British authorities are redoubling their fight against the spiraling problem of female genital mutilation (FGM) after a weekly primetime television show broadcast by the BBC forced the previously "taboo" subject into mainstream debate.
FGM is endemic in Muslim-majority countries across Africa, Asia and the Middle East. Three million girls between infancy and age 15 are subject to FGM every year, and it is believed that 140 million women worldwide are suffering from the lifelong consequences of the practice.
FGM has emerged as a major problem in Europe due to mass immigration. The European Parliament estimates that 500,000 girls and women in the European Union are living with FGM, and every year another 180,000 girls in Europe are at risk of being "cut."
Britain has the highest levels of FGM in Europe. According to a government-funded study published in 2007, at least 66,000 women and girls in Britain have had the procedure performed on them, and more than 20,000 girls under the age of 15 are currently at risk.
These figures, however, may be only the tip of the iceberg. A 2011 Department of Health policy paper warns that "it is possible that, due to population growth and immigration from practicing countries…FGM is significantly more prevalent than these figures suggest."
FGM is thought to be common in Britain among immigrant groups from Egypt, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Gambia, Indonesia, Iraq, Kenya, Kurdistan, Liberia, Mali, Nigeria, Northern Sudan, Pakistan, Sierra Leone, Somalia and Yemen.
The Times of London has reported that circumcisers -- also known as "house doctors" because they conduct the procedure in private homes -- are often flown to Britain from Africa and the Middle East to carry out the mutilations.
Alternatively, families who have immigrated to Britain from countries where FGM is practiced may send their daughters back to those countries to undergo FGM there, ostensibly under the guise of visiting relatives.
According to The Guardian, the six-week-long school summer holiday in Britain is the most dangerous time of the year for these girls. It is a convenient time to carry out the procedure because the girls need several weeks to heal before returning to school.
Sometimes immigrants living in other European countries even send their daughters to Britain to have them mutilated there. In an interview with the BBC, Isabelle Gillette-Faye, an anti-FGM activist in France, recounts the story of two little girls about to board a train for London.
Gillette-Faye says: "It was a Friday. We heard just in time. They had tickets for Saturday. A family member tipped us off. We told the police and they were stopped from making the journey." The parents were warned that if they would go ahead with the mutilations and be found out, they would be imprisoned for up to 13 years.
"In England," she added, "you are very respectful of your immigrants. It is very different in France. They have to integrate and they have to obey our laws. We simply will not tolerate this practice."
In Bristol, a city in southwest England with a sizeable immigrant community, it is believed that some 2,000 girls are at risk of "FGM parties." According to the BBC, "They cut them all together, as a group, because it is cheaper and quicker that way. At first the girls are all excited because it's a party, until they realize what is going to happen, and then they get frightened. It's done by the elder women, or the Imam, whoever is expert at cutting."
FGM has been a crime in Britain for more than 25 years. It was made a criminal offense by the Prohibition of Female Circumcision Act 1985. That Act was superseded by the Female Genital Mutilation Act 2003 and (in Scotland) by the Prohibition of Female Genital Mutilation (Scotland) Act 2005, both of which also introduce extraterritoriality. Taking a British citizen or permanent resident abroad for the purpose of FGM is a criminal offense whether or not it is lawful in the country to which the girl is taken.
Despite these laws -- which carry a maximum sentence of 14 years in prison for anyone convicted of carrying out FGM or helping it to take place -- no one in Britain has ever been prosecuted for performing it.
One reason for the lack of prosecutions is the difficulty in gathering evidence because the victims of FGM are often afraid to speak out. Girls and women who do speak out against FGM have suffered verbal and physical abuse from adult men and women in their communities in London, Bristol, Cardiff and Manchester in attempts to silence them.
The Sunday Times recently reported that a 29-year-old British-Somalian woman named Nimko Ali had received death threats -- a man she considered a friend had offered a hitman £500 ($775) to murder her -- since going public in February as a victim of the practice. Intimidation also involves threatening phone calls, emails, texts and tweets.
Another reason for Britain's dismal record at bringing perpetrators to justice is tolerance of FGM due to political correctness and concerns over "cultural sensitivity." Although the mainstream media routinely take pains to avoid any insinuation that FGM has anything to do with Islam, doctrinally, historically, geographically and juridically, the practice is intrinsically linked to Islam. As a result, there is a reluctance to tackle FGM because doing so is perceived as attacking Islam. This, however, may be about to change.
In April, BBC One's Casualty, a highly popular emergency medical drama series, became the first mainstream drama on British television to feature a story about FGM. Scriptwriters on the series worked with FGM pressure groups and young girls to produce the two-part drama, which aired on April 6 and 13.
The program's storyline (brief video here) follows a young girl called Tamasha who deliberately injures herself to avoid being sent abroad for the procedure. The show also shows another girl's battle to save her younger sister from having a female circumcision in a makeshift clinic.
Casualty's focus on FGM has raised popular awareness of the practice in Britain, and has created new momentum to tackle the controversial problem.
On April 29, Scotland Yard [London Police] appealed for information to identify the perpetrators of FGM amid growing indications that girls in the capital are being "cut."
Detective Chief Superintendent Keith Niven, the head of Scotland Yard's child abuse command, said officers would "relentlessly pursue" those carrying out FGM and had already received "a variety of pieces of information" that the illegal practice was being carried out in London, where members of Scotland Yard believe at least 6,000 girls are at risk.
In an interview with the London-based newspaper Evening Standard, Niven said that further information was needed to protect girls from the "appalling" physical and psychological damage caused by the crime of FGM. "The information that we are getting is that this crime takes place abroad, but that it also takes place here and we have to take that seriously."
He added: "Historically, we have looked at this very much in terms of victims coming forward, but there is a very low level of reporting of this crime. So we also want people who have information about where it is happening to speak to us so we can identify the individuals who are cutting girls and gather evidence with a view to prosecution."
Tip-offs, Niven said, could be provided anonymously via the Crimestoppers number because victims are often reluctant to testify, as many of those performing or organizing FGM are relatives or friends.
After being an "underground" problem for many years, Niven continued, the impact of FGM was now being brought fully "into the open:" "People are beginning to understand the enormity of this crime," he said. "There are significant psychological, physical and emotional impacts that can last through childhood and later life."
"We want to send out the message," he added, "that the UK is not somewhere you can come and get away with this. If you come here and we get information that you are engaging in this crime then we will relentlessly pursue you with a view to prosecution."
In November 2012, the Director of Public Prosecutions of England and Wales, Keir Starmer, launched a plan he hopes will facilitate prosecutions for FGM. The plan is aimed at increasing the number of referrals to police and prosecutors, and improving evidence gathering. His proposals include learning from countries such as France and Holland where people have been successfully prosecuted, as well as better analyzing failed cases in Britain. A steering group will consider whether a change in legislation is needed, and whether existing laws could be better used.
In announcing the plan, Starmer said: "Everyone who can play a part in stopping FGM -- from the doctor with a suspicion that an offense has been committed and the police officer investigating the initial complaint to the prosecutor taking a charging decision -- needs to know what to do to improve detection rates, strengthen investigations and, for the part of the CPS [Crown Prosecution Service], to start getting these offenders into court. I am determined that the CPS should play a key role in ensuring that the impunity with which these offenders have acted will end."
Police and prosecutors are now reviewing hundreds of historic cases of FGM in a bid to bring the first prosecution in Britain since the practice was ruled illegal in 1985. Legal experts are already examining six cases referred by police, and scores more are being considered.
According to the newspaper The Independent, the review centers on cases which originally failed to meet the prosecution threshold under existing FGM laws. The CPS is now reconsidering those cases under a variety of alternative criminal offenses, including conspiracy charges and the Domestic Violence, Crime and Victims Act, which established an offense of causing or allowing a child or vulnerable adult to die or suffer serious physical harm.
A CPS spokesman interviewed by The Independent said, "We have been working with police to identify the types of evidence required to support charges under other legislation, including conspiracy charges. In addition, the Metropolitan Police will be looking at previous investigations of FGM with the CPS, and whether new action can be taken."
In Bristol, Police and Crime Commissioner Sue Mountstevens has promised prosecutions where "enough evidence" has been collected. Speaking to the BBC, she said, "This is mutilation and child abuse. We need a wake-up call. Too many people are denying this is happening and we want them to come forward."