Reflections on the recent arrest in London of two people for female genital mutilation (FGM)

14/04/2014 § Leave a comment

Marge Berer, RHM Editor

Last month an obstetrician-gynaecologist and the husband of a patient at the Whittington Hospital in London were charged with the crime of female genital mutilation (FGM) because of a procedure carried out on a woman, following childbirth, who had previously experienced FGM.

This is the first prosecution for FGM in the UK since it was criminalised in 1985 and the law further amended in 2003. This fact may suggest that the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) have been too circumspect before now in bringing a prosecution. On the other hand, do they think the current case is watertight, given that the woman will have needed some kind of repair following delivery of her baby? Part of the problem is that the lack of previous prosecutions and recent highly emotional and effective campaigning by a new generation of anti-FGM activists may have put pressure on them to bring the only case they felt had a chance of success, even one which may not stand up to legal or clinical scrutiny further down the line.

The decision to make the arrests was celebrated by veteran anti-FGM campaigner Efua Dorkenoo, who was reported on the website of the International Federation of Gynecologists and Obstetricians to have “welcomed news of the first prosecution relating to the procedure in the UK”. At the same time, an article by Sarah Ditum in the New Statesman on 24 March, asked why the first prosecution took 30 years since the law was first passed. Neither woman addressed the details of the actual case, which were unknown, nor whether it was the right place to start.

However, a letter from a group of distinguished, senior obstetrician-gynaecologists, published in the Guardian soon after the arrests, said that for pregnant women whose external genitals had been cut and stitched together, leaving only a small hole for urination and menstruation, defibulation (that is, opening the stitching), is required for them to give birth, and then after the birth, some form of repair is also required. The Crown Prosecution Service are well aware of this, and that the law exempts such repair from prosecution. Indeed, its website with legal guidance on FGM states:

“No offence is committed by a registered medical practitioner who performs a surgical operation necessary for a girl’s physical or mental health… but only if the operation is on a girl who is in any stage of labour, or has just given birth, and is for purposes connected with the labour or birth.”

While it is also “an offence under the Act for any medical professional (or anyone, for that matter) to reinfibulate or close a woman after she has been defibulated during labour for childbirth” this is diffferent from needing to repair the tissue itself. According to this, obstetricians and midwives should have nothing to fear from providing necessary treatment to a woman who has been deinfibulated before or during labour and needs some kind of suturing afterwards. The signatories to the Guardian letter believe that this prosecution, which may be about this very kind of repair, will create a climate of fear for obstetricians and tie their hands when it comes to providing necessary (and sometimes life-saving) care to women who have had FGM in the past.

This case may hinge on whether the procedure carried out was in fact necessary clinical care or actually went further, in particular, by reinfibulating the woman (i.e. sewing her labia together again, effectively reinstating the FGM, which is against the law). This uncertainty suggests that the guidelines (or their interpretation by the CPS) may not sufficiently distinguish between suturing intended to result in reinfibulation, and suturing to prevent bleeding and accelerate healing for a woman whose infibulated vulva has been cut open to make childbirth possible.

The last thing we need in the UK is to obstruct the very medical professionals who have the skills to help pregnant women with the more severe forms of FGM to have their babies safely without resorting to a caesarean section.

For answers, we must await further details of the case. In the meantime, the conflicting reactions of people who are in fact united in their concern for women’s health and their opposition to FGM itself, serve to demonstrate what a blunt instrument the law may be when dealing with a practice such as FGM.

Action against FGM has been taking place in almost every country where it is practised for up to 20-30 years now. According to a comprehensive review by UNICEF, published in 2013, signs of change – reduced prevalence, more local opposition, especially among younger people, less damaging forms of FGM being used, including symbolic pricks and nicks in the clitoris − are finally appearing in a growing number of countries. But change has been slow because girls and women who do not have FGM have simply not been marriageable. Prosecution has rarely been tried in spite of laws against FGM in many places, both in Africa and Europe, because it is believed by many that far from stopping the practice, this would only push it underground. A recent RHM article from Tanzania (1) corroborates this, reporting on the claim by several ethnic groups that FGM has had to be continued in spite of the law to prevent a new form of genital infection, not for its own sake.

Prosecution or doing nothing are not the only two options. Calling for mandatory information in sex education classes is a bit difficult when sex education itself is not mandatory, thanks to government fears of conservative criticism. How to educate ourselves more needs to be debated and discussed, and needs to reflect the knowledge and expertise of those within the communities where FGM is practised. For example, the call from activists from those communities to designate FGM as “child abuse” instead of a cultural practice was extremely powerful.

Those activists believe that prosecution is a necessary part of the package of actions to stop FGM. However, it is important that prosecutions do not push the practice further underground or inadvertently have a negative impact on those health professionals whose practice supports women with FGM to come through childbirth safely, or to restore genital health and sexual pleasure in spite of the previous mutilation (2).

Post Script (16th April 2014)

This case was heard at Westminster Magistrate’s Court on 15th April 2014 and was referred to Southwark Crown Court to be heard on the 2nd May.

(1) Ali C, Strømb A. ‘It is important to know that before, there was no lawalawa.’ Working to stop female genital mutilation in Tanzania. Reproductive Health Matters 2012; 20 (40):69-75 Doi: 10.1016/S0968-8080(12)40664-4).1.

(2) Foldès P, Cuzin B, Andro A. Reconstructive surgery after female genital mutilation: a prospective cohort study. Lancet. 2012 Jul 14;380(9837):134-41. doi: 10.1016/S0140-6736(12)60400-0. Epub 2012 Jun 12.

A selection of RHM articles on FGM, labial surgery and cosmetic surgery:

The limited effectiveness of legislation against female genital mutilation and the role of community beliefs in Upper East Region, Ghana

Female genital mutilation/cutting and issues of sexuality in Egypt

Views of women and men in Bobo-Dioulasso, Burkina Faso, on three forms of female genital modification

Labia reduction for non-therapeutic reasons vs. female genital mutilation: contradictions in law and practice in Britain

Genitals and ethnicity: the politics of genital modifications

Cosmetic surgery, body image and sexuality

These topics have been covered extensively in RHM. All RHM papers older than one year are now free to download from RHM-Elsevier.

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