New claims, scant evidence as FGM activists play whack-a-mole

A South Asian woman wearing a dark blue dress stands in front of a projector screen next to a poster from the FGM "Freedom Project" in a school auditorium. Teenage boys and girls in school uniforms with grey blazers sit in the ranks of red seats.
An anti-FGM presentation by the Freedom Project at a school

Last week the number of successful prosecutions for female genital mutilation (FGM) in Britain went from zero in more than 30 years since a specific FGM law was passed, to one. A Ugandan woman convicted of inflicting some form of it on her three-year-old daughter (who, curiously, comes from a tribe, the Buganda, which does not practise FGM, as does her father) was remanded in custody and warned of a lengthy prison term when she returns for sentencing in March. Her partner (who is from Ghana) was acquitted. Jess Phillips, the Birmingham Labour MP, called on Twitter for the conviction to lead to “greater action, education and fear of this brutal crime”. Today, the Victoria Derbyshire programme, which was contacted by the mother who was convicted last week who claimed that social services were “putting lies on her family”, reported new claims by a so-called expert that FGM was increasingly being performed on babies who were too young to go to nursery or school and thus could evade detection. As usual, the story is heavy on emotion and anecdote and light on empirical evidence. (The programme can be seen in the UK here, interspersed with another story about the price of drugs for cystic fibrosis, for the next 29 days; the segment starts about five minutes in.)

Last week’s FGM conviction happened because doctors became aware of the girl’s condition when they were treating her for something or other (they do not say what). It could have been complications from the procedure or it could have come to light when, say, staff had to bathe, change or catheterise her when she was in hospital for an operation and her mother was not present. We would be seeing more situations like this if FGM really were widespread in the UK; quite apart from the fact that some of the procedures carried out on young girls in places like Somalia and Sierra Leone are potentially lethal and even if the cutting was mild, even with the best hygiene in the world, sooner or later someone will develop an infection. It is not something that can be concealed for anything like this long and none of the explanations offered by activists account for why so few cases have come to light in children, only in adults years after the event.

Dr Charlotte Proudman, a barrister and “FGM expert”, claimed that there was “a lot of anecdotal data which shows FGM is now being performed on babies” and, because they were in neither schools nor nurseries, “it’s very difficult for any public authority to become aware”. In one report, in Yorkshire, the child was just a month old and West Yorkshire Police had said, in response to a Freedom of Information request, that a quarter of its FGM reports involved children aged three or under. WYP appear to have refused most FOI requests concerning FGM but did indeed publish some figures (PDF) which indicate that they were aware of cases of FGM in children that age, but most of the cases in the report took place outside of the UK and in one case involving a young child, it was not known whether it took place in the UK. So, this in no way proves that FGM is happening to small children in the UK.

Given the paucity of evidence to support the claim, the rest of the BBC’s report is padded out with old content and follows the familiar pattern of a survivor’s (and well-known activist’s, in this case Hibo Wardere’s) story, a mention of how they do it in France (by subjecting all girls, or is it all girls from families presumed to be that way inclined, to genital examinations on a yearly basis) and an oft-repeated claim about why they have been unable to find any cases, in this case the old saw about “they’re worried about being accused of racism”. FGM has been in the news every couple of months for years, with the reports often lurid and spiced up with racist language such as ‘barbarism’, even in liberal newspapers; the communities affected are often Muslim and are regularly accused in public of all sorts of things from disloyalty to separatism to extremism to terrorism. This is a claim that might have had some truth to it in 1985 but today, it is laughable.

FGM campaigners are playing a game of whack-a-mole; one claim is discredited and they respond with new ones, and as it’s a good human interest story and a good bit of bait for racist politics, the media go along with it every time even when there are obvious holes in the evidence. To reiterate: the idea that several large communities, which are not closed and whose children socialise with others on a daily basis, could continue to uphold a practice like this for 30 years and go undetected for that whole period is preposterous. If it were happening, medical staff would have been dealing with its consequences on a regular basis and there would have been fatalities; we would not be relying on statistics of old cases and on speculation and assumptions. FGM is being used as an excuse to harass and intrude into the lives of minority populations; the obsession is rooted in racism, and it is time for every claim about it from an ‘expert’ not to be considered as news. We do not need greater fear; we need more robust examination of the evidence.

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