Thirty years after first banning the practice, the UK announced last month that it will prosecute its first cases of female genital mutilation (FGM). The Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) stated last week that Dr. Dhanuson Dharmasena will be tried for performing FGM on a patient and Hasan Mohamed will be tried for aiding him. This is a huge breakthrough in the UK, as no case has ever been brought to trial.
According to the statement given by CPS, the crime occurred in December 2012, when a patient of Dr. Dharmasena’s was giving birth. The patient had faced FGM prior, and post-birth, the physician restored the FGM by sewing back up most of her vaginal opening. He was allegedly aided and encouraged by Mohamed.
FGM has been outlawed in the UK since 1985. In 2003, the UK updated the law to criminalize FGM performed on any UK citizen or resident in any country. This was passed in response to the increasingly popular practice of “vacation cutting,” when girls are sent to their home countries to undergo FGM, usually during school vacations. The new law also increased the maximum penalty from five to fourteen years.
Compared to the UK, France has prosecuted a relatively high number of cases: twenty-nine trials have led to 100 convictions in the past three decades. However, doctors in France perform compulsory physical exams, which is a controversial practice. Still, advocates say the occurrence of FGM in France has dropped dramatically as a result of the physical exams as well as educational campaigns in communities where FGM is prevalent.
The US has yet to prosecute a single FGM case despite a federal law banning the practice. In January 2013, the federal FGM law was amended by the Transport for Female Genital Mutilation Act, which prohibits knowingly transporting a girl out of the country for the purpose of undergoing FGM. The Act was designed to address the problem of “vacation cutting”, in which girls living in the United States are taken to their parents’ country of origin (typically during school breaks) to undergo the procedure.
Under the new federal law, anyone found guilty of doing so may be sentenced to up to five years in prison. The AHA Foundation’s founder, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, and our Executive Director specifically consulted with Representative Crowley (NY), a key proponent of the bill, on the serious problem of “vacation cutting.” We lent our support for the amended language contained in the new bill.
Twenty-one individual states also specifically ban the practice. The AHA Foundation has undertaken a campaign to encourage state legislators in the remaining 29 states to pass criminal prohibitions against FGM. We have written model FGM state legislation and have reached out to numerous state legislators to encourage them to introduce it with considerable success:
In February 2012, New Jersey State Senator Loretta Weinberg introduced our model FGM legislation, which was unanimously passed in the State Senate. We continue to reach out to members of the Assembly committee on Women and Children to encourage them to bring this bill up for a vote.
The AHA Foundation worked with Louisiana state legislators to include similar “vacation cutting” provisions recently added to the federal law. In May of 2012, Governor Jindal signed into law a bill criminalizing FGM in the state of Louisiana. The law went into effect August 1, 2012.
In February of 2013, we provided written testimony in support of a proposed FGM bill in Kansas, which includes an extra-territoriality component and other provisions contained in our model legislation. The Bill was passed by the House of Representatives on March 1 and was unanimously passed by the Senate on March 27th. It was signed into law by Governor Brownback on April 10, 2013.
The AHA Foundation is working with Representative Thomas Murt to enact parallel legislation in Pennsylvania, which has no specific law banning the practice. On March 19, 2013, Rep. Murt introduced an FGM bill in the Pennsylvania House. After consulting with the AHA Foundation, the bill included the language of “vacation cutting.” We continue to work with lawmakers to ensure that this law is enacted.
The UK case exemplifies the difficulties facing governments and law enforcement agencies when it comes to prosecuting such a crime. In the announcement of the prosecutions, CPS also explained that it had reviewed several other FGM cases brought to its attention but could not prosecute due to lack of evidence. In another case, a man had called an FGM helpline, confused as to its nature, and asked for help getting his two daughters cut. He could not be prosecuted because FGM must be committed before it can be prosecuted.
In explaining the lack of convictions, some advocates point to the fact that it is difficult for medical professionals to determine when a girl was cut, which means it could be argued in court that the FGM occurred before the victim entered the UK or was a legal UK resident. These difficulties deter prosecuting authorities from taking cases to court.
In some instances, individuals who are in a position to help girls at risk or who have undergone the procedure are hesitant to report FGM because they feel that it is a “cultural” practice that must be respected by outsiders. Girls who have gone through FGM are often reluctant to report the crime themselves. Whether it is the result of fear of retribution, out of loyalty to their family, or simply because they don’t know that help is available to them, they often do not come forward themselves to report the crime or name the perpetrators.
Despite the dearth of prosecutions and convictions for these heinous crimes in both the UK and the US, laws banning the practice of FGM are important. They send a strong message that these abusive practices are not acceptable, are a public health crisis, and will not be tolerated. The laws give reluctant parents who are facing pressure from family members an excuse as to why they are not able to cut their daughters. Girls and women facing FGM or who undergo the procedure are given the message that they can ask for help, and gives them the courage to speak out, raising awareness that this traumatic practice continues.
At the AHA Foundation, we closely follow news of the prosecutions in the UK and around the world with the hope that justice prevails. We are optimistic that the publicity this trial garners will raise awareness that FGM is illegal yet still happening in the UK, as it is in the US, perhaps saving girls who would have otherwise been forced to undergo FGM from facing this clandestine torture.