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Landmark trial over FGM

Kitty LoganApril 14, 2014

The UK's first ever prosecution under the Female Genital Mutilation Act is due to take place this week. Campaigners have welcomed the historic trial, but insist that much more must be done to prevent FGM.

A Kenyan woman contemplates the instruments used to perform FGM
Image: picture-alliance/dpa

On Tuesday (14.04.2014), a UK doctor is due to appear at Westminster Magistrates Court for allegedly carrying out the practice of Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) at a London hospital. Dr. Dhanuson Dharmasena, accused of carrying out the FGM procedure, is being tried along with Hasan Mohamed, who allegedly encouraged the procedure.

The practice of FGM has been a criminal offence since 1985. But in the past, it has often been difficult for authorities to gather the proof needed to prosecute because of the sensitive nature of FGM. Now the UK's Crown Prosecution Service says there is sufficient evidence to bring this landmark case to court.

In a statement ahead of the trial, the Director of Public Prosecutions Alison Saunders said: "It was alleged that following a patient giving birth in November 2012, a doctor at the Whittington Hospital, in London, repaired FGM that had previously been performed on the patient, allegedly carrying out FGM himself."

Increasing awareness

Anti-FGM campaigners have welcomed the fact that a case has finally been brought to court. Efua Dorkenoo, a Senior FGM Advisor with the human rights group Equality Now told DW, "Whatever the outcome, this prosecution sends out a strong message that FGM is illegal and will not be tolerated."

A young Senegalese girl at ceremony renouncing FGM
FGM is especially common in African, Middle Eastern and some Southeast Asian communities in the UKImage: picture alliance/dpa

The National Society for the Protection of Children (NSPCC) agrees. "This is great news for the fight against FGM," said John Cameron, Head of NSPCC's Child Protection. "FGM is a public health issue that needs increased collaboration from professionals across health, education and the police."

The NSPCC launched a dedicated FGM helpline in July last year to try to increase support for girls at risk. It has since received around 200 calls.

Kamalijit Thandi, a helpline practitioner for the charity, explained why the practice continues. "Currently there is a lack of awareness amongst communities affected by female genital mutilation that it is a crime," she told DW, explaining that only "increased awareness within these communities that this is child abuse" will stop FGM.

A taboo subject

It is estimated that over 20,000 girls in the UK could be at risk of being subjected to FGM every year, although there are no precise statistics because of the sensitive nature of the practice. Figures from 2001 indicated that 66,000 UK women and girls living in the UK had already undergone the procedure. To try to keep better track of FGM, the government announced earlier this year that it would now be mandatory for health services to provide information on patients who have undergone it.

"In the UK, the communities that are most at risk of FGM include Somalis, Kenyans, Sudanese, Sierra Leoneans, Egyptians, Nigerians, Eritreans, Yemeni, Kurdish and Indonesian," said the NSPCC's Ms. Thandi. "FGM can be carried out at any time before a girl or young woman is married or pregnant, but most typically happens between the ages of four and 10. In some cases the girls are still babies."

But it is rare for these young girls to come forward and therefore difficult to identify those illegally practicing FGM. "As with other forms of child abuse, these crimes often remain hidden and unreported, as children are too ashamed or afraid to speak out, or just too young," Ms. Thandi explained. "In cases of female genital mutilation they may also be under pressure from their community and fear criminalizing their parents."

Some of the traditional instruments used to perform FGM in Sierra Leone are laid out on a blanket. (Photo: Plan International dpa/lno)
Often performed using a knife or razor, FGM renders women unable to experience sexual pleasureImage: picture-alliance/dpa

A human rights issue

David Adam from the UK-based charity, the Orchid Project, which works worldwide to put an end to FGM, says it could be possible to eliminate the practice within a generation."Female Genital Cutting (FGC) is a violation of human, women's and child's rights," he told DW. "It is a worldwide issue, with three million girls a year in Africa at risk of being cut, while over 125 million women and girls worldwide already live with the impact."

According to Adam, short term consequences can include severe bleeding and infection or even death, while long term effects are difficult periods, painful intercourse and severe childbirth complications. "FGC also has an impact on mental and emotional health," Adam adds.

Research has found that 80 per cent of women who had undergone FGM suffered mood or anxiety disorders, including post-traumatic stress disorder, which can continue into adulthood.

"The parallels between FGM and other forms of child abuse are blatantly evident," said Efua Dorkenoo from Equality Now. "In all instances, children experience confusion, guilt, fear and anxiety. In almost all cases, the child victim has a close relationship with the perpetrator of the crime - an adult who holds significant physical and emotional power over them. The child who undergoes FGM is silenced and any sense of entitlement to her natural sexuality is removed forever."

Legal action is not enough

In 2003, the maximum penalty for practicing FGM in the UK was raised to 14 years in prison. It also became illegal for UK residents to take their child abroad to have the procedure.

The Crown Prosecution service says it has looked into four other recent allegations of FGM in the UK, but that there was insufficient evidence for prosecution. Other European countries have been more successful with legal action against FGM. France has had over 100 successful convictions related to FGM in recent years. But now the British government has vowed to step up efforts to enforce the law with regard to FGM. In February this year, ministers signed a declaration pledging to stop the practice.

"There is no justification whatsoever for Female Genital Mutilation - it is child abuse and it is illegal," said Crime Prevention Minister Norman Baker said. "I am determined we do all we can to bring perpetrators to justice. The law in this country applies to absolutely everyone and political or cultural sensitivities must not get in the way of preventing, uncovering and prosecuting those who instigate and carry out FGM."

According to Efua Dorkenoo legal prosecution is only one part of the solution. "Eliminating FGM in the UK requires a 'joined-up' multi-sector approach that includes simultaneous actions directed at prevention, protection, provision of services, prosecution and partnerships across disciplines and with civil society groups," she says.

"Unless leadership is shown by government on this - and until survivors are empowered and provided with the space, services and support they need - we will not be able to really get to grips with the issue, and the silence surrounding FGM will continue to be a challenge."