Salimata Knight, an FGM survivor, in March 2004 at an event launching the Female Genital Mutilation Act. Photo: Getty
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Why did the first prosecution for female genital mutilation take almost 30 years?

The legislation outlawing FGM was introduced in 1985, but there were no prosecutions until last week. Why?

DCI Leanne Pook of Avon and Somerset Police speaks as someone with a profound sense of right and wrong, so when she explains (during an interview conducted last year) that “there’s quite a lot of grey areas” in the law on female genital mutilation (FGM), she doesn’t mean that in a moral sense. The legislation outlawing FGM was introduced in 1985. No prosecutions followed. In 2003, recognition of the fact that many girls were being taken abroad to be mutilated led to an amendment making it illegal to perform FGM on a UK national or UK permanent resident in any territory. Again, no prosecutions followed – until last Friday, when it was announced that Dr Dhanuson Dharmasena and Hasan Mohamed (both of London) would be the first people prosecuted under FGM legislation in the UK.

How could it have taken almost 30 years? Campaigners and frontline workers offer various explanations, from institutional racism to misguided multiculturalism – two apparent opposites which in fact have the identical effect of allowing black girls to suffer horrendous violence precisely because they are black girls. But for DCI Pook – who has taken the lead on FGM cases in Avon and Somerset for just over two years and helped formulate the influential Bristol FGM Model which is now shared with other forces – the problem is the law. “The legislation has too many gaps … [but] we can’t prove the legislation isn’t good enough without taking a job far enough down the road to show that it doesn’t work, and the fact that the legislation isn’t necessarily fit means that it’s very difficult to do that.”

There have been three main obstacles to achieving the UK’s first FGM prosecution, according to DCI Pook. The first is that getting any testimony at all can be incredibly hard. FGM is usually arranged by close family members of the victim, and children (whether from loyalty or fear) are rarely eager to implicate their own parents. The second is one of status: the girls most at risk of FGM are from North African families, and their immigration status may not be clear enough to allow prosecution under the current law: as things stand, it would be very difficult to prove beyond reasonable doubt that UK law has jurisdiction over an act that may have been committed by a foreign national against a foreign national in a foreign territory – even if both perpetrator and victim usually live in the UK.

The third is physical: “FGM is very, very difficult to age,” says DCI Pook. “And by that I mean physically age the presentation of the vagina when it’s been done, to say whether the FGM is eight years old, nine years old, ten years old … It’s still possible for people to say this was done in 2001 or 2000, when actually it wouldn’t have fitted within the most recent legislation. That will change, but we’re not quite there yet.” These, then, are the grey areas which make Friday’s announcement such an aberration. But there are other alleged aspects of the case revealed on Friday that are typical of FGM, according to Nimko Ali, co-founder and CEO of the organisation Daughters of Eve, which campaigns against FGM and provides support to women who have had it inflicted on them.

FGM is often spoken of as a crime committed by women against women, and one founded in ignorance, so it’s striking that both of the people charged are men and one is a doctor educated in the UK. “Male violence against women,” says Ali. “That’s ultimately what FGM is. This is about controlling women’s bodies and controlling how they see themselves in society. A lot of the people that are practising FGM right now are well educated but the women haven’t been emancipated from those cultures and the men ultimately believe in those control frameworks.” There’s an ongoing failure to educate girls about their rights but, Ali stresses, no defence of naivety can be extended to the perpetrators and promoters of this crime: “None of these people are ignorant. Those that are pro-FGM often know more about the law than the people that should looking after the girls that are at risk.”

But for a long time, authority figures who endorsed or tolerated FGM within their own communities were treated as the official spokespeople on the issue – and that left girls voiceless. “It’s [politicians] being in bed with community leaders, the male community leaders, that has meant that women won’t come forward,” says Ali. “Because the women know that those they seek to trust are talking to the ones that are seeking to abuse them.” This is the context in which FGM has been allowed to go on unopposed until very recently: one where within certain African immigrant communities black men dominated black women’s lives, and the largely white (and largely, though not exclusively, male) mainstream condoned that domination.

And that’s why Ali doesn’t give any credence to one of the major sources of white feminist squeamishness about policing FGM – the idea that to enforce legal limits on how women’s genitals may or may not be surgically altered would be to somehow restrict women’s bodily autonomy. (It’s worth noting, of course, that men have rarely campaigned for the right to have their penises deformed beyond function, which might suggest something about how valuable this version of bodily autonomy might be.) “We don’t accept that women that go back into abusive relationships are women that wanted to go back,” says Ali. “We understand that they have been coerced or been systematically abused to the point where they can’t say ‘I don’t want this’. The law says you can’t consent to GBH, because if you did there would be a corroded society.”

This hard line on physical protection, however, doesn’t mean that Ali supports invasive measures to secure prosecutions. On the subject of compulsory examinations as practised in France, and credited with being part of the approach that has led to over 100 prosecutions while the UK has failed to achieve any, Ali is scathing: “Girls that will come forward to seek justice are girls that have already been failed. It’s not about abusing other girls’ autonomies by pulling down their knickers because they’re Somali or whatever.” DCI Pook echoes this point that the number of prosecutions should never be seen as the ultimate measure of success for FGM policy: “The day we prosecute somebody for having FGM done to a young girl or a young woman actually represents another failure in the protection of that girl.”

It’s hard to see any criminal conviction as worthy of celebration when you know the gravity of the abuse that was not prevented. Whatever the outcome of the case against Dharmasena and Mohamed, this can only be a small part of what is owed to those who are at risk of or have already suffered FGM. True justice for all women and girls means freedom from violence, freedom from fear, freedom from control. The aim of ending FGM in a generation once seemed absurdly ambitious: now, thanks to the joint efforts of campaigners, public servants and politicians (notably Lynne Featherstone MP and Jane Ellison MP), it seems not just possible but even plausible. How much can we achieve if we stop letting defeatism constrain our hopes and ask instead for everything that women deserve as humans?

 

Sarah Ditum is a journalist who writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman and others. Her website is here.

Screengrab from Telegraph video
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The Telegraph’s bizarre list of 100 reasons to be happy about Brexit

“Old-fashioned light bulbs”, “crooked cucumbers”, and “new vocabulary”.

As the economy teeters on the verge of oblivion, and the Prime Minister grapples with steering the UK around a black hole of political turmoil, the Telegraph is making the best of a bad situation.

The paper has posted a video labelled “100 reasons to embrace Brexit”. Obviously the precise number is “zero”, but that didn’t stop it filling the blanks with some rather bizarre reasons, floating before the viewer to an inevitable Jerusalem soundtrack:

Cheap tennis balls

At last. Tennis balls are no longer reserved for the gilded eurocrat elite.

Keep paper licences

I can’t trust it unless I can get it wet so it disintegrates, or I can throw it in the bin by mistake, or lose it when I’m clearing out my filing cabinet. It’s only authentic that way.

New hangover cures

What?

Stronger vacuums

An end to the miserable years of desperately trying to hoover up dust by inhaling close to the carpet.

Old-fashioned light bulbs

I like my electricals filled with mercury and coated in lead paint, ideally.

No more EU elections

Because the democratic aspect of the European Union was something we never obsessed over in the run-up to the referendum.

End working time directive

At last, I don’t even have to go to the trouble of opting out of over-working! I will automatically be exploited!

Drop green targets

Most people don’t have time to worry about the future of our planet. Some don’t even know where their next tennis ball will come from.

No more wind farms

Renewable energy sources, infrastructure and investment – what a bore.

Blue passports

I like my personal identification how I like my rinse.

UK passport lane

Oh good, an unadulterated queue of British tourists. Just mind the vomit, beer spillage and flakes of sunburnt skin while you wait.

No fridge red tape

Free the fridge!

Pounds and ounces

Units of measurement are definitely top of voters’ priorities. Way above the economy, health service, and even a smidgen higher than equality of tennis ball access.

Straight bananas

Wait, what kind of bananas do Brexiteers want? Didn’t they want to protect bendy ones? Either way, this is as persistent a myth as the slapstick banana skin trope.

Crooked cucumbers

I don’t understand.

Small kiwi fruits

Fair enough. They were getting a bit above their station, weren’t they.

No EU flags in UK

They are a disgusting colour and design. An eyesore everywhere you look…in the uh zero places that fly them here.

Kent champagne

To celebrate Ukip cleaning up the east coast, right?

No olive oil bans

Finally, we can put our reliable, Mediterranean weather and multiple olive groves to proper use.

No clinical trials red tape

What is there to regulate?

No Turkey EU worries

True, we don’t have to worry. Because there is NO WAY AND NEVER WAS.

No kettle restrictions

Free the kettle! All kitchen appliances’ lives matter!

Less EU X-factor

What is this?

Ditto with BGT

I really don’t get this.

New vocabulary

Mainly racist slurs, right?

Keep our UN seat

Until that in/out UN referendum, of course.

No EU human rights laws

Yeah, got a bit fed up with my human rights tbh.

Herbal remedy boost

At last, a chance to be treated with medicine that doesn’t work.

Others will follow [picture of dominos]

Hooray! The economic collapse of countries surrounding us upon whose trade and labour we rely, one by one!

Better English team

Ah, because we can replace them with more qualified players under an Australian-style points-based system, you mean?

High-powered hairdryers

An end to the miserable years of desperately trying to dry my hair by yawning on it.

She would’ve wanted it [picture of Margaret Thatcher]

Well, I’m convinced.

I'm a mole, innit.