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Imprisoned for the crime of being an African woman

The Shifting Sands piece (Injustice arising from pursuit of FGM prosecutions-UK), and Marge Berer’s excellent blog (Prosecution of FGM in the UK: Injustice at the intersection of good public health intentions and the criminal law) discussing in detail the 2019 FGM prosecution and conviction, invite various observations.

Although written in restrained language, Berer’s is a well-reasoned but damning indictment of a trial which has every appearance of being a gross miscarriage of justice caused by ignorance and apparent bias affecting all of the main participants. This view is corroborated by others who attended the trial at London’s Central Criminal Court (Old Bailey).

The context is a societal background of universal brainwashing by the anti-FGM ‘industry’, reciting a narrative constructed in the 1970’s through the blinkered cultural perspective of white, radical feminists. This narrative is exaggerated, largely untrue, and almost irrelevant to the situation in the UK today, yet it continues to be recited verbatim by the mainstream media and accepted uncritically by politicians, state agencies and charities.

This has led to a criminal law which is racist, sexist, hypocritical and intrusive, and a political ‘crusade’ in the form of a frenzied ‘witch-hunt’ to obtain the first conviction for FGM. This has caused enormous social damage to innocent families and their communities. In this case it has destroyed a family and inflicted social harm on both children far greater than any possible consequence of the alleged crime.

Successful proof of a crime normally requires clear evidence of a motive, a ‘weapon’ and an opportunity.  All three of these elements were conspicuously absent in this case.

The Prosecution, presumably desperate to obtain a conviction to justify the political crusade, was highly aggressive and, unable to present specific evidence, resorted to culturally and racially biased character-assassination of the defendant. The Defence appears to have been ineffective, and arguably negligent in not lodging an appeal.

Two young children (a three year-old girl and an eight year-old boy) were repeatedly interrogated over a long period until they finally changed their stories to align with what their interrogators wanted to hear. The boy declined to give his evidence in court.

The Judge admitted evidence brought by the Prosecution which would normally be excluded as highly suspect or irrelevant.

Medical evidence was inconclusive.

The Jury, probably also subconsciously influenced by the insidious anti-FGM narrative, appears not to have understood its duty to convict only if a case is proven beyond reasonable doubt.

The injury to the girl (loss of her inner labia) was little different to cosmetic labiaplasty which is available to white teenage girls on the NHS. There was no suggestion of damage to the girl’s clitoris, which is normally implicated in the most commonly described types of FGM, and lasting consequences are likely to be minimal. Despite this, the mother was sentenced to 14 years, the maximum term allowed. This makes it difficult to avoid a suspicion of extreme bias in favour of the political crusade, with total disregard for the welfare of the girl, the defendant and her wider family.

The Criminal Court proceedings are reminiscent of previous shocking miscarriages of justice:

In Orkney, in the 1990s, allegations of ritualistic satanic abuses led to children being removed from their homes in dawn raids, parents prosecuted and families devastated by what turned out to be nothing more than a figment in the lurid imaginations of a group of social workers and local police officers.

In the early 2000s, mothers Sally ClarkAngela Cannings and Trupti Patel suffered the tragedy of multiple cot deaths. They were prosecuted and imprisoned for murder on the basis of ‘expert’ medical evidence which was later shown to be fundamentally flawed. Despite the absence of evidence of guilt, and without alternative explanations, it was simply assumed that the mother, the person least likely to have harmed the children, was guilty of their murder.

Berer also refers to previous attempts at prosecution which were thrown out of court by either Judge or Jury. Sir James Munby, in his thoughtful judgement in the Leeds case, urged caution in reaching a conclusion which would impose further hardship on implicated children. In contrast, the proceedings described in the Old Bailey trial have characteristics of a ‘kangaroo court’, determined to reach a guilty verdict irrespective of evidence, and to impose the maximum sentence without consideration of its damaging effects on the girl and other innocent parties.

The anti-FGM industry has doubtless been celebrating the imprisonment of this unfortunate woman, using it as a pretext to seek additional public funding to support their interventionist cause. It will be intersting to see whether their celebrations continue when another girl sustains a straddle injury and bleeds to death because her parents, terrified of facing a similar prosecution, do not take her for emergency medical attention.

The woman should be released immediately and the family re-united pending a properly supported appeal or re-trial. The proceedings described gave the mother as little chance of a fair trial as a medieval women suspected of witchcraft being thrown into a pond to see if she would sink or float. She has been sentenced to 14 years in prison for the only crime proven beyond reasonable doubt: that of being an African woman.

UK Somalis ‘racially profiled’ over FGM

By Rachel Stonehouse
Victoria Derbyshire programme Published13 January (BBC News)

Parents are wrongly being arrested and having their children taken into care due to the stigma around female genital mutilation (FGM), members of the UK Somali community have told the Victoria Derbyshire programme. They say figures suggesting tens of thousands of girls are at risk in the UK are inaccurate.

“Social services with the police came to the house, removed our children and arrested my wife. We didn’t know what the allegations were – nobody said anything, nobody asked us anything, it was just really a shock,” said Yusef – not his real name.

The father-of-five said he and his wife had a “good” meeting with their children’s school to tell them the family was relocating to Somaliland for a while.

But four days later the couple were arrested and their children taken separately into foster care, following a safeguarding referral by the school.

They say they were wrongly accused of planning to take their children abroad for FGM.

“Children must be safeguarded – but not if the danger is just assumed,” said Yusef. “They are supposed to verify or investigate it properly, don’t just presume something is going to happen based on someone’s background or ethnicity.”

But police and health workers said safeguarding policies were there for a reason – and protecting children had to be a priority.

‘Huge epidemic’

FGM – intentionally cutting or injuring the female external genitalia for non-medical reasons – is understood to be practised in some African, Asian and Middle Eastern countries.

It is illegal in the UK and carries a sentence of up to 14 years in jail – the first successful prosecution took place last year.

Zainab Nur

Zainab Nur said people in the Somali community were being victimised

In Yusef’s case, the police took no further action and the children were returned.

Slough Children’s Services Trust has now apologised to the family and upheld seven of their complaints, and agreed to support the withdrawal of the FGM Protection Order, if this is supported by both legal advice and the courts.

It said in a statement: “We appreciate that the process of a child being taken into care is always distressing and, unfortunately, due to the nature of safeguarding, can in exceptionally rare cases happen to families where no further action is taken.

“It’s never our intention to cause any family distress, only to prioritise child protection and to work with our partners to avoid the possibility of vulnerable children ‘slipping through the net’.”

Both the police and the Trust said they could not comment on individual cases, but safeguarding was always the number one priority.

UNICEF figures estimate 98% of women and girls in Somalia have undergone FGM. But Somalis living in the UK say this is inaccurate, and means they have attracted particular attention from FGM safeguarding policy.

Research published by City University in 2015 suggested that 144,000 women were at risk of FGM in England and Wales.

Mothers we spoke to in Cardiff said the message from education providers and the media suggested there was a “huge epidemic” of FGM involving their British-born daughters.

Former social worker and Somali campaigner Zainab Nur, from the Hayaat Women Trust, said she knew more than a dozen cases where children were wrongly taken into care because of FGM risk.

“These policies are having a massive impact,” she said. “We’re being victimised, we’re being racially profiled as being at risk of FGM, and it’s affecting us.”

She also says she knows hundreds of cases where families were wrongly being referred to safeguarding.

One mother, Nimo, said she nearly died after undergoing FGM at the age of eight. She says health professionals sometimes made “automatic assumptions” because of her experience.

“I have a diabetic daughter, she had a urine infection and the doctor says to me: ‘Has she had FGM done to her?’ My daughter she didn’t know anything about FGM, she’d never heard of it.

“These things do happen and we get asked because of the children. I was like, ‘Oh my God’, because I haven’t spoken about FGM in a long, long time.”

‘Stigmatise families’

Dr Saffron Karlsen

Dr Saffron Karlsen says Bristol University plans further research on FGM in the UK

Researchers at Bristol University spoke to 30 Somali mothers, fathers and young adults about their experiences with FGM safeguarding services.

Dr Saffron Karlsen said increasingly the evidence suggested it was not as a big a problem as it was assumed to be.

She said: “We want to see an end to FGM but the way the current system is set up appears to penalise and stigmatise innocent families, and families where’s there’s no evidence to suggest…that their children are going to be exposed to FGM.”

Protecting girls

But Janet Fyle, policy adviser at the Royal College of Midwives, said she disagreed with the concerns, and that safeguarding practices were there for a reason.

“Professionals have the right to ask,” she said. “We know FGM is happening in this country under our noses – it is important to focus on this as that is the real issue.

“Talking about this issue of stigma is distracting – the priority needs to be protecting girls.”

A spokesperson from the Home Office’s FGM Unit said “any actions taken by public authorities in relation to suspected FGM are based on evidence.

“We introduced tough safeguarding laws which compel certain professionals to report if they have encountered a potential child victim of FGM, regardless of what community they are from.”

And the National Police Chiefs’ Council said police, health and children’s services had a responsibility to protect young people from harm.

Commander Ivan Balhatchet, lead for female genital mutilation, said: “When people tell us they have concerns for the wellbeing and safety of a child, police will always investigate, as the public would expect.

“There will be cases where people have genuine concerns relating to children and they should always feel able to come forward and speak to police. We will treat each individual case sensitively and confidentially.”

Judging without knowing us

Victim and criminal: stories from Black women who have been stigmatised by the anti-FGM narrative

February 6th marks the 17th anniversary of the United Nation’s International Day of Zero Tolerance for Female Genital Mutilation. (FGM).

The ambitious anti-FGM movement that ensued and which actively operates in the UK and internationally, claims to have made great strides in helping to reduce the incidence of this harmful, traditional practice worldwide. Whilst that reduction is welcome, legislative initiatives, policies, surveillance, awareness – raising, and the drive to prosecute have resulted in some Black and Minority Ethnic Communities (BAME) in the UK being specifically targeted and feeling their effects disproportionately.

On Saturday, 8 February 2020, Hidden Voices UK, hosted a theatrical performance called “Judging without Knowing” at Oxford House in Bethnal Green, East London, followed by a panel and open discussion with over 70 people who attended. It was organised in partnership with Women’s Inclusive Team, TALO, Queen of Sheba International, and Acta Community Theatre Bristol.
The event was one of a number of responses to the 17th anniversary of the UN’s 6 February International Day of Zero Tolerance for Female Genital Mutilation (FGM), and a ground-breaking one

The Play

Judging Without Knowing Us’

Judging Without Knowing Us’ is an original play written and performed by Bristol Somali women. It tells the hitherto unspoken story of women with daughter considered at risk of Female Genital Mutilation/Cutting (FGM/C), and showcases the damage caused by the current obsession with the practice.
The play, was created entirely by Somali women working with actors from Acta Community Theatre, Bristol. It highlights the damage caused by a now common narrative that surrounds FGM in the UK – a combination of victimhood, stigma and criminalisation.

The play depicts how anti-FGC initiatives and interventions in families suspected of carrying out the practice affects them, and encourages the audience to imagine the trauma they experience purely because on their ethnic and cultural backgrounds.

The dominant narrative to date has been one of victimhood, trauma and stigma. But the strong women at the heart of the play, women from the communities who frequently bear the brunt of the narrative that seeks to pre-emptively criminalise them, come out fighting.

The performance puts mothers and daughters at the heart of the issue and shows how women who were “victims of FGM” (mothers who were cut as children, almost all in Somalia in the last century are now primitively criminalised by the assumption that they will have their daughters or granddaughters cut

THE DISCUSSION

There was also an open and rich discussion between the panellists and many well-informed members of the multi-ethnic audience, including women from FGM-affected communities, researchers, health professionals and advocates involved in addressing FGM in diverse ways. It became clear that women and their families and communities are being harassed by “safeguarding”, which is seriously harmful to children when it is not required or justified.

Hidden Voices: The importance of ethnography in FGM storytelling

An extraordinary meeting was held in London on 15 February 2019. At first glance, it appeared to be just another hosted by the School of Oriental and African Studies, London University. But in reality it was the first where activists, community members, practitioners, researchers and members of the public came together to discuss the downsides and flaws of the dominant anti-FGM discourse and to illustrate the problems it generated.

The initiative was the brainchild of Hidden Voices UK, who had invited us to a critical discussion about “the prevailing single narrative which overshadows women who have undergone the act” and “the heavy-handed use of the law”. They also wanted to discuss some of the methods used (or misused) to present a version of reality in which high numbers of girls in the UK and Europe are said to be at risk of FGM, and the illegal activities in regard to it that are supposed to be pervasive among immigrant communities.

The Panel

Five knowledgeable people were introduced who then initiated the conversation. They included:

• Zainab NurHidden Voices UK,

• Nasra Ayub, Lead Outreach Worker, Integrate UK,

• Alison Macfarlane, BA, Dip Stat, CStat, FFPH Professor of Perinatal Health, Centre for Maternal and Child Health Research, City, University of London

• Bríd Hehir, Researcher, blogger and retired health professional

• Brenda Kelly, Consultant Obstetrician, Oxford University Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust, Clinical lead of the Oxford Rose Clinic, a specialist service for women and girls with FGM, and patron of the charity Oxford Against Cutting

The Chair was the BBC’s Africa Editor Mary Harper. She helped ensure that attendees could contribute and be treated with respect, particularly during the few heated moments.

Aspects raised included:

  • Data – how estimates of girls and women who have undergone the practice are calculated as well as those deemed ‘at risk’, and how they are distorted in media reporting
  • UKs legal framework – with reports about how the implementation of harsh protocols can create difficulties during healthcare encounters, and jeopardises the trusting relationship that providers seek to develop with patients (in this case those who have already undergone the act)
  • The flourishing anti-FGM industry – considered worthy of much more critical scrutiny
  • Terminology – particularly the use of the word ‘mutilation’ needs to be considered out of respect for girls and women who have undergone the procedure.

Particular concerns were raised about aspects of the single narrative. For example, irrespective of type or severity, the expectation that the ‘mutilation’ will automatically lead to women having life-long medical complications and sexual problems, tends to dominate. This may lead to women being automatically viewed as victims, with professionals focussing on their rather than their patients priorities. Ironically, women who do not view themselves as victims and have challenged this narrative have been known to be treated sub-optimally.

An experienced activist described how the work to combat the practice in the UK has morphed into activities that have become harmful to the communities. A recurrent theme was how the work of activist, the government and its agencies has led to stigmatisation, race profiling, and discrimination.

Much of the discourse builds on the false belief that FGM is widely practised in the UK, and families from African backgrounds have become particular targets of harsh interventions. A brave young woman from an activist organisation explained how her organisation, while working to raise awareness about FGM, tries via school campaigns, to do this in a way that won’t lead to stigmatisation of girls from these communities.

Questions about the information that is, could or should not be shared with school children in regard to FGM led to a particularly constructive discussion between the panellists and the audience. Some thought that specific, age appropriate information about ‘FGM’ should be given to all children. Others disagreed, suggesting that general genital education was more appropriate because it wouldn’t stigmatise minority groups. Many thought that detailed and descriptive FGM narratives and visuals should be avoided at all costs. Others questioned the need for educating children about FGM at all because it fuels the questionable premise that all children born to mothers who have undergone the practice are ‘at risk’.

The atmosphere was electric at times. That the meeting was characterised by frank conversations, with contributions from a variety of perspectives and critical positions, was to the Chair’s credit.

If the intention was to open up space for a new public conversation about FGM – a space that would allow more and different women to talk about their experiences and views of female circumcision which challenge the dominant discourse – this was an excellent start. That it was a public meeting with attendees and contributors from all walks of life helped make it unique. Many lingered to chat and network afterwards.

Six years ago, a multidisciplinary network of researchers from three continents tried to break through the dominant single narrative of FGM in this article published in The Hastings Centre Report: “Seven things to know about female genital surgeries in Africa”. More articles like that, and more meetings like this are needed to successfully challenge today’s narrative.

The unique aspect of the London meeting – something that makes it truly historical – is that such a large variety of participants: activists, community members, academics, practitioners, community workers and members of the public joined forces to open up room for a more nuanced and reality-oriented conversation about the circumcision of girls in our societies, and about the detrimental consequences of legislation, inflated figures and hyperbole.

Sara Johnsdotter is Professor of Medical Anthropology, Malmö University, Sweden.

Matthew Smith’s report of the event can be accessed here.

How an FGM trial became a trial about witchcraft

Background

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,[1],[2] 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.[3]

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

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.[4] 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.[5] 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.[6] Only the paediatric forensic pathologist had never seen a labial FGM-type cut. The others had a lot of experience. But…

The evidence

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.[7]

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”.[7]

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.[8]

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.[9] 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[10] 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?

Final thoughts

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,[11] 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[12] are a good example of the way forward.

FURTHER READING

See my blog for articles on previous FGM trials, the blog A miscarriage of justiceby 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.

REFERENCES

[1] “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.

[2] Brenda Kelly, Filsan Ali. The narrative around FGM needs to move beyond prosecution. BMJ Blogs, 15 February 2018.

[3] Marge Berer. 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(20).

[4] I will call them mother, father, girl and boy here, as nothing can be published that might identify them, by court order.

[5] 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.

[6] The haematoma apparently did not count.

[7] Evening Standard, by Katy Clifton, 1 February 2019.

[8] I will not give details of the source (a 2016 Demographic & Health survey) because it identifies her country.

[9] Issues of English as a second language, translation and interpreters in this trial also deserve examining.

[10] This is not applied to criminal proceedings in the guidance.

[11] FGM has stopped in Wales but women still ‘persecuted’, by Sarah Hibbard. BBC Wales News, 12 June 2018.

[12] NHS Specialist Services for Female Genital Mutilation. NHS England, October 2017.