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Britain’s first FGM prosecution is all too politically convenient

On 21 March, the Crown Prosecution Service announced the first prosecution of a person accused of female genital mutilation (FGM) in the UK. Dr Dhanuson Dharmasena, a doctor at the Whittington Hospital…

The Whittington Hospital, where the first UK doctor to be charged with FGM worked. PA

On 21 March, the Crown Prosecution Service announced the first prosecution of a person accused of female genital mutilation (FGM) in the UK. Dr Dhanuson Dharmasena, a doctor at the Whittington Hospital in London, will be prosecuted under Section 1(1) of the Female Genital Mutilation Act (2003).

Dr Dharmasena is accused of re-stitching a women’s vagina at her request after she gave birth. The nature of this prosecution has widely been discussed and criticised – but the significance of the announcement’s timing seems to have been overlooked.

The United Nations special rapporteur on violence against women, Rashida Manjoo, began an official visit to the UK on 31 March. Her visit came on the back of a highly critical report, published by the UN Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) in July 2013, which highlighted the UK’s failure to progress on many issues pertaining to violence against women.

Accordingly, the government wants to demonstrate that it’s taking violence against women seriously, and implementing strategies that will initiate real change. FGM laws have existed in this country since 1985, yet this first prosecution was only announced last month. The announcement was made by the director of public prosecutions, guaranteeing it significant media attention. Tellingly, the event occurred just ten days before the UN expert’s visit – raising questions about the motivations behind it.

Recall that in August 2013, the UK was visited by another UN special rapporteur, Raquel Rolnik, whose remit covers the right to adequate housing. The government and media response to her visit has widely been criticised by other countries and by the UN. Rather than taking on board the report and recommendations, the British government and media sought to undermine her with personal and professional slights.

Clearly, a different strategy is being adopted for Rashida Manjoo. Almost no media attention has been given to her visit – other than a short Daily Mail article – and there has been no prominent government comment. Violence against women is a major concern in this country, and has been the subject of various recent public campaigns. Following on from the CEDAW report that identified forced marriage, domestic violence, rape convictions, “honour killings”, and a specific recommendation that the CPS “effectively prosecute” FGM, The Guardian newspaper, among others, has undertaken extensive investigative journalism to highlight these issues.

These campaigns are backed by a wide spectrum of activists, academics, and human rights charities and have emphasised the government’s role in undermining systems for protecting women. This has included cutting funding for women’s shelters, failure to address low prosecution rates for rape, the high rate of domestic murder and the inadequacy of FGM and forced marriage laws. Undoubtedly, all of this attention, combined with Rashida Manjoo’s visit, has played a significant role in the decision to prosecute Dharmasena for FGM now, and to make the case a major public issue.

Get real

But the government’s strategy is not simply about engaging with UN experts. The announcement of this prosecution ties in with the government’s broader strategies to appeal to female voters. The main political parties are locked in a battle for women’s votes. A range of measures designed to appeal to UK women have been promoted during the current parliament, including the crackdown on porn, increased levels of childcare support, and the provision of free school meals for infants. David Cameron has advisors dedicated to devising “women-friendly” policies.

Yet all of this is taking place against a background of significant criticism of the weak representation of women in the cabinet, and the heavy burden women are bearing in the face of austerity measures.

The prosecution of Dharmasena might be seen as a tentative step forward in terms of addressing a very real problem of FGM within the UK, but it seems likely that it was also a good opportunity to make a political point, rather than a real reflection of systematic change. The UN rapporteur should be expected to see through this. During her visit, Manjoo has met and hosted teleconferences with government officials, grassroots organisations and victims of gender-based violence. Her preliminary report is due on April 15; it is unlikely to be swayed by well-timed headlines over and above the concerns of the women and campaigners she has met.

It is telling that the government has failed to address the significant structural problems that contribute to these issues and instead has resorted to tokenism. It has been left to the former head of the CPS, Kier Starmer, to launch a political campaign seeking more prosecutions for violence against women, because he was unable to secure these changes while in his former job.

Meanwhile, domestic violence is estimated to affect 1.2m British women per year, and well over 10,000 women live at high risk of death or serious injury at the hands of their partners. Two women are killed per week at the hands of a current or former partner, yet funding cuts to specialist domestic violence services threaten to worsen the situation further. The number of girls at risk of FGM in the UK is estimated to be at 20,000 per year, yet only one prosecution has been announced.

If the government wants to win the support of the UN special rapporteur, and of female voters, it will have to do better than media posturing.

Join the conversation

9 Comments sorted by

  1. Thomas Goodey

    Researcher

    This is a ridiculous and oppressive prosecution, a travesty of what should be happening, and it will collapse before it gets to court.

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    1. James Marlin

      Layabout

      In reply to Thomas Goodey

      I agree. My biggest problem is this.
      "Dr Dharmasena is accused of re-stitching a women’s vagina at her request after she gave birth"

      This is not a case of forced female circumcision or genital mutilation. As far as I know it's a common procedure for women when they have natural childbirth that results in excessive tearing to have it repaired.

      Not only is it posturing, it's a slap to the face of women that have been the victims of FGM. It's a safe way to appear to be taking the problem seriously without upsetting any minorities that practice FGM as part of their culture. This is a cowards way of dealing with the problem. No correction, it's a politician's way, but that's pretty much the same thing any way you slice it.

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    2. Thomas Goodey

      Researcher

      In reply to James Marlin

      The argument is about how much this doctor re-stitched the vulva (not the vagina; the old women can't get at that). He will argue that the proper medical thing to do was to stitch up everything that was torn, thus restoring the original nearly-fully-sewn-up state. The prosecutors will argue that the proper medical thing to do was to stitch up the vulva to approximate a normal human vulva, with various mutilated bits flopping off, obviously.

      The Raelian FGM restoration foundation Clitoraid should…

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    3. James Marlin

      Layabout

      In reply to Thomas Goodey

      Mr. Goodey you do like to troll don't you ;o)

      My last statement was not about the visit, it was about the problem of FGM and how they really don't want to deal with it because of the fall out it could create. As well I don't live in the UK, so I'm going by what I read which is as stated the stitching after the birth which as far as I know is common after childbirth for any viganal tearing that might of happened. If the women in question was in fact a victim of FGM before the birth and requested to be returned to the former state, than I'm at fault for interpreting the scant information supplied incorrectly and I apologize for that fact.

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    4. Thomas Goodey

      Researcher

      In reply to James Marlin

      No, I do not troll. I express my genuine opinions. Your statement is rude and offensive.

      Anyway, I was agreeing with you! What's not to like?

      What visit? Do you mean, the visit of the UN rapporteuse? But that's central to the discussion. What the article is asserting is that her upcoming visit is forcing "them" to appear to be doing something to curb FGM, although "they" don't want to. So they are attacking a side target who is completely blameless.

      Since you have not read about this case…

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    5. Peter Nkosi

      Retired

      In reply to Thomas Goodey

      I am posting from Africa, in a country which does NOT practice FGM. I am trying to write this post in a PC way to avoid unintentional any offence, or breach of posting rules.

      From the names of the two men charged, and their photographs, it is clear that they do not belong to the same something-group as the indigenous population. To try to understand this issue better I have been trying to find out from the internet what is is/are. The mainstream media are clearly shying away from disclosing it…

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    6. Peter Nkosi

      Retired

      In reply to Peter Nkosi

      OK, I have confirmed for myself that the Doctor is from where-you-said, belonging to the majority something-group.

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    7. Thomas Goodey

      Researcher

      In reply to Peter Nkosi

      I do not understand what you are wriggling around about. You need merely go by the names, which are very characteristic. Dr. Dharmasena is obviously a Singalese-type Sri Lankan, so he is a member of the dominant majority in his country of origin but a member of a minority in the UK. (FGM is not practiced in Sri Lanka.) And the other man involved, Hasan Mohamed, is obviously a Muslim, because that is a Muslim name, but we have not been told what his race is - it could be almost anything. He is being charged with encouraging FGM and aiding and abetting Dr Dharmasena. We have not been told anything about his connection with the case; we can guess, but it would be invidious to do so. I think we had better wait for the court case - not that it will ever come to court; it will be dropped, of course.

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    8. Peter Nkosi

      Retired

      In reply to Thomas Goodey

      Thanks for taking the time to reply to my post. With hindsight, I wish that I had not bothered you.

      I am wriggling around because I am posting from a country in Africa which is not in the First World. I am not familiar with your customs and politically correctness as practiced there. I am never sure what can be misconstrued as being offensive. I tried to say something like that in my first post, but it seems that I failed to get the message across.

      "Dr. Dharmasena is obviously a Singalese-type Sri Lankan"

      Not obvious to a simple villager like me!

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