held down during this crime.
FGM can be carried out on new born girls, during adolescence, just before marriage and during pregnancy or before childbirth.
The National Health Service (NHS) reports there are four main types of FGM. Namely:
Clitoridectomy - the removing of part or all of the clitoris.
Excision – the removing of part or all of the clitoris and the inner labia, with or without removal of the labia majora,
Infibulation – narrowing of the vaginal opening by creating a seal, formed by cutting and repositioning the labia.
Other harmful procedures to the female genitals, including pricking, piercing, cutting, scraping or burning the area.
FGM has absolutely no benefit to the victim and can cause both short-term and long-term problems such as:
Pain during sex,
Prolonged bleeding, cysts, abscesses,
Infections such as HIV, Hepatitis B and C, tetanus, chronic vaginal, urinary or pelvic infections,
Complications during pregnancy and childbirth,
Kidney damage and sometimes failure,
Emotional and mental health problems
Prevalence in the UK
An estimated 137,000 women and girls are affected by FGM in England and Wales alone, with London recording the highest prevalence rate of 21.0 per 1000 population.
The NSPCC has responded to over 1,500 contacts about FGM since June 2013 and have referred a third of those contact to the police or children services.
205 FGM protection orders have been made since July 2015 and over 100 girls were identified as having treatment for FGM in England in 2015/2016.
Girls are most at risk if their mothers and/or other female relatives have undergone FGM, and, if they are from and live in communities that practice FGM. The Home Office identified girls from the Somali, Kenyan, Ethiopian, Sudanese, Sierra Leonean, Egyptian, Nigerian, Eritrean, Yemeni, Kurdish and Indonesian communities as those who face the highest risk of FGM.
UNICEF estimates that over 125 million women and girls have undergone FGM globally. Three million girls are at risk of FGM in Africa yearly. 90 per cent of the female population between ages 15 -49 in Somalia, Guinea, Djibouti, and Egypt are affected.
Nigeria was recorded to have had the highest number of FGM cases in the world, accounting for the one quarter of the 115 – 130 million circumcised women globally. According to a 2003 Nigeria Demographic and Health Survey, the South West of Nigeria had the highest prevalence rate, leading with 56.9 per cent, closely followed by the South East with 40.8 per cent and the South South with 34.7 per cent. Type I and II of FGM is most commonly practised.
The slow decline of this crime is largely attributed to advocacy efforts and the passing of the Violence Against Persons Prohibition Act (VAPP) in May 2015. Though, it should be noted that 13 States already had local laws that prohibited the practice before VAPP came into law.
Why Does FGM Persist?
Simple answer, because of patriarchy, gender inequality and the objectification and commodification of the female body as something that exists and should only exist for the whims and pleasure of the man.
FGM is a gross violation of human right and an extreme form of violence against women and girls. On no account must this be tolerated.
Research suggest religious convictions play only a small role in promoting FGM as religious texts do not proscribe this practice. Cultural beliefs and misconceptions, illiteracy and poverty, however are the biggest culprits.
Perpetrators of this crime claim FGM promotes chastity, curbs sexual urges in women and ensures they retain their ‘honor’ as well as those of their families until marriage. Infibulation, which is one of the most extreme type of FGM used to ensure the woman remains a virgin until marriage is believed to increase to the sexual enjoyment of men, this misconception is one of the main reasons women are made to undergo repeat infibulation after each delivery.
Girls in the UK are bullied on playgrounds, pressured during family gatherings, into being cut, some are flown abroad during ‘the cutting season’ while ‘cutters’ are flown in from abroad to carry out this crime in other cases.
The situation is not so different in Nigeria. Women who managed to escape this crime until their adulthood are ostracised and denied initiation into age groups unless they are cut. The fear of remaining unmarried, bringing shame and dishonour to one’s family is often the last straw.
Health information have to compete with myths surrounding the practice, not surprisingly, myths prevail. Parents are torn between the risks their daughters may face and the expectations their families and communities place on them.
Adopting a Zero Tolerance Approach to FGM
In addressing its FGM problem, the UK could look to France by adopting its three pronged approach: prevention through education; shaming with publicity and punishing. France adoption of a zero tolerance stance against FGM is responsible for the successful prosecution of over 40 of cases between 1979 and 2014. Jail times of up to 20 years for cutting a girl 15 and below is also a huge deterrent.
Nigeria could look within and examine how this harmful albeit slowly declining crime encroaches on the fundamental right of women and girls and limits their life and life outcomes, she could also look to other countries like Ethiopia where a community centred approach to spotting and protecting at risk girls or Guinea where new rituals that celebrate and protect uncut girls are gradually facing out old ceremonies of painful initiation into womanhood.
Better implementation of existing laws, and prosecution of perpetrators will serve as a deterrent, no doubt. Nigeria still hasn’t prosecuted its first FGM related case despite VAPP coming into force over three years ago. It doesn’t help that VAPP has only been ratified in one state out of the 36 states in Nigeria.
Female genital mutilation is not a religious issue or a cultural identity issue. It is a crime against humanity, a most abhorrent and violent crime against women and girls. It is a crime that should be prosecuted with the full force of the law bearing down on perpetrators. To think otherwise, to portray it as a rite of passage, a mark of belonging to a group, to downplay its impact and the call to its end as an act of forced assimilation into the society immigrants now find themselves is frankly abhorring and further dehumanizes the victims.
FGM is a crime, a crime that must be tackled head-on. Modern day society has no place for perpetrators and sympathizers.
Vweta is a social worker and writer who has dedicated the last 14 years towards finding solutions to some of the most pertinent problems confronting women and girls in Africa. She is the founder of Project ASHA.
Growing up in Nigeria, her teenage years saw her turn into one of Nigeria’s most articulate and outspoken feminists. She faced immense pressure in the highly male-dominated communities she tried to support through her charity work, and often endured tough restrictions and censoring on her publications on women’s and girl’s rights. Vweta moved to Wales in autumn 2017 and now devotes most of her time to her writing. You can support her work through her Patreon.