10/02/2019 § 1 Comment
by Marge Berer
This is the fifth time FGM has gone to trial in England since 2014. It is the first in which someone has been convicted. I attended most of the trial and shared notes with a colleague covering the days each of us was unable to attend. In spite of the punitive conditions for observers in the Central Criminal Court, including difficulty hearing those in the courtroom, what happened was clear: a woman was convicted of both FGM and witchcraft.
A few women’s rights advocates and health professionals have publicly opposed the way the criminalisation of FGM has played out in the UK,, but more are recognising the demonisation of individuals, mainly from African communities who may have traditionally practised it, who are being treated with suspicion due to their ethnicity. FGM is a harmful traditional practice, but I believe it will only disappear when its practitioners become convinced among themselves that it is harmful. For this to happen, I believe education, understanding and support to alleviate its harms are the way forward. And with others, I believe there should be no further prosecutions.
The trial took place from 14 January to 1 February 2019. This paper discusses my understanding of what happened during the trial and the issues it raises.
Although this is the first conviction since FGM was criminalised in 1985, the hegemonic belief is that many wily FGM practitioners have been escaping justice, based on inaccurate and exaggerated estimates of how many girls in the UK may be at risk, repeated in mainstream media. In the four previous trials, well-deserved acquittals made the police and the Crown Prosecution Service look bad. This was a high profile case, watched by many who wanted blood.
The case involved a woman and a man from two different African countries, their daughter aged 3 in August 2017, and her son, aged 8. At that time, the couple were no longer in a relationship but had remained good friends, living near each other and amiably sharing responsibility for the two children. On 26 August, the father’s mother died in his home country unexpectedly. He was devastated and spent most of his time over that weekend in the back garden of the mother’s flat, texting and on the phone with his family there, who were preparing the funeral. He stayed overnight as well, because he couldn’t bear to be alone, and slept in the sitting room. The children, who both lived with the mother, slept in the one bedroom with her.
On 27 August, the girl was running about inside and fell against the television, bruising her head, which caused bleeding. The mother called 999 but ambulances were in short supply. The bleeding stopped, the girl seemed fine, so the ambulance was cancelled. The little girl clearly enjoyed running about and was said to imitate her brother a lot, including his penchant for climbing on things.
On 28 August, when FGM was alleged to take place, the father was there in the morning, left to go back to his room to shower and returned. He was in the back garden with the girl, on the phone with his family. She was wearing a long dress and wellies and was happy and running about. It was noted that she was not wearing knickers, though he did not know that. The girl asked him if she could have a biscuit. They went up the stairs into the kitchen where he got her a biscuit from a bowl sitting on top the microwave on the counter. They went back outside together and he got back on the phone. Not long after, she said she wanted to go to her mother, and went inside on her own. The father said when questioned that a minute (or a few minutes) later, the girl was suddenly crying/screaming. He says he went inside as soon as he heard her. The mother and brother said they had been watching TV in the sitting room. The girl said she had climbed up onto the counter in the kitchen to get another biscuit and had fallen onto the open door of the cupboard below. No one else saw it happen. The cupboard door’s upper edge was a U-shape, with narrow protruding edges, described as “sharp metal edges”. She was bleeding from her genitals. Someone wrapped her in a towel, which was afterwards full of blood stains and was put into the washing machine and left there, unwashed, found the next day by police. The mother called 999, who told her how to stop the bleeding. Due to the shortage of ambulances, it was decided to take her to hospital by taxi. Mother took the girl to the toilet as the girl said she had to wee and cleaned her up there, trying to stop the bleeding. As they were leaving, mother asked father to take a photo of the cupboard door on his phone to show the hospital where she had hurt herself. Father said he had cleaned the blood up in the kitchen and the toilet room later that evening.
As I understood from the evidence, if FGM took place, it must have happened at the point when the girl said she fell onto the cupboard door, but I do not see how, because there was not enough time for it to happen in.
At the hospital A&E, the nurse called in a resident to see the girl. The resident suspected FGM and contacted the on-call consultant, who has experience of FGM. The resident didn’t say what he thought, just asked the consultant to examine her. Consultant said he thought the girl had had FGM. One of her inner labia was cut off completely. The tissue was not found. The other had also been cut but the tissue was still attached, described as “hanging by a thread”. There was a small cut around part of her clitoris. There was also a haematoma. The girl had to have anaesthesia as the examination was causing a lot of pain; suture of the tissue was done. She had lost so much blood that a transfusion was considered but not required. Mother stayed with her overnight. Father took the boy home; they returned to the hospital the next day.
The police were notified and came to the hospital the next day. Both parents were arrested. Boy was taken into emergency foster care. When girl was released, she went to the same foster mother, who kept them for almost two months. In late October, foster mother said in written evidence she couldn’t cope with them on top of four children of her own. It was not stated why. The children were moved to another foster home in early November 2017, and have been there since.
FGM in a three-year-old
One of the doctors who was a witness said that in a child this small, the inner labia would each be only about 1 cm long. The cuts would require skill and be very painful. Only someone practised at FGM on small children could manage that in a short space of time. The girl would have to be held down, most probably by more than one person. The outer labia (about 3 cm long) would have to be held open. No one could have done this alone. Yet no evidence was found that anyone else was in the flat that day, and no cutting instrument was found.
Why a guilty verdict?
I believe the mother was found guilty for three reasons: 1) four doctors were sure the labia cuts looked like FGM, not injuries from a fall; 2) in the absence of direct evidence, the mother’s character was attacked and her credibility destroyed over the course of the trial, mostly through accusations that she practised witchcraft and spells and consorted with and took advice from several dubious-sounding men; and 3) both children made contradictory statements about what had happened as time went on.
The medical opinions
Four different doctors examined the girl’s genitals, at least two of them after she had been sutured. They all said that while the damage could have been caused by her falling on the cupboard door, and that one “could never say never”, none of them thought she had fallen. They all thought she had been cut because the tissue was not jagged. They said a “straddle injury” – falling onto the door with her legs on either side – would have caused different injuries as well as bruising, and that cuts in three different places from one fall were highly unlikely. Also, they said, there was no visible bruising, which would be expected. Only the paediatric forensic pathologist had never seen a labial FGM-type cut. The others had a lot of experience. But…
The timeline of events and movement on the day in question were based on 10,000 pages of details from the parents’ smart phone usage (both were constantly on their phones). The father’s barrister found proof of his absence at the time in question in that evidence, but said only a handful of those pages were relevant.
Given the very short space of time between the girl going back indoors and then starting to scream, if someone had cut her, it must have happened then. Who could have done it, using what instrument? Where? The police detected no traces of blood on the cupboard door or the kitchen floor, yet the father described cleaning a lot of blood up. No other place where cutting could have taken place was identified. How could the police not have found something?
Where could a cutting knife have been disposed of between the time the girl was found bleeding and taken to hospital? The mother did not go home again until after the police had visited the flat. One police officer, according to the Evening Standard, said he refused to rule out the involvement of a third party, but investigators found no such evidence to present in court.
Without direct proof of anyone’s guilt, surely there is “reasonable doubt” as to what happened? This was not expressed strongly by anyone in court, except the mother herself who insisted, again and again, from the first moment she was questioned at the hospital until the moment she was found guilty, that she had not done it.
Both parents were interviewed (August 2017, November 2017, January 2018), as well as social workers for the parents and children. Much of this was presented in writing, and read out in court. The two foster mothers were interviewed; only one came to court. Both children were interviewed (the girl 3 times and the boy 4 times), including the boy (unexpectedly) on the cusp of the trial opening. The interviews with the children were videoed and shown in court. Both parents were questioned by the Crown and both their barristers for many hours over several days. In spite of intense and aggressive questioning by the Crown, both insisted on their innocence.
The father believed his daughter, her mother and brother, who all said the girl had fallen on the cupboard door. When questioned by the Crown, however, he was pushed to agree that hearing the medical opinions had made him believe his daughter had been cut. Yet it would have been impossible for anyone without relevant medical knowledge to question let alone reject those opinions. This “admission” was treated as accepting the mother’s guilt, however, even though the father stood by the mother until the trial. And he never changed his insistence that she had never said or done anything to make him believe she had had their daughter cut, let alone done it herself.
False claims that FGM is linked to witchcraft
Early in the trial a so-called expert witness for the Crown claimed (in a letter, not in court) that FGM and witchcraft in Africa are related. The implication was that anyone who practises witchcraft is also capable of and willing to practise FGM. There is no evidence for this. The mother’s defence team, presumably recognising the damage, brought a letter from a counter-witness who said the practice of witchcraft and FGM are not connected, but this was probably too late in the trial to make a difference.
The mother denied she believed in or practised “witchcraft”. It didn’t help her. She did acknowledge that she sometimes used “spells” to ward off danger to herself and her family, and to try to make trouble go away, and that she had taken advice by phone from a traditional spiritual advisor in Africa, whom she had never met, on “cleansing herself” while she was awaiting trial. Some of the “spells” came from an easily accessible website. One involved crushing half a lemon with a powder called alum on it under foot. These were harmless and I believe they should have been dismissed as irrelevant and not admitted in evidence – precisely because they did not and should not have been used to implicate her in FGM. Indeed, the defence tried to have at least some of this so-called “evidence” made inadmissible, but the judge refused.
This was willy-nilly a gift to the Crown, who successfully demonised the mother by giving “witchcraft” undue prominence and providing the court with every last detail (verbally and visually) of some of the practices, especially the most unpleasant ones. She tried to smear the father with it as well, but his insistence that he was a religious Muslim and did not believe in witchcraft deflected that.
Witchcraft played an important role outside the courtroom as well. Within an hour of the verdict being announced, the mother and FGM were associated with witchcraft in the media too. Perhaps these journalists believe in witchcraft themselves. For example, the Evening Standard asked one of the policemen involved if any of his officers had suffered any ill effects that could be explained by “spells”.
In her summing up, the judge stressed a number of times that some of the mother’s beliefs and behaviour related to witchcraft must not be taken as evidence of guilt, even if they were “repulsive” to the jury or “made them uncomfortable”. While this was correct as a point of law, I believe it may have added to the negative image of the mother, already accomplished so effectively by the Crown. Yet surely it is obvious that the “spells” were because the mother felt powerless and wanted it all to go away.
Many innocent women were killed for witchcraft in this and other countries in earlier centuries. It seems a belief in witchcraft exists even today in this supposedly civilised country. The link with FGM was stressed in every news report I saw, including BBC News.
Where did this ill-conceived and false link come from? As far as I have been able to discern, it originated from the National FGM Centre, who are connected with Barnardo’s. On 20 January, I wrote to the senior press officer at Barnardo’s asking if he would send me the evidence they had for this link. The answer came back only on 2 February, after two follow-up requests – but the trial was over. The evidence was contained in a table with quotes and the following sources:
- An article on an obscure website called Refinery29, which was reprinted in full by the Evening Standard, whose evidence for this link was that Barnardo’s/National FGM Centre had told the author there was a link. Yet this same article was cited by Barnardo’s as their source that a link existed.
- A quote from a 2015 article about FGM on the website of broadly.vice, whose only mention of witchcraft was the following: “During one cutting procedure, the girl collapsed. Her elders’ explanation? ‘They tell you it’s witchcraft,’ she says. ‘If the girl dies, they’ll just say it’s because the mother is a witch’.” In other words, witchcraft is blamed for killing the child so that the real reason she died remains hidden. This is not a link as alleged.
- A quote from a 2015 blog on the Orchid Project website, in which the only reference to witchcraft was the following quote: “Many people in Kuria [Kenya] fear the ‘witchcraft’ used by the Elders to incite people to cut their girls. They believe the Elders can reach out through this witchcraft and harm them and their loved ones.” This describes using fear of witchcraft as a form of control, to force unwilling parents to allow their daughters to be cut, but again, not showing the alleged link.
- A quote from a 2009 publication entitled What is FGM? by Africans Unite Against Abuse, as follows: “It is believed that un-mutilated girls and women are unclean, promiscuous, and unmarriageable. It is also believed that the clitoris can be used to bewitch husbands and make it impossible for them to take more wives. In this instance, women who would not permit their husbands to take more wives are branded witches.” Beliefs about uncut women being unclean, promiscuous and unmarriageable were widely held historically, but much has changed. In a DFID meeting I attended on this subject in London some years back, a number of women from FGM-practising countries said that if the marriageability issue were resolved, i.e. convincing men to accept an uncut wife, FGM would quickly disappear.
- A 2013 article by Johansen R et al in the journal Obstetrics & Gynaecology International (pp.1-10), quoted in a Barnardo’s publication, as follows: “One study in the Gambia and Senegal showed that only those who were already critical to FGM believed in the information of health risks [25,26]. One reason for this is that the immediate complications of FGM are often attributed to other factors such as witchcraft or evil spirits [27,28].” This is not proof of a link either.
That was it – no credible evidence of a link between the practice of FGM and the practice of witchcraft. But meanwhile, a woman is going down for it. Yes, dear reader, witchcraft is powerful.
But let’s return to facts. It is important to point out that when first accused by the police of FGM, the mother had asked them what FGM was, because she had never heard of it. She said FGM is not practised in the ethnic group she comes from. Indeed, in her country of origin, only 0.3% of girls/women have had FGM, mostly in one small part of the country, and only about 54% of women nationally had ever heard of FGM.
This mother was never cut herself; she offered to have her genitals examined to prove it. She said no one in her family or ethnic group had been cut either. The ethnic group the father comes from does not practise FGM either, and he said no one in his family has ever been cut. This is critically important because there is no evidence that adults who come from non-FGM-practising backgrounds in Africa practise FGM. If these facts were put forward in defence of both parents, however, they were neither heard nor taken account of.
Evidence from the children
The children’s evidence from 28 August 2017 to 13 January 2019 was collected through formal interviews that were videotaped, as well as in reports of conversations they had with social workers and the foster mother who they lived with from 3 November 2017 until the trial. What both children said over most of that period was consistent but then, later, contradictory. In her summing up, the judge told the jury that they needed to decide whether the children’s evidence was reliable or unreliable. This is serious because their evidence was not only admitted, but was given a huge amount of time and attention throughout the trial. It was in fact key.
Both the children said until each of their last interviews that the girl had hurt herself by falling on the door. Then, separately, to different people and each at a different point in time, they said they had lied. These claims were damning because they were not retracted (if indeed anyone kept asking, in case they changed their minds again) and must surely have influenced the verdicts more than any other evidence.
The reason the children’s evidence could be considered unreliable was because both of them had made up elaborate stories at different moments when being interviewed, that were complete fantasies. The boy invented a family summer holiday trip to Blackpool replete with details and what a good time they had all had, but it had never happened. The girl made up a story about what happened at her foster mother’s house when she was bathed – that an adult male relative of her foster mother would bathe her while she was naked, that her foster mother and her brother were also in the bathroom, and that her brother would cover his eyes so he couldn’t see her. She also claimed that the male relative had touched her inappropriately on her private parts. She even drew pictures about it. Then she said it was all untrue, just a joke. Children, right!
In a case like this, lasting almost 18 months, the children would be exposed to many conversations among the adults around them – hospital staff, medical experts, police, social workers, foster parents – who may not have noticed the children were listening or realised they could understand (or misunderstand) what was being said. Who can say how that influenced them, except that each of them felt they were to blame for what was happening.
The court was shown videos of all three interviews with the girl, all with the same two social workers. In the first two interviews, she was allowed to run around the room, draw pictures, chatter, laugh. Each time, she was asked questions to try and probe whether she had fallen or been cut. For example, it was considered significant that when asked to point out things that were wood, plastic and paper, she was able to do so, but she did not know what metal was – even though she had claimed she had fallen on the metal on the cupboard drawer. Her third and last interview, took place (I believe) because of what the girl told her foster mother as a secret. She said she knew that: a) people who go to jail are bad, b) her mother was bad, c) her mother was going to jail, and then d) that she had lied, that she had been cut. This was of course reported onwards. In the third interview that followed, the girl was again asked how she had hurt her private parts, and at first she again said she had fallen when trying to get a biscuit. But she was pressed and questioned increasingly heavily and made to feel she had done something wrong. There was no running about this time. No laughter. As the social workers continued to question her, sitting cross-legged on the floor facing each other with her in the middle, the one woman wrapped her in a small blanket and clamped her into her lap facing the other woman, and they continued to ask questions until the girl said she had been cut. Oh!
But here is what was said: The girl said there was another woman in her mother’s kitchen that day. The woman had pink skin (Was she black like you or white like me?), old (Was she young or old?), with silver hair (What colour was her hair?), and had hurt her on her private parts (Where did she hurt you?). She also said she had been standing up when it happened (Were you lying down? No, I was standing up). When asked what the woman’s name was, she replied that her mother had called the woman a witch.
The father was asked, in giving evidence, whether the mother had any women friends who were white who came to the flat. No, he said, except for one neighbour, who had been there perhaps a month before. Two of us observing the trial wondered whether this woman might have been someone at the hospital involved in examining or repairing her labia. In any case, no such woman was ever identified.
As a description of FGM, this story is not credible. The damage to her labia (1 cm) could surely not have been caused by cutting while she was standing up, no matter how skilled the cutter. Do old, fat, white women with silver hair carry out FGM here? No. Indeed, the girl also said at another moment that her parents had held her while she was cut. So, was any of this true? Surely to express disbelief would be fair. Yet no one did.
I did not watch the four interviews with the boy except for the first 10 minutes of the first one. But no witness placed him where he would have been able to see the fall (or cutting) of the girl. In all four of his interviews he said the girl fell in the kitchen and injured herself. But the day before the trial started, he told the foster mother he wanted to write a letter to one of the policewomen and to one of the social workers. The foster mother gave him two sheets of paper, a pen and envelopes. He wrote the letters, she said, alone in his room. When the foster mother told the police why he had told her he wanted to write them, his reply to her was either: “I want to tell the truth” or “I want to prove our case”. These two versions of what he said were both reported in court because after handing in the boy’s letters, the foster mother had made a statement to the police in her own language, which was translated into written English by an interpreter. She was not shown a copy of what she had said in her own language, only the text in English to sign. This came out during her evidence in court. In any case, the letters were almost identical. In both, he said he had lied and that his mother sometimes told lies to get out of trouble. One of his letters was read to camera by him and signed by him, and shown in court. Arrangements were made to bring the boy to court on 28 January to corroborate what he had said. But on the morning, he refused to attend.
What was going on for him in all this? He seemed a shy, soft-spoken boy who was described as very anxious about what was going to happen to him and his sister, and whether he would ever go back to his mother or not.
The ethics of depending on children as witnesses
According to InBrief, subject to some exceptions, unreliable evidence is normally excluded from trials. InBrief also states that “the Youth Justice and Criminal Evidence Act 1999, section 53(1) says that at every stage in criminal proceedings all individuals are (whatever their age) competent to give evidence”. But “a child’s competency depends on their understanding and not their age”. Was this little girl competent to give accurate evidence more than a year after the incident happened? Could her brother have been expected to know what happened?
The 2011 Guidelines in Relation to Children Giving Evidence in Family Proceedings specify that “in deciding whether a child should give evidence, the court’s principal objective should be achieving a fair trial. With that objective the court should carry out a balancing exercise between the following primary considerations: i) the possible advantages that the child being called will bring to the determination of truth balanced against; ii) the possible damage to the child’s welfare from giving evidence i.e. the risk of harm to the child from giving evidence….”
Over 25 serious considerations are then listed to take into account. These include: whether the case depends on the child’s allegations alone; corroborative evidence; the length of time since the events in question; whether the child has retracted allegations; and much more. Working from these guidelines, should the children’s evidence have been admitted the way it was?
What will happen to this family?
The father had already lost a wife and daughter, who had died in a car accident in his home country before he came to the UK. While awaiting trial, he lost his job and the room he was living in. His visa to remain in the UK expired while he was in detention before the trial – for having broken his bail conditions by talking to the children’s mother. Will he have a difficult fight on his hands to gain custody of his daughter, whom he adores, as well as custody of the boy, whom he also loves dearly, even though their mother will probably be in prison a long time? Is he at risk of being deported? Why otherwise, although he was acquitted of all charges, was he not released at the end of the trial? Will the mother too be deported? Will the children be forced to stay in foster care until they are of age? This family’s lives have been blighted. Was this justice or an outcome worth achieving?
How might this trial have ended had the children’s evidence and the evidence on witchcraft and spells been excluded? I question whether it was proven beyond a reasonable doubt that the mother was guilty of FGM. I also have to ask about the children’s long-term well-being, given their pivotal role in condemning their mother. Lastly, considering the backdrop of witchcraft pervading this trial, and the hope for a guilty verdict by far too many people watching it, it seemed far too close to what I fear witchcraft trials in the past must have been like.
The use of the criminal law and current requirements on the NHS and others to report cases in the UK have been seriously damaging. Should FGM be treated the same as other child abuse? Though harmful, it was a communal rite of passage into adulthood in Africa for girls in the ethnic groups who practised it. There is growing evidence that it is happening less than in the past, including among women who have come to the UK, and that it never was much done here.
I believe the UK government, Parliament, Crown Prosecution Service, members of the judiciary and legal profession, the police and the NHS must reconsider and call a halt to further FGM prosecutions, and join with the communities among whom FGM used to be a traditional practice, who are saying they feel oppressed and silenced by current UK law and practice, to find a better way forward. A positive approach is far preferable, including in schools; specialist clinics for women with complications of FGM are a good example of the way forward.
See my blog for articles on previous FGM trials, the blog A miscarriage of justice by Brid Hehir, 5 February 2019 on this trial, blogs about FGM on Shifting Sands, and articles in Reproductive Health Matters about FGM around the world.
 “Current response is disproportionate and should be reconsidered.” Sarah M Creighton, Zimran Samuel, Naana Otoo-Oyortey, Deborah Hodes. Tackling female genital mutilation in the UK. BMJ, 2019;364:I15.
 I will call them mother, father, girl and boy here, as nothing can be published that might identify them, by court order.
 From a skilled FGM cutter in Kenya, 2015: “…It can be slippery, so we use some ash to get a good grip. There are veins there. It’s very difficult, very technical. You have to be really careful.” Broadly Vice.
 The haematoma apparently did not count.
 I will not give details of the source (a 2016 Demographic & Health survey) because it identifies her country.
 Issues of English as a second language, translation and interpreters in this trial also deserve examining.
 This is not applied to criminal proceedings in the guidance.
 NHS Specialist Services for Female Genital Mutilation. NHS England, October 2017.
The role of the police and the courts in prosecuting allegations of FGM: a review of “The FGM Detectives”, Channel 4 TV, and the case that just ended at the Old Bailey
26/03/2018 Comments Off on The role of the police and the courts in prosecuting allegations of FGM: a review of “The FGM Detectives”, Channel 4 TV, and the case that just ended at the Old Bailey
The Channel 4 TV programme was shown on 27 February 2018, reported by Cathy Newman. It depicted the failure of a British detective named Leanne Pook to bring a successful prosecution against a Somali father of a six-year-old girl for allegedly arranging for her to have FGM, after an investigation that took two years. The programme was supportive of the police action right to the end, yet it provides a disturbing picture of why the police and the Crown Prosecution Service have failed to successfully prosecute cases of FGM four times now. The case also highlights, as have previous court cases, the important role of the court in not allowing the accused parent to be found guilty, due to the lack of evidence. It shows, in my opinion, that the involvement of the police and the criminal law is not the way to prevent FGM, or to support those who have had or may be at risk of FGM.
The programme illustrated how the right to bodily integrity of a six-year-old girl believed by the police to be a victim of FGM was violated by the police. The investigation was based entirely on the uncorroborated report of a conversation between a taxicab driver, the girls’ father, and a passenger in his cab. The passenger, who was a member of an anti-FGM group in Bristol called Integrate, presumably raised the issue of FGM with the driver because he was Somali. The passenger alleged that the father said he was not against minor forms of FGM, and that he had had that done to his daughter.
The programme opens: “Thousands of British women and girls have had their vaginas deliberately mutilated.” This is false. First, there is no evidence worth the name that most of those living with FGM in Britain have had FGM in Britain. Secondly, FGM is practised on the external female genitalia, the clitoris and labia, and sometimes also by sewing the edges of the vaginal opening together. There is no mutilation of the vagina.
DCI Pook, who led the investigation of the case was, in addition to being a police officer, a trustee of the local anti-FGM group in Bristol called Integrate. The taxicab passenger reported his conversation with the driver to someone more senior than him at Integrate, who in turn reported it to DCI Pook. The programme follows her investigation of the taxi driver, his wife and his six-year-old daughter, and her unsuccessful attempts to gather any evidence to prosecute the father for FGM beyond the passenger’s description of his conversation with the father.
The police considered the passenger’s statement to be enough for them to pursue the case. DCI Pook was very keen to do this; she wanted to be the first to bring a successful FGM prosecution in this country, which emerged strongly during the programme, raising questions about her ability to be impartial, question which were asked after the trial collapsed.
The programme was extremely vague about why the investigation should have taken two years. The police did not prosecute the girl’s mother, though they found the phone number of a “circumciser” on her phone, who the father said had been contacted to circumcise one of his sons. The programme did not indicate whether the circumciser was ever questioned and nothing more was said about him. In the programme, the investigation never went beyond the questioning of the girl and her parents, and discussion about the examination at two different times of the girl’s genitals. Yet one would expect other family members, friends, neighbours and other Somali community members close to this family to be questioned.
Yet, 17 minutes into the programme, DCI Pook is shown to be participating in a street demonstration against FGM with women and children from Bristol and is also shown talking to a group of parents and adults, about the importance of investigating FGM. This is followed by a meeting with youth members of Integrate, where a discussion about claims that a small nick is not abuse are challenged. This shows that DCI Pook’s role as both the investigating police officer and anti-FGM advocate are completely intertwined in this investigation, with no question of a possible conflict of interest being raised. The question of the consequences for the child or her parents that the whole community knows about this investigation is never mentioned.
The girl’s parents deny ever having had anything done to their daughter, and her father denies ever making the comment that he was accused of making while driving his taxi.
The only other possible source of evidence shown by the programme to be sought, was the girl herself. Investigating her took two forms: first, she was questioned by someone considered to be an expert at using drawings with children as a means of getting information from them. The girl was asked to do a drawing of her body in the hope she would recall the FGM because it would have been traumatic, so she might say something about it. This did not happen, however. The expert failed to elicit any verbal or visual evidence that FGM had taken place.
The second step was to examine the girl’s genitals. In order to do that, the programme reports, she had to be willing, so she was interviewed at her school. There is a meeting with 5 or 6 staff from the school. We are not told who was present when the girl’s permission was sought nor what was said to her, but we are told she agrees. The child’s parents are informed it will happen but they are not permitted to be present, nor was their permission sought. The programme gives no information about who conducted this physical examination. We learn later that some kind of equipment (unidentified) was used and that pictures were taken of her genitals. We have to assume the examiner would have opened her labia and closely examined her clitoris for evidence.
The police were at least honest enough to say at some point afterwards that the little girl described the examination as disgusting. This is hardly surprising. In my opinion, the examination constituted a serious violation of her bodily autonomy, of her right to privacy and to be able to withhold her consent. Yet a six-year-old girl could not possibly have understood what the examination would involve, and even if she had, how could she have refused? Adults from her school, the police, all apparently supporting it, her parents absent – all major forms of pressure. Even if she had had FGM in the past, it is highly questionable that this is ethically acceptable.
But that’s not how DCI Pook saw it. Her response to the girl’s reaction is that an investigation must be thorough enough that the victim is not relied upon alone for the evidence (or in this case lack of evidence). The child was in fact examined twice, we learn later, but we were not told how often she was questioned nor what the questioning covered. DCI Pook reports that the first person who examined her found something that might have come from a small cut on the child’s clitoris. A detective reports that the girl had at some point been taken out of the country during school holidays, which he describes as an opportunity for her to have been cut elsewhere. Indeed, or it might have been a holiday or a family visit. No further details are given, and no evidence is offered of this being more than a supposition.
By this point in the programme, however, the lack of evidence is becoming obvious. To counter this, DCI Pook embraces the idea that a “small cut” may have been done without leaving visible damage or scarring – a tiny nick (enough to draw a drop of blood) or a pinprick – and she decries the belief that this should not be prosecuted as FGM, and indeed she seems to conflate it with a severe or mutilating cut. Another officer says a nick or a pinprick of any kind is still painful. Several of the male officers talk about the importance of the police protecting little girls from such abuse. Yet they have protected this little girl from nothing whatsoever.
The facts of this case are, whether she had been subjected to any form of FGM or a pinprick or not, no mark nor scar nor any other evidence from any person was found to indicate that anything had been done to her.
Moreover, it is reported that the photographs of the little girl’s genitals from the first examination were sent to an “FGM expert” to analyse. While this expert says she thinks the photos may indicate an injury, she believes they are “not good enough” as evidence. So she asks to conduct her own physical investigation of the girl as she wants to feel 100% sure there is an injury before she is involved in sending someone to prison. Hence, and the timeline here is totally unclear, it was agreed that a second physical examination of the child would be carried out by this expert, who is again not identified in the programme, and whose credentials are therefore unknown.
One of the male police officers is unhappy about a second examination because the first examination was unpleasant for the child, and this upsets him. Even so, and for reasons best known to themselves, the police decide it is time to arrest the parents, take them into the station and question them separately. Were they not questioned before the child was examined? We don’t know.
More than half a dozen police officers dressed in jeans and t-shirts, not in uniform so as “not to upset the community” set off to the family home. Unfortunately, the parents are not at home so they are asked to attend the police station, which they do and are arrested there. Their home is searched by a police team in their absence.
The father, it is reported, is questioned through an interpreter. This implies his English is limited, which is a critical matter but the programme does not treat it so. Yet in the second FGM trial in London, in 2015, in which another Somali man was accused of asking for his wife to be re-sewn up following delivery of a baby, he needed an interpreter in order to be questioned in court, and he was acquitted in part due to the probability that his English in the delivery room was misunderstood.
In any case, the programme reports that during questioning, the father denies there had been any FGM or any intention of FGM, and he denies ever having had the conversation with the Integrate team member in his taxi. The police officer questioning him says to him that the examination of his daughter had indicated an injury to her genitals and that the expert who had examined the photographs had also seen an injury. Although both these claims are patently false, the programme does not note it. The mother is similarly told that an injury had been identified. She reads out a prepared statement that she is opposed to FGM, and she refuses to answer any questions. Did the parents have any legal advice? We are not told. Had it been my programme, I would certainly have interviewed their legal team.
Meanwhile, in between each of these bits of the programme, there are shots of traffic on Bristol’s roads, sometimes speeded up, and shots of DCI Pook driving her car and talking to the camera… often with tense music playing which is totally out of place.
The search of the family home yields half a dozen plastic bags full of papers, but the only possibly incriminating item found is a phone number on a small bit of paper stuck behind a picture hanging on a wall. The phone number turns out to be the father’s phone number, however, not incriminating at all. How disappointing for the police, who still assert that if you hide something behind a picture frame like that, it is usually incriminating in some way. DCI Pook is not discouraged though. She explains that you rarely get one big piece of evidence in a case, as happens on TV. So they are cracking on.
It is time for the second examination of the girl’s genitals, by the “expert”. This examination found her genitals to be completely intact, with no evidence of any injury or FGM. We learn this indirectly through watching DCI Pook listening to the expert on the phone. The expert appears to apologise for disappointing her, and we hear DCI Pook say (in a very disappointed voice) that it was OK, never mind, the expert was just doing her job.
After she hangs up the phone, DCI Pook doesn’t say: “Isn’t it wonderful that this little girl has no evidence of any injury!” No, she says this news is a disaster for the police, and one of her male officers agrees. It seems they really wanted this little girl to have had FGM. DCI Pook looks straight into the camera and says: “This is a hammer blow to our case… I’m disappointed because I think we won’t get justice for this little girl.”
Oh, it seems that in spite of this phone call she remains convinced that FGM has happened to this child! What did the expert say to make her think so? DCI Pook tells us that the expert’s written report of her examination states that the lack of genital evidence may indicate that any injury may have healed. I would have liked to see the report myself, however, as this beggars belief.
But meanwhile, DCI Pook is good to go again, though she needs to find something to “strengthen the case”. The girl’s mother’s cell phone provides it, as noted earlier. They find a text and a phone number of a man whom the mother says has recently circumcised one of her sons. When she is asked if she has also had her daughter circumcised, she says “No comment”. Of course, if someone says “No comment” instead of yes or no, the assumption is that they are guilty. Does this prove they are? No. The programme does not report whether the son is examined for evidence of recent circumcision, surely an extraordinary omission. Nor does it say whether the alleged circumciser, whose evidence would surely have been key in this case, was found and interviewed. This is even more extraordinary.
At this point in the programme, we learn that “the evidence” has been submitted to the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) to see if they think it is enough for criminal charges to be brought. After more speeded up footage of Bristol, of boats on the river this time, and to increasingly loud tense music, we learn that the CPS has given permission for a charge of child cruelty against the father to be brought and for “allowing or arranging for [the child] to have FGM”. They give permission for the father to be arrested and charged. If found guilty, we are told, he faces up to 10 years in prison.
When the court date is set, DCI Pook tells the camera, some of the Somali community have been heard to say they may organise a protest. Who has reported this to her is unstated, but the implication is that someone has been monitoring the Somali community’s response and reporting to the police. DCI Pook expresses concern that her witness, the taxi passenger, may be threatened, and she is shown talking to him on the phone to get reassurance that this has not in fact happened.
he next thing covered by the programme, although far too briefly, is when the Bristol Crown Court hears the evidence. The courtroom is packed. DCI Pook thinks this is mainly journalists, which she thinks indicates the importance of the case. However, the outcome is not at all what she is looking for. After what seems to be a very short space of time, the judge questions inconsistencies in the main witness’s statement and the evidence is described as “beginning to unravel”. The judge concludes that on the basis of the existing evidence, he would direct the jury to acquit the defendant. The programme tells us that the judge found the evidence deeply troubling and “wholly inconclusive at the highest”. She reports that the judge describes the equipment used to examine the little girl the first time as being 15 years out of date (what equipment was this, I want to know!) and that the photographs taken at that time were so blurry as to be of no use clinically or forensically as evidence. The main witness, though honest, the judge believes, had been influenced by his role in the charity Integrate. The CPS accepts the judge’s decision, but they also defend themselves by saying they thought there had been sufficient evidence to prosecute and that it was in the public interest to do so. Thus, the CPS also seems to have learned nothing from two previous failures, the first of which was comparable to this case.
And thus, if we forget the child and her parents for a minute, there is total self-justification all around. Thank heavens for the competence of the judge.
The programme returns to DCI Pook, now sitting by the river, who claims this is all part of the job. She is shown justifying herself to the media, and then says to the camera: “There were some evidential difficulties, we never denied that…”. She remains firm, however, that in spite of the negative impact on the family and the community, the police had a job to do and they did it. She says they have children to protect and that’s what they were doing. But were they, in this case? I don’t think so.
As DCI Pook walks away from the camera, the reporter says the police have had difficulty prosecuting anyone successfully because young victims keep silent – thereby implying that the child in this case had been silenced or was lying. This is frankly outrageous. “Victims” who are old enough to understand what has happened to them are not keeping silent. Yet it seems that no one involved in this criminal investigation or in making this TV programme thinks it is even remotely possible that the child concerned had never had FGM, in spite of the lack of evidence and the judge’s unequivocal assessment of the situation, which the programme corroborates in spite of itself. I’m left speechless. The programme closes with a report that yet another FGM case was due to be heard in London in the third week of March 2018.
And so it was.
This most recent case was heard at the Old Bailey in London, ending on 22 March in an acquittal. Here is how the Mail Online reported it in cringe-making language:
“The 50-year-old man, who cannot be named to protect the identity of the child, was cleared of two charges of FGM, alternative charges of wounding with intent and child cruelty… The defendant had been accused of twice arranging for someone to go to the family’s home in south London to cut the young girl with a razor as she lay on a mat in the hallway. The girl said she cried in pain and begged for it to stop but her father just encouraged the cutter, jurors were told. The child could not recall the identity of the person who allegedly subjected her to the ordeal twice… The prosecution said it did not happen for cultural or family reasons, but as a punishment. The allegations came to light after the girl told a friend, whose mother contacted Childline.”
I was unable to attend this trial and no one has covered it in a TV programme (yet). Here are the only other things I have found about it in the Guardian: During an interview in July last year, the daughter, now aged 16, said she had been subjected to FGM twice between 2009 or 2010 and 2013. On each occasion she claimed she was made to lie on a mat in the hallway of her home, naked from the waist down. Jurors also heard that she could not identify the cutter but said she recalled her father “egging the person on”.
The Guardian said the father was a 50-year-old solicitor and a Catholic. He was accused in court of being violent towards his children as well. His defending counsel said the divorce of the girl’s parents had led the mother to turn the children against him, and that they had rewritten their own histories as a result. Oddly, the Guardian reported: “The court heard the girl had been cut as a form of punishment after stealing money from the family home.”
As part of her defence of the father, Kate Bex QC, suggested that FGM was “predominantly perpetrated by female cutters on women” for reasons including “purification, honour and social acceptance”. But it is not true that only women do the cutting; it is also known to be done by men. The QC also apparently claimed the father could not have been responsible for the FGM because he was a Catholic, yet that is irrelevant. FGM is a traditional cultural practice and while some people claim it is an Islamic practice, those who have studied religious texts and history have shown it is not. Moreover, while FGM is found in some predominantly Muslim countries, it is not found in others, while it is found in certain predominantly Christian countries, in the Middle East and North Africa and also in sub-Saharan Africa and parts of Asia. Yet these two claims by the QC were reported by the Guardian to be (among) the reasons why the father was acquitted.
Evidence appears to have been submitted to the court that examination of this girl showed she had actually had her genitals cut in some way. But as the father denied arranging it and the girl had no memory of who had done it to her on either occasion, and no news report mentions further evidence, the father was acquitted. The Guardian says the jury deliberated for more than six hours before finding him not guilty of two counts of FGM, two alternative counts of wounding with intent and three counts of cruelty to a child. It seems that even though FGM was done, and perhaps more abuse, who had actually done it was not known. Why the father was not found guilty of anything is unclear, though it seems it was his word against his daughter’s. Without having heard the trial, however, it is impossible to know, and speculation is useless.
The four cases have one thing in common. There was insufficient or no evidence presented, and there was an absence of credible witnesses or corroborating statements. In three of the four cases, no genital evidence of FGM was found either. Hence, it can be concluded that these four cases were all doomed to fail.
Moreover, limited knowledge of English among those put on trial was recognised in interrogations of them through the use of interpreters, but this was not properly taken into account as a complicating factor in two of the four cases. Perhaps most importantly, in three of the four cases one onlooker reported someone they thought was suspicious to the police. I believe that the way the police and some anti-FGM activists are presenting this situation, as illustrated in the Channel 4 programme, it sounds like a witch hunt and the consequences for the communities affected and the children concerned are being swept aside in the fervour of wanting to find someone to hold responsible.
Lastly, although no one has yet publicly questioned whether the examination of the genitals of babies and small children for FGM is a violation of those children’s rights to privacy and bodily integrity, I am absolutely convinced it is. I am aware that this is also an issue with accusations of sexual abuse and rape of children, which I cannot comment on, but it would appear that the people who have carried out FGM examinations seem to be anything but experts.
The Guardian article ends with a quote from Leethen Bartholomew, the head of the National FGM Centre, which includes this statement: “The effects of FGM have a lifelong impact on survivors, both physically and psychologically, so it is vital support is in place for her for as long as she needs it.” This makes it seem that women who have had FGM are incapable of living their lives on their own two feet. It is the sort of statement that fuels extremist responses.
Criminalising FGM has stigmatised whole communities in the UK, such as the Somalian community. FGM has been falsely identified as an Islamic practice, thereby contributing to the stigmatisation of the religion and those who practise it as barbaric, alongside the link to terrorism. People who believe some form of FGM is necessary in order to remain part of their community are seen as monsters. Even the use of a pinprick to replace actual genital cutting, a positive sign that the practice is being transformed into something symbolic but not damaging, is still condemned as horrific and an abuse. When mothers argue that it is the only way their daughters will be accepted as marriageable, in a community where marriage is critical to belonging, this should not be seen as violence for its own sake but as a patriarchal demand that must be challenged among both men and women. Meaning that the way to try to prevent it should not be the use of criminal law.
There have been exaggerated claims of FGM prevalence in the UK, without any distinction between those adults who may have been cut in their home countries as children before coming here, and the completely unknown prevalence in children today who were born here. Health professionals are required to act like the police and to question women patients with girl children, on the assumption that their nationality/background is enough to indicate their children are at risk. Although no one has yet been identified as having done even one cut on one little girl in this country, there is an assumption put about that it is not only happening, but happening widely. All this is indicative that the practice has been demonised in many people’s minds.
I believe it is past due time to give serious reconsideration to how FGM is dealt with and perceived in the UK, and to finding ways of addressing it completely differently. The communities concerned need to have the leadership in this – for example, community-led educational information, based on the understanding of women who have experienced FGM and their families as to why they should not make their daughters and grand-daughters go through it too. Moreover, communities where FGM is/was practised should not be described individually or collectively as uncivilised, abusers or criminals by anti-FGM activists. That is racist.
In a paper I published in 2015, I called for the health consequences of FGM to be addressed because these are what women with FGM have asked for help with. A study among midwives in Belgium, published in Midwifery in 2014, found that the most common complications midwives said women sought help for were: psychological problems (63.1%), chronic pain (32.3%), sexual problems (30.8%), recurrent urinary tract infections or incontinence (24.6%), fistula formation (13.8%) and bleeding (9.2%). Complications in pregnancy and childbirth have been described in the UK as well. Practical help with these sorts of problems are a much more supportive way to address this issue with affected women. Health professionals need training to do so.
The police and the criminal justice system are not the answer.
See my previous writing on this issue which covers the first two cases that took place in the UK:
Reflections on the recent arrest in London of two people for female genital mutilation (FGM). Berer Blog, 14 April 2014.
Acquittals in the FGM case in London: justice was done and was seen to be done, but what now? Berer Blog, 10 February 2015.
The history and role of the criminal law in anti-FGM campaigns: Is the criminal law what is needed, at least in countries like Great Britain? Reproductive Health Matters 2015;23:145-157. https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1016/j.rhm.2015.10.001
04/03/2018 Comments Off on Letter to the Editor, The Guardian, 4 March 2018
The article “Sex workers in Haiti speak out on aid agency scandal” (1 March 2018, p.41) is very poor journalism in that it mixes together issues that don’t belong together. Firstly, while it points out that poverty and loss of family in Haiti left many women with no option but to sell sex for a living, this is not a new problem for poor women in Haiti, and it certainly did not start with the 2010 earthquake, let alone with the arrival of aid workers. Secondly, aid workers have been working in Haiti for decades.
Thirdly, the article appears to make the assumption that aid workers, who may spend years in a country, have no right to have sex – with anyone – while they are there. Indeed, the first half of the article is only about the fact that some aid workers are having sex with sex workers and paying above the national rate for it. This is not at all what this scandal is about.
Only after four columns of text does the article finally mention what the headline says it is about – that some “foreign workers” have been seen to ask for sex in exchange for supplies, and that a 2015 UN report found that “members of its peacekeeping mission in Haiti traded sex for aid with more than 225 women between 2008 and 2014”. Is this new news from this journalist? No.
After that, the article does not present any new evidence of this abuse of power. Instead, it reports that selling sex is illegal in Haiti and describes some personal experiences of sex workers that are unremarkable and irrelevant to the scandal. There is not one word more on whether staff of aid agencies in Haiti are abusing their power by trading supplies for sex, nor if so, how many, when or where. Yet the future of Oxfam and other aid agencies hangs in the balance. In the absence of actual evidence, the headline is false and misleading, and the article should never have been published.
Response to “Progesterone for preventing pregnancy termination after initiation of medical abortion with mifepristone”: what’s the real point here?
22/02/2018 Comments Off on Response to “Progesterone for preventing pregnancy termination after initiation of medical abortion with mifepristone”: what’s the real point here?
Letter to the Editor of the European Journal of Contraception & Reproductive Health Care, by Marge Berer
Received 04 Jan 2018, Accepted 23 Jan 2018, Published online: 19 Feb 2018
In your recently published article “Progesterone for preventing pregnancy termination after initiation of medical abortion with mifepristone”,  the cases of three women who changed their minds about going through with an abortion after taking the mifepristone pill are presented with the aim of encouraging further research as to whether progesterone treatment is effective in reversing the effects of the mifepristone. Interest in the topic has arisen among people who appear to be anti-abortion and whose main purpose appears to be to find a clinical means to stop abortions already in process from taking place. In focusing on efforts to rescue the embryo, however, the authors, the editors and the reviewers all ignored the pregnant women and the reasons for their actions in this situation as well as the behaviour of the health care professionals.
What is striking about all three of the cases described is how quickly, and in two of the three cases, how immediately the women changed their minds and sought “reversal” of the mifepristone. This raises two quite different sets of questions about the behaviour of the health professionals involved that the report does not consider or answer. Firstly, were the providers of the pills not aware of what must have been quite serious ambivalence and conflicting feelings about the abortion in these women, and if not, why not? Surely it is part of their professional remit to ask the woman if she is sure of her decision, and if she is uncertain, advise her to wait to take the pills until she is sure. Secondly, did those same health professionals while they were handing over the pills say or do anything to upset the women, such as condemning them for seeking abortion or showing them their scan or nasty visuals of chopped up fetuses, as anti-abortion people often try to do, in order to discourage them from going ahead, which then led them to change their minds so abruptly?
And what about the women concerned? It is well known that a proportion of women who make a clinic appointment for a surgical/aspiration abortion do not turn up for the procedure because they have changed their minds, and that they may or may not return later. I well recall a now retired Ob-Gyn in the UK saying the proportion was around 10%, though that was many years ago.
In any case, in whatever the proportion of women who do so, wavering and a change of mind about whether to continue or end an unplanned pregnancy is not uncommon and may happen more than once in both directions before a woman ever seeks an appointment. Hence, I would argue that there is a far better way to address the fact that some women may change their minds, which takes into account all the women who opt for medical abortion pills to end a pregnancy. The fact is, women have a right to feel ambivalent and change their minds, and they should therefore be in complete control over whether and when they take the pills – instead of having to take them in front of a health professional at the health professional’s convenience.
In other words, all women opting for medical abortion should be able to use both the mifepristone and the misoprostol pills at home, in their own time, where they can change their minds (or not) as often as they need to, and only use the pills (or not) when they are sure of their decision. Then the search for an antidote to mifepristone would be unnecessary.
The publication of this article also raises issues about the role of editorial and peer review in the face of anti-abortion efforts to dress up their political aims as science. The authors of the paper should not have been allowed to ignore the situation of the women whose histories it presents, or the reasons for their change of mind, or what role the providers of the pills might have played in their doing so and in supplying the progesterone. Allowing these crucial aspects to be ignored was a failure of the editorial and peer review process and resulted in giving the paper the credibility of scientific publication when its underlying aim was to promote a way to stop abortions.
No potential conflict of interest was reported by the author.
- Garratt D, Turer JV. Progesterone for preventing pregnancy termination after initiation of medical abortion with mifepristone. Eur J Contracept Reprod Health Care. 2017;22:472–475.
18/06/2017 Comments Off on Abortion and Human Rights: Health & Human Rights Special edition Vol.19, No.1, June 2017
This is a special edition of the HHRJ Journal on one of the key topics of the Campaign – abortion law and policy and the value of human rights in seeking to improve policy and practice. Being one of the three guest editors for this edition has been an important part of my Campaign work for the past year. I hope you find the papers valuable. Marge
le of contents and all papers are at:
All the papers are open access.
I especially recommend the following papers:
DISCUSSION Abortion Law and Policy Around the World: In Search of Decriminalization Marge Berer HTML | PDF
Regulation of Conscientious Objection to Abortion: An International Comparative Multiple-Case Study
Wendy Chavkin, Laurel Swerdlow, and Jocelyn Fifield HTML | PDF
Pregnancy and the 40-Year Prison Sentence: How “Abortion is Murder” Became Institutionalized in the Salvadoran Judicial System
Jocelyn Viterna and Jose Santos Guardado Bautista
HTML | PDF
Pregnancies and Fetal Anomalies Incompatible with Life in Chile: Arguments and Experiences in Advocating for Legal Reform
Lidia Casas and Lieta Vivaldi
HTML | PDF
Legal Knowledge as a Tool for Social Change: La Mesa por la Vida y la Salud de las Mujeres as an Expert on Colombian Abortion Law
Ana Cristina González Vélez and Isabel Cristina Jaramillo
HTML | PDF
Macro- and Micro-Political Vernaculizations of Rights: Human Rights and Abortion Discourses in Northern Ireland
Claire Pierson and Fiona Bloomer
HTML | PDF
10/06/2017 Comments Off on Journal and conference announcements bombarding my email addresses: what’s an author to do?
When open access journals first came onto the scene, I was really worried about the various ways they would change the journal publication landscape and practice. More importantly than anything else, I felt it was unfair and inequitable to charge authors to have their papers published so that I, as a reader, could get access to them free. On the other hand, I have grown to like the idea a great deal, in that I began to feel entitled to access to articles and annoyed when I couldn’t get them. And there are some journals, I have no idea how many, that waive the open access fee for a certain number of global south authors so as not to exclude them from publishing. But I remain concerned that this will only be available to a few and that all the work that was done to open the door to publication to them will be undone as more seek a waiver.
To address the threat to equity of access for global south and individual authors, the compromise we negotiated with Elsevier for RHM when I was still the editor was a decent one – articles were behind a subscription paywall for one year, and then became open access. The journal paid for publication and for subscriptions for its global south readers, who were the great majority of readers, while authors did not have to pay. This meant both that authors who could not afford the open access fees would not be discriminated against nor would they lose the opportunity to publish, while readers too got access, including those who could not or would not pay the subscription, even if it took a year. But this was an unusual deal and as far as I know, it has not been much replicated.
What I did not expect, but what has taken place to an alarming extent, is that open access has become big business. Apparently bogus journals are seeking to fleece unsuspecting authors of their money by offering to publish their work. If what comes into my inbox and my spam box is any indication, such journals have been launched by the cartload. I am being bombarded on an almost daily basis with requests to publish with one journal or another by submitting a paper. Some of these emails are addressed to me personally and mention a paper I have published previously as the source of their knowledge of me. Others are generic. Still others invite me to review a paper or attend a conference or to serve on a committee for a conference, and some try to sell me scientific equipment of one kind or another. I presume my address is being shared widely to make this happen. Apart from titles that have something to do with women’s sexual and reproductive health, or more commonly obstetrics & gynaecology, the rest, while mostly in the health and medical field, are totally inappropriate for me, as their subject is one I know nothing about. What I find most shocking, however, is that some of them are written in absolutely appalling English. Who they think they are kidding, I don’t know.
In September 2016, I began to collect these emails in a folder, planning to write a blog about them as a scam. I never got around to it until now, so they have piled up since then. They are in my inbox at both my email addresses and in the junk mailbox of both my email addresses. There are hundreds of them. I decided to list them here to show how absurd this has become, or should I say appalling. Many have written more than once, and some, when I do not reply, write again and push me to respond.
Here are several examples:
- Dear Dr. Marge Berer,
How are you? I hope you are healthy and happy. The Merry Christmas Grand Celebration is very keen, for the rewarding start of this special event, I need one praiseworthy manuscript. I realize that best fit manuscript is your transcript only. Hence, I feel honored to invite you for your manuscript submission and I am confident that my expectations on your works will help me to rejoice this event.
I hope to cheer this occasion with your legendary article. Await your reply.
Best Regards, B…G… Journal of Gynecology and Women’s Health (JGWH) 14/12/16
2. Distinguished Dr. Marge Berer,
I recently came across your work titled “The history and role of the criminal law in anti-FGM campaigns: Is the criminal law what is needed, at least in countries like Great Britain?”. As far as I understood, it has been written at the -. Following this, the editorial team of Omniscriptum Publishing Group reaches out to you with a free of charge publishing offer. Briefly speaking, we invite you to publish this work as an independent printed book which will be listed by major libraries and online bookstores. Could you please let us know your thoughts regarding this opportunity? If you would like we can discuss the next steps. I would be happy to answer any questions. 3.
3. …It would be appreciated, if you submit on or before 26thMarch, 2017. If you submit, we will process and publish within 21 days followed by rapid peer review process…
4. Dear Colleague,
Happy International Women’s Day. It’s always been a pleasure and privilege to work with so many female researchers. On the occasion of Women’s Day, Clinical Obstetrics, Gynecology and Reproductive Medicine (COGRM) is providing special concession on the publication fee until 24th March, 2017. Articles submitted before the mentioned date will be published (if accepted after peer-review process) with processing fee of USD 300 instead of USD 890. COGRM follows rapid peer review from the experts throughout the world, which helps us to publish an article within 7-10 days of submission.
Here is a list of all the supposed journals and conferences I have heard from so far (with the number of times an email has been received, e.g. x 4):
Reproductive Immunology x 4
SM Tropical Medicine Journal
SM Journal of Community Medicine
Annals of Community Medicine and Practice
Journal of Neonatal Biology
Austin Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology x 2
Journal of Gynecology and Obstetrics x 2
Global Journal of Medical Research
Trauma and Emergency Care
Journal of Forensic Psychology
Global Women’s Health x 2
HSOA Journal of Reproductive Medicine, Gynaecology & Obstetrics
General Practice 2016
Journal of Family Medicine
Journal of Psychology & Psychotherapy
Andrology & Gynecology: Current Research
Sexual Medicine: Annals of Clinical Case Reports
2016 5th EEM International Conference on Hospitality, Leisure, Sport, Tourism & Education
Family Nursing 2017
Breast Cancer 2017
Journal of Gynecology & Neonatal Biology
Science can be Beautiful
Journal of Nursing & Women’s Healthcare
Reproductive Immunology: Open Access x 3
Hospital Management 2016
Journal of Women’s Health, Issues and Care x 2
Journal of Community and Public Health Nursing x 2
Mental Health 2017 x 2
Nursing Education 2017
Apps Store Now India Development Company
Journal of Modern Physics
Family Practice Special Issue
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Applied Psychology 2017
Call for Participation to the 2nd International Conference on Medicine and Natural Sciences, Albania
5th International Congress of Gynaecology and Obstetrics
Translational Reproductive Biology And Clinical Reproductive Endocrinology
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Health x 2
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Journal of Women’s Healthcare and Wellness
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Dr. Sanchita Roy (email@example.com)
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InTechOpen invites you to write a chapter for a new Open Access book project “Family Planning,” edited by Dr. Zouhair O. Amarin.
Journal of Basic and Clinical Reproductive Science
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Whew!!! I have no idea what to do about this, but it feels like a permanent invasion of my territory and a form of e-trash being dumped on me. I have no idea who to complain to, nor how to stop them coming but will share this blog with the European Association of Science Editors to see if they have some advice or want to let others know this is happening.
16/01/2017 Comments Off on Letter to the editor, Belfast Telegraph, 16 January 2017
Dear Belfast Telegraph,
RE: Suicide risk to woman accused of using poison to have abortion, court hears, by Alan Erwin, 11/01/2017
I find it quaint that you describe the medical abortion pills mifepristone + misoprostol as “poison” in your articles about prosecutions of Northern Irish women, and now a couple, who have used them to induce an abortion. I’m curious to know how often and on what other subjects you adopt such an archaic and inaccurate 19th century term to describe something that is happening today in an entirely new and safe way.
In the 19th century, when the 1861 Offences against the Person Act was passed, covering a wide range of violent crimes, it included as a crime dangerous abortions for which actual poisonous substances were used in desperation, and did kill or injure women. For that time, and those substances, the term was accurate and made sense.
But now, more than 150 years later, we are talking about two medications developed by a bona fide pharmaceutical company, researched in depth over many years since the early 1980s by scientists working with the World Health Organization, who determined the safest and most effective doses and regimens for both medications, both when used together or with misoprostol alone. Placed on the WHO Essential Medicines list. Approved by almost all governments who allow legal abortions. And even being used in Scandinavia almost exclusively for all abortions.
And yet you are still clinging to the term “poison”? How backward-looking! Why? You’re missing the real story here!
Yours sincerely, Marge Berer