In a landmark case that is long over-due, the UK is set to prosecute a doctor for the first time in connection with the practice of female genital mutilation (FGM). Two men face trial; Dr Dhanuson Dharmasena from London is accused of performing the procedure on a grown woman while Hasan Mohamed, also from London, is said to have aided and abetted the act. Both men are now scheduled to be prosecuted at Westminster Magistrates’ Court on the 15th of April. It follows an increasing attempt to raise awareness not only of the issue of FGM itself, but also of Britain’s failure to enforce the laws surrounding FGM, particularly given the contrast between the UK and France concerning their approach towards the issue. While France was much more aggressive in their laws and penalties on FGM, Britain has until now been rather timid in addressing the problem. In fact many would argue that the first FGM prosecution in the UK is a direct result of them following the French example.
Despite more than 140 recommendations to the UK police over alleged FGM occurrences, this is the first time anyone has been formerly prosecuted in connection with the crime. Given that the barbaric practice has been illegal since 1985, this case is a significant moment for campaigners who have long felt that the issue has been ignored. It is alleged that after a patient gave birth Dr Dharmasena restored female genital mutilation formerly performed on the woman, therefore practicing FGM himself. Hasan Mohamed is implicated in this crime for supposedly encouraging the actions of the doctor as well as possibly recruiting him specifically for this purpose. It has also been revealed that the authorities have decided not to pursue four other incidents of suspected FGM, including one particular case where a father misunderstood the purpose of an FGM helpline and phoned in requesting FGM for both of his daughters. However, the Crown Prosecution Service is actively investigating two other incidents and remains in discussions over whether to take action in four more cases.
FGM is an African cultural and religious practice that involves the alteration or removal of a woman’s genital organs. Although it predates Islam it often practiced in Islamic countries by both Muslims and non-Muslims and is frequently viewed as a traditional and compulsory rite of passage to be undertaken before marriage. In 2012 the UN unanimously agreed to work for the global eradication of the practice. Despite this international condemnation of the issue, FGM is still endemic to many African nations and is often performed by unqualified people (often members of the family) with rusty or dirty instruments that can lead to infection, excessive bleeding and complications with urination, sex and childbirth. Even in more developed countries such as the UK and parts of Western Europe, the practice is still prevalent within certain ethnic minority communities. Part of the reason for this is because people assume that such barbaric acts of female discrimination and mutilation have no place in modern, progressive society. Another big problem for issues surrounding FGM is that participating families will often leave the country to get the procedure performed in a place where it is not illegal, before returning.
This was one of the areas in which France was so stringent in its approach to preventing FGM as they would check girls deemed at risk before they left the country while also ensuring that the parents were aware of the serious health and legal consequences of subjecting their child to FGM. France also encouraged routine medical inspections on young girls thought to be at risk, a controversial but effective strategy. While the medical checks themselves are not mandatory if a doctor discovers a victim of FGM they are duty bound to report it to the authorities. As a crime it is also heard in the top criminal courts of the country and penalties are often custodial sentences. Although these prevention techniques met with initial resistance, there was a subsequent appreciation of the efforts to protect children from the damage of FGM. France has been undeniably successful in preventing and deterring the practice of FGM and has been extremely vocal in its approach. The role of publicity in aiding the national understanding of the issue was central to helping decrease the number of victims of FGM in France.
The UK on the other hand has tended to be quite silent on such a sensitive issue. However, that does seem to be changing as the problem recently gained more publicity thanks to a campaign by schoolgirl Fahma Mohamed and the UK Guardian Newspaper which sought to improve the national understanding of FGM. Just 17 years old, Mohamed called upon Michael Gove, the Education Secretary to write to every head teacher in the country about the dangers of FGM and the methods of identifying instances of the practice. She stated that the summer holidays was a common time for parents to take their children out of the country in order to cut them and as such wanted to educate teachers beforehand. The campaign was successful in promoting its message and Gove even met Mohamed to discuss the problems of FGM.
An interesting tangent to this debate is the practice of circumcision which is widely practiced on male members of the Jewish community at birth. This is a generally accepted medical procedure and carried out in hospitals across the country on babies only a few days old. However, the idea that the real problem with FGM is a concern over the practitioner conducting the procedure or the standard and sterility of the implements they use sets an extremely dangerous precedent. The issue with circumcision of any kind is the fact that it is a form of dismemberment carried out on children or babies for no medical reason that can lead to further physical and emotional damage later in life. Egypt provides an excellent example of this as despite its fairly modernist image it has an FGM prevalence of 91% and the majority of procedures take place in hospitals or medical establishments. By terming it a routine medical procedure the implications of the process are greatly diminished and are lent a greater legitimacy despite the brutal truth.
As one of the leading lawyers in the French attempt to prevent FGM, Linda Weil-Curiel makes the pointed remark that FGM might not be considered part of a cultural heritage or tradition if it was being conducted on small white girls. This obsession with political correctness and cultural relativism is a large part of the problem with issues like FGM. The rest of Europe, including the UK, should follow the example France has set in defining FGM as unquestionably a form of child abuse which has no place in any culture or in any country in the world. The hope is that now the UK has made its first FGM prosecution it will continue to follow the example of the French and ensure the safety and well-being of every girl under the protection of their laws. Dharmasena and Mohamed may be the first, but with continued vigilance and greater awareness, they should definitely not be the last.
By Rhona Scullion