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FGM in the UK will only end if attitudes shift from within communities

A landmark FGM conviction last week heralds a welcome change. But ending this practice requires both criminal and civil remedies.

Aisha K. Gill
6 February 2019
Activists at the launch of #MeTooFGM campaign against FGM, January 2018.

Activists at the launch of #MeTooFGM campaign against FGM, January 2018. Photo: Niall Carson/PA Archive/PA Images. All rights reserved.The mother of a three-year-old girl became the first person in the UK to be found guilty of female genital mutilation (FGM) last week.

The jury heard that the mother used witchcraft to try preventing police, social workers and lawyers from investigating the case. The mother, who remains anonymous for legal reasons, awaits sentencing on 8 March.

Until this, no successful FGM prosecutions had been made in the UK, although criminal justice agencies had been working to address this for several years.

In February 2015, the UK’s first attempted prosecution of a medical professional for undertaking FGM collapsed amid accusations that the Crown Prosecution Service had been staging a “show trial in response to political pressure”.

Then, last March, a second FGM prosecution was brought to a UK court, of a Nigerian solicitor accused of forcing his daughter to undergo FGM.

The girl, now 17, told police that when she was aged nine, her father had arranged for someone to cut her with a razor blade in the hallway of the family home as “a form of punishment”.

The defendant denied these claims and stated that he loved his children: “I didn’t cut my daughter. I would never hurt my daughter”.

He was found not guilty by the jury (of two counts of FGM, two alternative counts of wounding with intent and three counts of cruelty to a child).

I participated in the solicitor’s prosecution as an expert witness. My research in connection with this participation made it clear that not all Nigerians living in the UK have entrenched views on FGM – communities are dynamic and open to change, with opinion in constant flux.

“Communities are dynamic and open to change, with opinion in constant flux”

The term FGM refers to procedures that involve partially or totally removing external female genitalia or inflicting other damage to female genital organs, such as stitching the outer labia together, for non-medical reasons.

FGM is most common in parts of the Middle East, Africa and Asia, yet it remains a problem in the UK. From January to March 2018, medical staff in England reported seeing 1,745 women and girls who had undergone FGM.

My research has found these statistics are understated. Health practitioners often only record historic cases of FGM that surface when adult survivors receive medical treatment. Few new FGM offences come to police attention.

Both Christians and Muslims in Nigeria practice all four types of FGM. Many Muslim communities that practice FGM believe it is an approved Islamic practice, while other members of practising communities reject this position.

There’s little research on FGM among the UK’s Nigerian community, particularly on how migration influences this community's practices and perceptions of FGM in a European context.

Most community-based studies of members’ attitudes towards these issues focus on communities of East African origin. They are not reliable guides to the dynamics of change within the Nigerian diaspora.

The only study (from 2011) of a substantial sample from a European-based Nigerian community found that many living in Hamburg came from regions of high FGM prevalence and continued to support the practice. Despite residing in Germany, the FGM risk for girls in this community remains moderate to high.

The UK recognises that FGM is a violation of several human rights agreements that it has signed. FGM is a criminal offence under the 2003 FGM Act – and a person found guilty is liable to a fine or imprisonment of up to 14 years.

In 2015, amendments to the FGM Act extended what’s called ‘extra-territorial jurisdiction’; provided anonymity for victims; created a new offence of failing to protect a girl from FGM; and introduced FGM Protection Orders and new requirements on health and social care professionals to report to the police known cases involving girls under 18 years old.

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Anam Ali, aged 21, is an anti-FGM campaigner from Birmingham, UK 2014. Photo: Fixers/Flickr. CC BY-ND 2.0. Some rights reserved.FGM is declining in many diaspora communities – especially those that condemn the practice.

Educational campaigns across Europe and the Horn of Africa, led chiefly by women’s groups (such as Daughters of Eve and Plan UK) are also helping to reduce tolerance of this harmful practice.

Though condemnation is central to rejecting FGM, understanding how change comes about – especially change from within affected communities – is vital to devising effective policies that can eradicate FGM.

Outright repulsion and lack of understanding about why the practice occurs risks making women feel misunderstood, which can make it harder for women to seek help or engage in dialogue on the issue.

“It is vital to carefully consider how women experience the portrayal of FGM, both in the media and in interactions with service providers”

It is vital to carefully consider how women experience the portrayal of FGM, both in the media and in interactions with service providers.

Concerned professionals, such as health workers and judicial and government officials can help combat FGM, but only if they are trained to deal sensitively with those they are trying to help.

The widespread practice of FGM is as varied and diverse as the people in the communities affected by it. People are actively questioning the effect this form of violence has on young girls’ and women’s bodily integrity. Instead of forming stereotypes of communities where FGM remains a problem, it is more effective to exploit these communities’ dynamism.

Working with them to change attitudes, rather than imposing judgements from outside, is essential to contesting FGM in the UK. Shifting attitudes within communities is what will bring this harmful practice to an end.

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