A time of progress and peril

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Dexter Dias QC on the first Female Genital Mutilation prosecutions.

And so it begins. In April we finally witnessed something that activists who have been campaigning against Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) for years began to doubt would ever happen: the first defendants in a UK court facing criminal prosecution. The controversy around FGM, the mutilation of the genitals of young women and girls for non-medical reasons, has attained an unprecedented public prominence. There is an ongoing Parliamentary Inquiry. Eminent politicians profess profound concern. National newspapers launch petitions; television stations air documentaries. Yet for all the exposure, two simple stories ram home the brutal reality of FGM.


The first happened in the Kajiado district of Kenya and coincided with the first UK court appearances. Most major news outlets here missed it. It was a short report, starkly stated. A 13-year-old girl was genitally mutilated. She bled to death. I heard the second story when sharing a platform during a human rights lecture with one of the UK’s most prominent FGM activists, Leyla Hussein. While fewer and fewer people now dispute that FGM is an affront to human rights, an act of gender violence and child abuse, what do these words actually mean? Leyla Hussein told us.

It was, she said, a party where no one takes pictures. Her family quietly gathered and she was taken into a room. Suddenly she was pinned down. Her legs were forced apart. She was fighting so much someone put a hand in her mouth to silence her. She was fighting because her sister had been mutilated minutes before. She’d heard her sister screaming. The cutter told her to stop struggling an ‘behave’ as her genitals were mutilated. She was told she was spoilt. As punishment for disgracing the family by making a ‘fuss’, she was not allowed any sweets. She was given a watch, but she didn’t want a watch. She wanted sweets. Leyla Hussein was 7 years old.

FGM is a social practice that is unnecessary, irreversibly damaging and potentially deadly. Therefore the mere bringing of the first UK prosecutions denotes significant progress. (I do not comment on their substantive merits). Yet there are perils as well. For we are at a point fraught with danger and the steps we take from this juncture will significantly affect the eradication or reinforcement of FGM in the UK.

Astonishing institutional indifference

How widespread is FGM? United Nations figures indicate that 140 million women and girls around the world are living with its legacy. Every year 3 million more are mutilated. That startling fact needs restating: three million more are unnecessarily mutilated. As for the UK, in their recent report An Unpunished Crime, Julie Bindel and her team conclude that we have seriously underestimated the extent of the problem domestically. Bindel’s analysis suggests that 170,000 women and girls in the UK have undergone FGM. Further, 65,000 girls under the age of 13 are presently at risk of mutilation. By any standard, this represents a very significant safeguarding problem.

Given the scale of problem, the worrying lack of prosecutions led to the Parliamentary Inquiry being conducted by the Home Affairs Committee. The Committee called for evidence and the Bar Human Rights Committee (BHRC) responded. We submitted a report to Parliament critiquing the UK’s international law obligations and the efficacy of its response. We made 12 recommendations for positive change (set out on previous page).

Overall the position is that by its ratification of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, the Convention on the Rights of the Child and other international instruments, the UK has a series of positive obligations to ensure that children are not subjected to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment and women are not subject to discrimination. FGM is an violation of both these standards. It was in fact specifically criminalised in the UK in 1985.

But in the subsequent 29 years, thousands of British girls have been mutilated. Not all of them (or even most of them, it must be emphasised) were mutilated within these shores. Many are taken back to the country of family origin and mutilated there, often during school holidays, a practice called ‘vacation cutting’. Nonetheless, the BHRC argued that if this issue had been given the priority it unquestionably merited, some of these many children could - and should - have been saved. It has been an astonishing act of institutional indifference.

What prevents prevention?

So what has roused this nation out of (what Immanuel Kant once termed) its dogmatic slumber? FGM’s current salience in part derives from the weight of numbers. As the UN points out, three out of the 10 largest citizenship groups applying for asylum in the European Union come from African countries where FGM is practised: Nigeria, Somalia and the Democratic Republic of Congo. Further, migrant groups from these and other nations with a high incidence of FGM (such as Kenya, Sierra Leone and Uganda) have settled in significant numbers in the UK.

But the present prominence is also due to a small group of survivors who have spoken out, often at great peril. To protect the next generation of girls, they have risked their standing within their communities and their personal safety. Many have received threats of the most odious and malicious kind. And still they continue to protest. They remind us that in FGM a part of your body is taken away which can never be retrieved. And through their efforts FGM is – at long last – being viewed as one of the most pressing child safeguarding problems facing this nation.

Thus prosecutions are necessary and desirable. But they are not enough. They are no substitute for effective prevention. And it is here that serious remedial work needs to be done because to this point the UK’s preventative measures have been miserably meagre. So what has prevented prevention? What has stood in the way?

First, the at-risk girls come from marginalised migrant communities. Their plight has been afforded little political priority. Next, there have been confusions about ‘culture’. Frontline professionals in regulated services such has healthcare, welfare and education have been reluctant to intervene because of concerns about accusations of racism and intolerance of cultural ‘traditions’.

This in turn is linked to poor training, and a lack of clarity about the true status of FGM. For an overwhelming international consensus, originating in Africa itself, exists. It unreservedly deprecates the practice. Yet in the recent Parliamentary debate, it was reported that 18 per cent of UK teachers did not even know it was a crime. It is, and as the UN reminds us, we have a right and a duty to intervene and change traditional practices that inflict harm on women and children. This is not cultural imperialism. It is the protection of universally valid human rights.

Now, however, a new risk looms. With the bringing of the first prosecutions there is the risk that the wider public may feel that ‘something is being done’. Paradoxically, however, an over-reliance on a punitive paradigm when combined with the demonisation and denigration of practising communities may act to perpetuate the very practices we are seeking to eradicate. Such an approach may intensify the marginalization and social isolation of such population groups. Members may seek solidarity and a sense of identity in traditional practices like FGM.

Finally, effective prevention has been marred by a simplistic understanding of this complex social phenomenon. FGM would not have endured for over two thousand years without its serving some social function. It is an act of gender violence.

But it is not simply that. It is violence in service of a purpose – or more precisely, purposes. These vary subtly between practising communities and it is vital to be alive to the nuanced differences. However, we can clearly see a thick common line: the control of women, the securing of marriageability, the preservation of familial honour, the avoidance of social stigma, the protection of kinship status – often overlaid with the misconception that mutilation is prescribed by religion (it is not authorised by any religion).

So if we want to end the mutilations, what works? In its eradication fight, the UN has placed great emphasis on community engagement. It emphasises that effective elimination requires ‘collective abandonment’ on a communal level. And this needs cultural sensitivity and an approach grounded in human rights. In advancing such a stance, the UN draws upon its success with programmes from Egypt to Kenya to Mauritania, where 10,000 communities representing 8 million people in 15 countries have come together. Working in a multi-level way, incorporating civic and religious leaders, men and women and at-risk girls themselves, communities have made public declarations that in their village, town or region FGM is no longer acceptable. It’s a start.

An end to inaction

When he made his imperishable oration in Athens, Pericles reminded his audience that the strongest hearted were those with the clearest vision not only of the good but also the bad in any situation. Prosecutions are a necessary step in the right direction. In this sense, they are a ‘good’. But we must assiduously avoid two things: a sense of triumphalism and a dangerous overreliance on punishment at the expense of prevention.

Future generations will gaze back in disbelief that for almost 30 years we did virtually nothing to protect girls from being genitally mutilated. It has been an act of paralysis and apathy on a calamitous scale. Our determination now must be to prove that such inaction is behind us. Of course, as survivors are right to remind us, FGM can never be behind the mutilated child.

Like the shadow trailing in their wake, it pursues them for the rest of their lives. It never goes away. We can – and must – do more to stop this. For the sake of thousands of girls in Britain today, girls little different to the 7-year-old Leyla Hussein and the mutilated child in Kajiado, Kenya, we cannot afford to fail.

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Dexter Dias QC

Dexter Dias QC practises in human rights law and is a Visiting Researcher at Cambridge University. He is the author of The Ten Types of Human: who we are and what we can be (Penguin Random House: 2018). Twitter: @DexterDiasQC