By Peter Hilton, Global Correspondent for Safeworld. July 2015.
*Trigger Warning: graphic descriptions of FGM.
UK: Implementation of Protection Order
Police in the UK have recently obtained the country's first ever Protection Order with the intention of preventing the practice of Female Genital Mutilation (FGM). Two girls were stopped from leaving the UK on the 17th July via the grant of the newly instigated Protection Order.
Amendments to the Female Genital Mutilation Act came into force in October 2014, officially creating the new form of order, but this is the first time the measure has actually been used.
The Protection Order gives the police power to prevent children from leaving the country and comes with the backing of criminal prosecution and a maximum penal sentence of five years.
FGM on the Increase in UK and USA
The importance of preventing FGM has never been clearer as people become more aware of the severity and brutality of the procedures girls are forced to undergo. Many victims give accounts of being taken from their homes and ‘cut’ without anesthetic or disinfectant. After the horrific initial pain, there are numerous long lasting psychological effects including symptoms akin to PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) and many women left unable to have children.
The practice is most common in Africa and the Middle East but is increasingly happening in the UK and USA.
Many girls are either taken abroad to undergo the procedure under the guise of a holiday to visit family overseas, whilst others are forced to undergo the procedure in their own homes as professional ‘cutters’ are brought in from abroad.
Previous UK Legislation More Punitive Than Preventative
Although traditional Protection Orders have existed for many years, the new form of order has a far greater remit in terms of its powers and offers tailored solutions to FGM as a specific issue. Before this, police were generally forced to rely on applications from the local authority to obtain Emergency Protection Orders, which are admittedly a very similar order in terms of their application and the process of obtaining one.
The new orders can be applied for by anyone with permission from the court, allowing concerned individuals such as the police, teachers or others to help prevent FGM. The intended victims can also apply if they are able, further empowering them against their abusers, though it must be said the young nature of individuals undergoing the illegal procedures often renders this option impracticable.
The true benefits of the new legislation lie in the Family Court’s additional powers specifically targeted at preventing FGM. These include confiscating passports to prevent girls being taken abroad as well as including specific orders, which prevent families from bringing professional ‘cutters’ to the UK.
Mixed Reception to Changes in Law
Organisations associated with protecting women from FGM have welcomed the changes in the law. FORWARD, an organization dedicated to promoting women’s equality specialising in protecting girls from mutilation and forced marriages stated:
‘FORWARD welcomes the government’s new legal changes to introduce Protection Orders. We hope that this addresses some of the loop holes in the existing procedure and raises the profile of the need to treat female genital mutilation just like any other form of abuse.
Unfortunately, this is not a new law as these legal provisions are already in place- the Emergency Protection Orders Under Section 44 of the Children’s Act 1989 provide grounds for this to take place. FORWARD has always maintained the need to focus equally on preventing the abuse of girls from FGM and we hope that this measure will include the relevant training and support to professionals as well as funding to make this happen.
Most importantly, the UK government needs to seriously develop a national action plan on FGM which is based on the framework stipulated by the Istanbul Convention which calls for action on multiple strands including prevention and protection and not a dominant focus on prosecution.
We need to stop the harm from happening by effectively working with key communities.’
The message of this response from experts in the field of assisting in the prevention of FGM is a mixed one, as although this new law will help raise awareness and is preventative, it adds little to existing measures already in place. And allthough it cannot be argued that this first instance of prevention is anything but a good thing, there are some doubts over the effectiveness of preventative measures.
There is an existing legal act affected within England and Wales to prevent the practice of FGM, and although the new measures do not supercede this, many feel that the new legislation does not add enough to protect girls and prevent the parents from orchestrating FGM.
The Female Genital Mutilation Act 2003 makes either committing FGM or taking a UK national or permanent resident abroad for FGM punishable by up to 14 years in prison.
However the new measure is far more preventative than the formally punitive measures, and hopefully will have greater impact, as recent estimates from the UK government suggest up to 20,000 girls are still at risk.
The Brutality of Female Genital Mutilation - Physical and Psychological Effects
Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) is a term given to a wide range of cultural practices all of which are illegal within the UK and widely accepted as being in breach of the human rights of the victims. The actual practice can range from a ceremonial piercing of the clitoris to the far more extreme removal and narrowing of the vaginal opening or even clitoridectomy procedures.
The impact of these procedures is severe, with many dying from blood loss, shock induced by the pain and trauma or infections as a result of unsterilized surgical implements used in the process. In addition to the immediate risks, the scarring and chronic pain associated with FGM last for the rest of the lives of the women involved.
Other conditions such as difficulty urinating, increased bleeding and difficulty conceiving are also pervasive amongst victims, with the lifelong nature of these conditions further adding to trauma and preventing many from ever moving on from the severity of their abuse.
These are purely the physical conditions; the inevitable and often extreme psychological impacts of the mutilation can manifest in many forms including severe PTSD and depression.
One victim has made her story public in a thought provoking and visceral blog post, wherein she describes the horrific events culminating in her having her clitoris surgically removed without anesthetic. She was taken from her house and forced to watch as one of her friends underwent the mutilation, before being restrained and cut, with only a rag to bite on as pain relief.
Many other victims and witnesses speak of girls being bound at the legs to make the wound heal quicker, and being left for periods of weeks to allow the healing to take place. In her description of her cousin’s ordeal in a piece for The Guardian, Domtila Chesang states:
‘When all my cousin’s genitals were out, there was nothing left but red, bare flesh, I realised something was terribly wrong. My cousin lay naked and screaming on the ground. She was to stay in a secluded place for a month with her legs tied together to help close up the wound, leaving a tiny hole and achieving a new shape altogether’.
These kind of horrific stories are far from uncommon amongst members of practicing communities, and yet FGM remains widely practiced and women continue to leave the UK in order to have their daughters undergo the mutilation.
In the last year it is estimated that three million girls underwent FGM in Africa alone, whilst globally 125 million have undergone the mutilation.
The sheer volume of women still undergoing the procedures despite the well-known and obvious negative implications for the health of women, as well as the increasingly severe legal penalties in many parts of the world, shows that for it to remain so popular there must be extremely ingrained cultural motivations for the continued proliferation of something so brutal and dangerous.
Dangerous Misconceptions and Myths
FGM is carried out in as many as 28 African countries as well as in pockets of the Middle East, Asia, and historically, even Australia. There are frankly hundreds of cited reasons for the practice which vary between countries and communities, but the predominate reason is that of tradition.
In Egypt, 54% of those women who underwent the procedure cited the fact it was the usual practice as the primary reason for undergoing FGM. One of the primary forms of justification is the ‘rite of passage’ tradition, which seeks to claim that for girls in these communities, they must undergo the procedure to become fully-fledged women.
In many communities, women are forbidden from marrying and are openly ostracised if they have not undergone FGM. These practices further feed into the belief of a connection between FGM and sexual virtue within many African and Middle Eastern communities, wherein there is a belief that those who have not undergone some form of cutting are more likely to engage in adulterous or promiscuous behavior.
Numerous first hand accounts describe folklore beliefs such as that if a girl bleeds deeply after having her clitoris cut (an obvious and extremely common occurrence), then she is somehow connected to witchcraft or has had an affair on the previous night. Further to this, there is the belief that difficulty in childbirth following FGM – another common side effect given the tightening effect of the scar tissue, is directly linked to adultery on the part of the woman.
The best way to tackle these misconceptions is through further educating the women (and men) within these communities and illustrating that there is a choice outside of FGM, and that not undergoing the mutilation does not effect or impede the ability to be a woman.
Various other reasons are also cited including cleanliness, a belief that FGM assists in conception or that it promotes chastity.
Shockingly, large numbers of women throughout Africa cite religion as a factor – despite the fact that no Islamic or Judeo-Christian text advocates the practice. FGM pre-dates these religions.
In addition to the cultural and arguably ceremonial or 'spiritual' motivations for perpetrating FGM, it is worth noting that in some cultures there is a social motivation driven by a desire to increase male sexual pleasure, particularly following childbirth. This is the practice of reinfibulation, wherein the vagina is ‘tightened’ following childbirth, and is becoming increasingly prolific in Arabic cultures.
A study from Sudan found that 60 of 100 women surveyed had undergone some form of tightening procedure and that it was generally perceived as being an honourable thing to do. This is a further instance of FGM, though clearly this is one being increasingly encouraged by patriarchal motivations.
An additional issue worth considering is the lack of discussion of the procedure within the countries in which it is prevalent.
Within these countries there is a proliferation of male-controlled governments even on a local and cultural level, and this is part of the issue as those with the authority to prevent the cutting procedure taking place generally have very little idea of its implications or even what it is that is actually undertaken.
A lack of strong female opposition to the practice within these countries is preventing the governing male population from acting to prevent it occurring.
This is furthered by the view amongst many members of these groups that women are only valued to the monetary reward from the wedding dowry they receive and the likelihood of finding a husband – and without undergoing these procedures, they cannot become women and thus attain this value.
Thus, one of the most effective methods for tackling the issue within these particular, predominately rural African communities, is to further the empowerment of women and break down barriers preventing discussion of FGM amongst women and amongst those with the legislative power to prevent it.
Within the UK, the most effective means of preventing FGM is increasing public awareness of the practice and the kind of behavior indicative of girls who are about to undergo, or have undergone FGM.
These can include long absences from school, obvious discomfort or in terms of prevention being aware of groups being sent for long trips abroad. Once the general public has increased awareness there is hope that there will be an increase in reports to the police and public authorities and thus a greater number of Protection Orders stopping girls being taken for the purpose of FGM.
Overall, there is clearly some progress being made in the UK as increasingly diverse measures are being brought in to attempt to tackle the issue of FGM. The first prosecution against a doctor on charges of performing FGM took place in January this year, and although the individual involved was cleared, another four cases are under consideration by the Crown Prosecution Service – the organisation tasked with pursuing criminal prosecutions within the UK.
The new measures represent a preventative step which is obviously far preferable to the previously predominately punitive deterrent, as they manage to stop the atrocity before it occurs – yielding new hope for many women that the practice will die out all together.
Female Genital Mutilation Thrives in Secrecy – Part Three: The Business - by Olutosin Oladasu Abedowale
Mutilating Girls and the Black Market. Ending FGM in Kenya - One Step at a Time - by Linnet Griffith-Jones
Kenya: Cutting the Ribbon - Working to End FGM in Tharaka Nithi - by Elder Kinyua, Compassion CBO Coordinator.