Update: A 37-year-old woman from east London has become the first person in the UK to be found guilty of FGM, the BBC reports. The Ugandan mother-of-three was found to have used spells and curses aimed at deterring police and social workers from investigating, the trial at the Old Bailey heard. Her 34-year-old partner was acquitted.
This story was originally published on 17th January 2019.
This week, a couple are on trial accused of asking a "witch" to perform female genital mutilation (FGM) on their 3-year-old daughter while they pinned her down at their east London home. On Wednesday, jurors at the Old Bailey heard how the pair, who cannot be named for legal reasons, also tried to cover up their crime with homemade curses.
Prosecutor Caroline Carberry said one of the spells performed by the mother, 37, involved cow tongues with nails and a knife embedded in them, while another involved putting the names of police officers, a social worker and the director of public prosecutions (DPP) into lemons and limes, in a bid to silence them, Reuters reported. There was, Carberry said, significant evidence that the couple "had an interest in and were active in preparation of spells, curses, and witchcraft".
The mother, who hails from Uganda, and Ghanaian father, 43, deny two charges each of FGM and failing to protect a girl from the risk of FGM, and claim their daughter's serious injuries were sustained from accidentally falling on a kitchen cupboard door. The girl survived: after being taken to hospital, she was put into foster care, where she told her foster parents that she had been cut between her legs by a woman whom her parents called a "witch".
In many FGM cases, like the one going through the Old Bailey this week, spirituality and beliefs relating to witchcraft play a role, according to Leethen Bartholomew, the head of the National FGM Centre (a partnership between Barnardo's and the Local Government Association to tackle the crime). But it's extremely difficult to pinpoint how common it is in the UK. "Generally speaking, there is a link between witchcraft and FGM," he told Refinery29. In some west African countries, including Sierra Leone, Cameroon, Nigeria and Ghana, parents are told that their daughter is a witch if she dies during FGM, while in other countries the female genitals will be ground up and used in rituals to promote fertility or wealth.
Parents who hail from these countries and conduct FGM in the UK may therefore use supernatural beliefs to justify their crimes, he says. But he adds that it's "really difficult" to know how common this is in the UK because "witchcraft" means many different things, and such supernatural beliefs, and the crime itself, remain largely hidden. Bartholomew has encountered UK cases in which a survivor's parents believed she was a witch or "possessed by evil spirits", and in one case, a woman from Cameroon was accused of being a witch because her twin sister had died during FGM.
FGM – which involves the partial or total removal of the external female genitalia (or other injury to the female genitals) for non-medical reasons – has been illegal in the UK since 1985 but has never seen a successful prosecution. Efforts to tackle it in the UK have been stepped up in recent years – with the creation of the National FGM Centre in 2015, improved training for professionals who work with children, and £50m pledged to help end FGM in Africa in 2018 (the practice could not be eliminated in the UK "without ending it globally", the government argued) – but it remains rife and largely hidden.
There were 6,195 women and girls recorded by the NHS between April 2017 and March 2018 as having suffered FGM or an FGM-related procedure at some point in their lives, but experts believe that many women's experiences of the procedure go unrecorded. Bartholomew says that while there is no data on the number of FGM cases linked to supernatural beliefs, it is "unlikely to be reducing". He pointed to recent figures showing a surge in child abuse cases (a category that includes FGM) related to faith or belief, including witchcraft and spirit possession. The number of such cases rose by 12% (to 1,630) between 2017-18, according to figures from the Local Government Association.
"It's good people are realising that FGM is not a standalone issue," Bartholomew believes. "Within a family, different members could have experienced a multitude of different forms of harmful practices," including FGM related to witchcraft, for various different reasons.
If a girl is deemed a witch, FGM could be one of the consequences to rid her of the curse.
Nimco Ali, cofounder of Daughters of Eve
This view – that it doesn't make sense to focus too closely on the role supernatural beliefs play in FGM cases – is echoed by Nimco Ali, cofounder of FGM charity Daughters of Eve, who was subjected to the practice herself at 7 years old. She believes it is too simplistic to draw a direct link between witchcraft and FGM, as some of the coverage of this week's legal case appears to do.
"Directly, there is no link [in the UK]," Ali told Refinery29. The vast majority of women and girls at risk of FGM whom she has encountered in the UK, "have been Somalis, Eritreans, Sudanese, and Egyptians, and none of those [groups] practise witchcraft in the way they do in west Africa, where if a girl is deemed a witch, FGM could be one of the consequences to rid her of the curse."
Ali argues that gender discrimination, plain and simple, is the overwhelming cause of FGM in the UK. "FGM happens because girls are not valued," while child abuse motivated by supernatural beliefs is not gendered, she continues. "Abusive parents can abuse both boys and girls. FGM is a gender issue and we need to not confuse the two."
Child abuse motivated by witchcraft is a "horrific thing", she says, referring to the death of Victoria Climbié (an 8-year-old who was murdered by her guardians in 2001, when they believed she was possessed by spirits). "Kids who are seen to be possessed suffer other forms of child abuse, whether it’s starvation or severe beating, so when it comes to [abuse motivated by] witchcraft, a child is just as likely to have their head or arms removed to remove a curse, as they are to have their clitoris or labia removed."
Forward, a charity that has worked with communities affected by FGM in the UK and in various countries in Africa for 33 years, also says we need to be cautious about suggesting witchcraft is a sole motivator for instances FGM. "We have not heard of cases where witchcraft was the reason for the FGM," Naana Otoo-Oyortey, its executive director, told Refinery29. "We have heard cases, for example, in our programme in Tanzania where the discarded flesh from cut girls is sold for ritual purposes, and we know in many communities FGM is practised due to traditional religious beliefs – in that the ‘gods’ determine when a cutting season takes place."
Bartholomew believes the UK has come a long way in tackling FGM and child abuse related to faith or belief, and that we're "further ahead than other countries". But there is a lot more to be done to educate professionals in spotting the signs, promote community engagement, and help to tackle FGM in the countries where it's most common. "It's not an easy topic to talk about, there is some level of [people thinking] 'it happens to them, not us, so we don't need to engage with it'." But echoing Ali, Bartholomew adds that it is "really an issue of violence against women and girls, and human rights", which is an often-overlooked factor in the discussion.