February 2019 saw the first UK conviction for female genital mutilation (FGM) at the Old Bailey. To date, only four cases of FGM have been brought to prosecution. In this case, a 37-year-old mother of Ugandan origin was found guilty of carrying out an act of FGM on her 3-year-old daughter. As part of the investigation, it was discovered she not only lied to the authorities regarding what had happened to her daughter, telling them she had fallen onto metal which “ripped her private parts” after she had climbed to get a biscuit in August 2017, she also coached her daughter to lie to the police. The attempted FGM had caused serious injuries, resulting in significant blood loss. The mother has been warned to expect a ‘lengthy’ jail term at sentencing on 8th March. Police investigators also discovered evidence of ‘witchcraft’, including cow tongues “bound in wire with nails and a small blunt knife”, forty limes and other fruit were discovered with names of police officers and a social worker involved in the investigation stuffed inside, and a jar containing a photo of a social worker in pepper. Lynette Woodrow, from the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) stated, “We can only imagine how much pain this vulnerable young girl suffered and how terrified she was.”
What is FGM?
FGM refers to the practice in 30 countries in sub-Saharan Africa, Asia, Latin America, and the Middle East of partial or total excision of the female external genitalia, for non-medical reasons on girls between young childhood and 15 years of age. It is also carried out by migrant populations from those countries of origin. According to the United Nations Population Fund (UNPF), it is estimated 200 million girls alive today have undergone FGM, however it is believed the prevalence rate is increasing.
Contrary to common belief, there is no one type of FGM, rather there are four broad types:
- Type I (clitoridectomy): Partial or total removal of the clitoris
- Type II: (excision): Partial or total removal of the clitoris and the labia minora, with or without excision of the labia majora.
- Type III (infibulation): Narrowing of the vagina with a covering seal, by cutting and re-positioning the labia minora and/or the labia majora.
- Type IV: All other harmful procedures to the female genitalia for non-medical purposes, for example: pricking, piercing, incising, scraping or cauterisation.
What are the risks of FGM?
The health implications of FGM for the victims are both physical and mental. If damage is inflicted, especially due to the poor skill of the practitioner, or if conducted in unhygienic conditions, the implications can include pain, incontinence, problems during childbirth, scarring, blood-loss, infection, sexual dysfunction, psychological trauma, and shame.
The legal implications of FGM
FGM is managed in law under its own specific act; the Female Genital Mutilation Act 2003 (covering England, Wales, and Northern Ireland), which replaced the Prohibition of Female Circumcision Act 1985. Those found guilty may face a prison sentence of between 5 and 14 years, reflecting the seriousness of the offence. An amendment to the Act in 2015 (section 71) was introduced to prohibit the publication of information which may identify anyone alleged to have carried out an act of FGM.
How can I defend against false claims of FGM?
The BBC in 2017 uncovered evidence of several children being placed in care based on what became false allegations of FGM against their parents. The challenge for the prosecuting authorities is that it can take months to fully investigate a claim of FGM, during which they are required to seek protection for the child in question. According to Toks Okeniyi, head of programmes and operations for the organisation Forward, “There’s a knee-jerk reaction from professionals when they hear FGM. I don’t know whether it’s terrified or wanting to make sure something doesn’t go wrong. So they really go in too hard”. In one case cited by the BBC, a woman of East African origin was placed under investigation after she asked her midwife a question relating to FGM. As a result, it was suspected the mother may have previously undergone FGM, and there was a suspicion her two daughters may have too, leading to them being placed on a child protection plan. To regain the rights to look after her children, the mother had to fight for several months to have herself, and both daughters properly examined to prove they had not undergone FGM.
If you have been wrongly suspected or accused of committing an act of FGM, it is essential you contact a family law solicitor specialising in this area. A solicitor will listen to the facts of the case and formulate a robust legal strategy to prove your innocence with the goal of keeping your children at home or having them returned as soon as possible.
What can I do if I am concerned someone I know is at risk of FGM
If you suspect a family member or someone you know has or is planning to commit an act of FGM, it is possible to seek a Female Genital Mutilation Protection Order (FGMPO) from the Family Court of England and Wales. We recommend speaking to a family law solicitor who can advise you and if necessary, apply for this on your behalf. The person subject to an FGMPO (the respondent) may be prohibited from taking the person at risk out of the area, harassing, pestering or molesting the applicant (directly or indirectly), continuing or making any plans for an FGM procedure.
The first prosecution for FGM in the UK represents a landmark in the handling of often culturally complex cases. It is clear FGM is happening in the UK, but while the authorities learn to handle matters of this nature in a way that balances the rights of the child involved with finding a measured and effective response, there will remain some who are wrongly accused, and some who are not reported due to fear of wrongful accusations being brought.
Rosie Bracher is a specialist family law firm based in Barnstaple. We have the knowledge and expertise to advise you on all matters involving family law. Please contact our office on 01271 314 904 and arrange to speak to one of our team.