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  • Writer's pictureDurham Pro Bono Blog

Mutilating little girls - the UK’s worst kept secret

“It’s just the cut that is wrong. All the other things, the blessings, putting on the traditional clothes, dancing, all that – that’s beautiful. But whatever is harmful, whatever brings pain, whatever takes away the dreams of our girls, let’s just do away with that.”[1]

A beautifully written statement that elegantly separates the need to respect culture and custom from a social duty to protect little girls from harm; yet female genital mutilation is still very much in the present tense. Although it connotes images of rural tribes in Kenya, Tanzania and beyond, where the rule of law cannot stretch to altering centuries old tradition, female genital mutilation (FGM) is a much more immediate danger. In fact, it is likely to occur in your own community, in your schools, GP surgeries, on your doorstep.

According to Equality Now and City University London, an estimated 103,000 women and girls aged 15-49 were thought to be living with the aftermath of FGM in 2011. Between April 2015 and March 2016, 8,656 cases were recorded of women and girls attending hospitals with problems relating to FGM. That is one case discovered or treated in England alone every 61 minutes.[2] It should be noted that these are the figures of girls and women that are able to come forward and it is estimated that there are thousands more who stay silent.

This is undoubtedly an issue that has been addressed in law; since 1985 it has been illegal to commit FGM in the UK, since 2003 this offence was extended to include those who take their daughters abroad for ‘the cut’. In 2015 the law changed again, doing away with medical discretion and mandating healthcare professionals to report to authorities where they were made aware of the practice. Despite all this legislative movement, the figures demonstrate that this has little effect on the crime. There is an uncomfortable paradox to face. We know that there are new cases of FGM every hour of every day. By today’s statistics, there have been 324,120 hours, and therefore as many cases, since 1985. Yet there has not been a single successful prosecution.

The legislation is nothing more than a piece of paper, a symbol of a country ready to take a stand against something in theory, whilst in the full knowledge that it occurs daily in practice. The police are using various mechanisms to tackle the crime, such as conducting airport searches of families travelling from the UK during ‘cutting season’. But whilst investigations are increasing yearly, there is still a gaping absence of convictions. This was demonstrated by statistics released by the Press Association West Midlands Police following a freedom of information claim.

There have been various proposed reasons for the failure to convict the crime, such as a lack of funding dedicated to raising awareness in schools and local communities, reluctance of the victims to stand against their own family, and a paucity of evidence. Furthermore, the ‘home-based’ nature of the crime and secretive behaviour surrounding it makes it difficult to identify children in danger without invading the private lives of UK residents. These practical difficulties were demonstrated in the 2015 failed prosecution of two men, both of whom were acquitted as there was not enough evidence to reach the high threshold in the UK of ‘beyond reasonable doubt’. The symbolism behind a prison sentence should not be underestimated in its power to instigate change.

However, there is also a need for meaningful discussion in the communities where FGM is prevalent, to de-normalise the act and rebrand it as child abuse and illegal. Educating young children that they don’t have to be touched if they don’t want to would be instrumental – many don’t realise refusing is an option. Active opposition from the children themselves raises awareness about the debasing nature of this crime, as was seen in the case of Leng’ete, a young woman from a Maasai family in Kenya who is now an advocate in Africa and beyond for eradicating FGM. Publicising opportunities for alternative rituals may be key in showing that communities may continue to uphold their treasured customs, only removing the element that is damaging to the children they are bringing up. While it is no doubt true that there must be respect for cultural traditions and customs – there is no room for toleration of child abuse.

These girls are often circumcised with dirty razor blades, broken glass, and no anaesthetic. Survivors, for it is a life-threatening operation, frequently describe it as the ‘worst day of their lives’, and something they will carry with them until they die. Little girls are left in isolation for days after the event as part of the ritual - terrified, bleeding and in extreme pain. This happens to children as young as 4 years old.

200 million girls worldwide are estimated to be affected by this culturally embedded tradition of pain. FGM can only end if it is tackled globally, from the village halls of Mali and the parliaments of Massai tribes, to the classrooms of Britain. Tanya Barron, Chief Executive of Plan International UK, sees education as a vital means of spreading awareness. It is something that must continue to be talked about until it is no longer relevant. Groups in the UK such as Durham Student Halo Project are raising a platform for young women to share their story within a community they can trust. To find out more, follow @durhamstudenthalo on Instagram or Facebook.

Eloise Carey

Human Rights Feature Writer

23rd March, 2018



Disclaimer: The views expressed are that of the individual author. All rights are reserved to the original authors of the materials consulted, which are listed in the bibliography above.

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