A 37-year-old woman from London has become the first person in the UK to be successfully convicted of FGM (female genital mutilation). She’s yet to be sentenced though she has been found guilty. The charge can carry up to 14 years. The court heard that she’d mutilated her three-year-old daughter and even attempted a series of spells and curses. She also tried to deter social workers and the police, so she wouldn’t get caught. Denying the accusations, the mother claimed that her daughter fell whilst reaching for something in the cupboard. Unfortunately, the details of the case are spine chilling, but this isn’t the only one of its kind.
Female Genital Mutilation is defined as the cutting of female genitals for no medical reason. There are four different types of FGM, ranging in their severity. It has lifelong, severe effects, including problems with sex, childbirth, and mental health. In short, it’s an incredibly risky and abusive thing to do and it detrimentally affects the victim for life. FGM is practised on every corner of the globe, with approximately 103,000 young girls in England and Wales alone who are thought to be living with FGM.
Terrifyingly, it’s not just misguided parents who are subjecting their children to FGM – it’s sometimes doctors, too. FGM usually happens to young girls from infancy to those who have just started their periods. There are many excuses given for it surrounding purity and cleanliness, but mainly, the reason seems to surround protecting virginity and preparing a girl for marriage.
Sex education pretty much everywhere across the globe is insufficient, which contributes to a huge part of the problem. Even as someone who had access to comprehensive free education, I knew very little about my own body until shows like Orange is the New Black and platforms like LAPP came along. Feminism (and the products of it) taught me more about my own anatomy than school ever did.
The vagina and its functions are so taboo that many girls don’t know what their period is when it hits. They don’t understand that it’s a perfectly natural thing and not something to be ashamed of. Periods and female anatomy are historically associated with bad spirits, toxins, and demons leaving the body, and unfortunately, this kind of thinking still exists today. There’s such a lack of care towards female bodies across medicine and science, so when people commit to misunderstanding the female body, the consequences are difficult to quantify.
It’s easy for us in western Europe and the U.S. to condemn these “other” places and “other people” who do such cruel things to young women and girls. It’s easy for the mainstream media to partake in this otherness that has such catastrophic consequences in the long run. We can spin a story, make it seem like we have absolutely no involvement because it’s them, they’re uncivilised. They’re after our girls. It’s similar rhetoric that surrounded the Rotherham scandal a few years ago. So let’s take a look into the UK’s history of FGM, and why it’s taken so long for prosecutions to happen.
It’s highly likely that racism and misogyny have heavily affected the ways in which we respond to FGM. Because FGM disproportionately affects women of colour, there seems to be less of an urgency when tackling the issue. Additionally, because the spokespeople for most anti-FGM charities and support networks are often black and survivors of FGM themselves, it’s likely that their blackness contributes to this lethargy. Only four cases of FGM have actually been brought to a court. This is disgraceful, given that there are so many. FGM campaigner Aneeta Prem told the BBC that “people are scared … professionals are scared to come forward to report this.”
Britain’s first specialist clinic to treat children who are victims of FGM only opened in 2014. Also in 2014, Michael Gove (then education secretary) did the bare minimum in response to a Change.org petition calling for action to be taken. He just sent a letter to schools, asking them to be “aware” of FGM. This all feeds into the widespread misogyny that stops girls and women coming forward about other forms of violence like sexual assault. When there’s little chance of actually securing a conviction, or even being trusted to understand what happened to your own body, what’s the point in coming forward? Especially in cases like the aforementioned, where the victim was three years old. She won’t understand what’s happened to her till she’s much older.
Ultimately, sex education is incredibly important. We need to demystify the taboos around the vagina. And, crucially, we need to stop the fetishization of young girls. Making sex education more accessible and was comprehensive would help too. Education is the antidote to ignorance. It would be harder for people to exploit female bodies if we simply understood more about the female body. Similarly, it would be much easier for the victims of violence to understand that what was happening to them was wrong.
As the first of it’s kind, this prosecution is no doubt a historic event. It shows that there is absolutely no tolerance for this kind of abuse. The 6th of February, just four days after this prosecution, marks the International Day of Zero Tolerance for Female Genital Mutilation. This day reflects the need for a global effort to help stop this horrific and abusive practice. In a world of #MeToo and Time’s Up, we need to extend those sentiments to parts of sexism and misogyny that are less talked about on social media and the news. The people committing these crimes must be brought to justice. Hopefully, the girl who was abused will recover and receive the help she needs. And hopefully, other victims of FGM feel brave enough to speak out. Especially now that their voices will be heard and there is actually a chance of justice.
Written by Rochelle Asquith