In a landmark ruling, a mother-of-three has become the first person in Britain to be found guilty of female genital mutilation (FGM), a practice that has been outlawed in the country for more than three decades.
Under British law, anyone found guilty of performing FGM can be imprisoned for up to 14 years. It has been illegal in Britain since 1985 under the Prohibition of Female Circumcision Act, later amended in the Female Genital Mutilation Act 2003.
The UK's Serious Crime Act defines FGM as involving "procedures that include the partial or total removal of the external female genital organs for non-medical reasons."
Although more than 100,000 victims of FGM are believed to be living in Britain, only three other cases of FGM — two in London and one in Bristol — have been brought to trial, all of which ended in acquittal. Analysts say that the lack of convictions is partly due to a failure by doctors and police to report FGM for fear of being branded racist.
On February 1, London's Central Criminal Court convicted a 37-year-old Ugandan woman from East London of inflicting FGM on her three-year-old daughter in August 2017. The woman's partner, a 43-year-old Ghanaian man, also from East London, was cleared of all charges. The victim has been placed in foster care with another family.
Police were alerted to the case after the victim, suffering from severe bleeding, was taken to Whipps Cross University Hospital in East London. Doctors subsequently confirmed that her injuries were consistent with being cut with a scalpel.
The two defendants, who were not identified for legal reasons, claimed that the victim sustained her injuries after falling and cutting herself on the edge of a kitchen cupboard while reaching for a biscuit. "It's a big accusation," the mother told the jury. "Someone who would cut a child's private parts, they're not human. I'm not like that."
In a series of videotaped interviews, however, the victim told police that she had been cut by a "witch." Her older brother told officers that he saw his sister crying and "blood dripping on the floor." Medical experts confirmed that the cause of her injuries was consistent with cutting rather than an accidental fall.
Prosecutor Caroline Carberry QC told the jury that investigators found evidence that the mother practiced "witchcraft" and had cast dozens of spells and curses to "silence the police and the doctors." She said:
"Two cow tongues were bound in wire with nails and a small blunt knife also embedded in them, 40 limes were found and other fruit which when opened contained pieces of paper with names on them.
"The names embedded included both police officers involved in the investigation of the case, the social worker, her own son and the then director of public prosecutions.
"These people were to 'shut up' and 'freeze their mouths.' There was a jar with a picture of a social worker in pepper found hidden behind the toilet in the bathroom. Another spell was hidden under the bed."
Carberry also said that the mother "coached" her daughter "to lie to the police so she wouldn't get caught."
The father denied engaging in "voodoo" or "witchcraft" and claimed he was not in the premises at the time his daughter was mutilated. He did, however, admit that his daughter had been cut.
Detective Chief Inspector Ian Baker of the Metropolitan Police Service, said:
"This was a complex, sensitive investigation with a harrowing crime committed by this defendant. We cannot lose sight that this case is about a very young girl who was the victim of an illegal, horrific and life-changing act at the hands of her mother....
"An array of evidence — witness accounts, and medical and forensic evidence — which showed that FGM was the cause of the girl's horrific injuries was painstakingly built, and this evidence was presented to a jury who after careful deliberation has found this woman guilty of FGM."
Inspector Allen Davis, the Met's lead officer for FGM, added:
"It is significant that this is the first FGM conviction in the UK and I hope this sends out a clear message that the Met and other partner agencies will thoroughly investigate FGM cases and pursue prosecutions, whilst offering full support to victims and affected parties...."
Home Secretary Sajid Javid said: "Female genital mutilation is a sickening, depraved form of child abuse and we will do all we can to ensure all perpetrators are brought to justice."
A 2015 report by City University of London estimated that 137,000 women and girls in England have been victims of FGM. London had the highest prevalence rate, at 12.0 per 1,000 population. Manchester, Slough, Bristol, Leicester and Birmingham had prevalence rates ranging 12 to 16 per 1,000. Other authorities, including Milton Keynes, Cardiff, Coventry, Sheffield, Reading, Thurrock, Northampton and Oxford had rates of over 7 per 1,000.
The report noted that although FGM victims in Britain are from across Africa, Asia and the Middle East, "since 2001, the numbers of women from some FGM practicing countries, notably countries in the Horn of Africa and Nigeria, Ghana and other countries in West Africa living in England and Wales have increased considerably."
The report said that many British girls living in minority ethnic communities in the United Kingdom are taken abroad to their family's country of origin during the school summer holidays to be subjected to FGM.
The National FGM Center said that FGM laws are being "circumnavigated" by performing the procedure on girls at a much younger age. In Yorkshire, for example, a one-month-old baby girl recently was subjected to FGM. West Yorkshire Police revealed that a quarter of its FGM reports between 2015 and 2017 involved victims aged three or under.
FGM expert and attorney Dr. Charlotte Proudman, appearing on BBC Two's Victoria Derbyshire Show, said that there is "a lot of anecdotal data" which shows that FGM is increasingly being performed on babies and infants in the UK. She added that it was "almost impossible to detect" as the girls were not yet in school or at nursery, thus making it difficult for any public authority to become aware of it. "By performing it at such a young age, they're evading the law," she said.
Proudman added that the lack of prosecutions for FGM is due in part to concerns by doctors and police over being accused of racism:
"People are concerned about cultural sensitivities, worried about being branded racist, and it's being performed on a very private area."
The BBC reported that 939 calls were made to emergency services to report FGM between 2014 and 2018, but the Crown Prosecution Service only received 36 referrals for FGM from the police since 2010.
Inspector Allen Davis, the Met's lead officer for FGM, attributed the lack of prosecutions to traditional honor cultures:
"Many individual of 'honour' based abuse just want to feel safe. This is a massive barrier to people giving evidence against their mum. People do not necessarily want to see their mums go to prison.
"This is an issue around honour and shame and we are dealing with communities that be quite closed. It's a real challenge for people to stand up and talk about what's happening in communities when it might mean they face ostracisation.
"It is the physical damage and emotional damage as well. It can be very, very damaging. The person who should be protecting them in the first place has usually arranged and facilitated it. How can you rebuild that link to the person that should be protecting you?"
Writing for The Spectator, British commentator Douglas Murray, offered another reason why so few FGM cases have been prosecuted. In multicultural Britain, he wrote, FGM is illegal but accepted as a custom:
"Clearly there are some hundreds of thousands of people in the UK who are aware of FGM going on either in the UK or abroad on UK citizens. Mothers who take their children to have the procedure, or do it themselves, either at home or abroad. Fathers who agree. Siblings who know about it and stay quiet. And then the circle out from there. People in positions of some authority who wonder if something isn't up, but don't like to make themselves heard for reasons of their own. So yes, in the UK FGM has been against the law thirty-four years, but it has also been a custom which has to some degree, beyond the reach of the law, been accepted.
"The grooming gang cases are again one of the only near parallels. As a number of official inquiries have revealed, in Rochdale, Rotherham, Oxfordshire and a growing list of other places, there must have been hundreds if not thousands of people who were not perpetrators in the cases but who knew something was going on. People who worked in social services, local police, hotel owners and others. The people who – as the official inquiries discovered – knew that something was happening but decided to turn a blind eye at the very least. In such places, during those periods of time, rape – including the rape of minors – was illegal, as it was everywhere else in the country. But it had also become a local custom...
"When it was passed in 1985 the law against FGM might have seemed like a signal about the destiny of this country: a sign of what sort of country we would be and the sort of country we would not be. And that is why some attention ought to paid to why the sign didn't work. Why were there so few people who cared what the law was, or cared so little about the message that was being given out? There is something to be grateful for in the Old Bailey prosecution this week, certainly. But underneath it are deep questions which cannot go unaddressed."
Soeren Kern is a Senior Fellow at the New York-based Gatestone Institute.