On February 22, a 29-year-old Somali father was cleared on charges that he allowed his 6-year-old daughter to undergo female genital mutilation (FGM) in Bristol.
The judge threw out the case, declaring the medical evidence "wholly inconclusive at its highest”.
FGM has been illegal in the UK since 1985, but there has never been a conviction — and the Bristol case was only the second-ever prosecution attempt. There are an estimated 137,000 women and girls who have undergone the procedure in Britain.
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On February 27, Channel 4 aired “The FGM Detectives” — a documentary narrated by presenter Cathy Newman that followed the story of DCI Leanne Pook as she led the Bristol prosecution over two years of filming.
The documentary explained that the case began when anti-FGM activist Sami Ullah reported being told by a taxi driver — the defendant — that he had allowed his daughter to undergo a form of FGM, and that it was often carried out in his culture to prevent women “feeling sexy all the time”. Ullah, as a safeguarding professional with anti-FGM charity Integrate UK, was required by law to report such a discovery to the authorities if there was any suspicion the girl was at risk.
Global Citizen has previously reported that Bristol is a unique city in the context of FGM, where years of high-profile campaigning and education work from anti-FGM organisations like Integrate UK has meant “all the taboos have been lifted.”
And this became clear in the documentary, as the police pursued the case while ensuring open communication with the Somali community. Indeed, Pook was a trustee of Integrate UK, although Conservative Bridgwater MP Ian Liddell-Grainger said the role represented a “conflict of interests.”
The 6-year-old girl was examined by a medical professional, and a “small lesion” was found, according to the documentary. The consultant paediatrician raised concerns that the girl had been “pricked or had a small burn to her clitoris using a hot, sharp object.” However, another expert reexamined the girl nine weeks later, and could not find the alleged injury. Pook described that as a “hammer blow” in the documentary, while the prosecution argued the injury had healed, like a piercing.
According to the documentary, the equipment used to capture the first lesion was 15 years old — and Judge Julian Lambert, presiding over the case, described the medical evidence as so blurry that they were of “no value clinically or forensically.”
The judge said the prosecution against the man was "deeply troubling" and described Ullah’s testimony as “inconsistent.” The judge said that, although “honest”, he had been “influenced by his views while working for the charity.”
“It is a shame that the judge did not elaborate further because it is difficult to interpret exactly what he meant,” Dave McCallum, Chair of Trustees at Integrate UK, told Global Citizen. “[Ullah], who was one of our young people, is very well informed… This understanding [about FGM] will give him an enhanced ability to interpret comments made about FGM.”
“Does he see FGM everywhere because of his work and misinterpret innocent comments accordingly?” McCallum added. “The conversation that he describes does not indicate this. He would have had real concerns that a very young child had undergone FGM as a result of the conversation he describes and he was right to report it.”
“Children who are subjected to #FGM suffer from comparable levels of post-traumatic stress disorder as children that are subjected to chronic long-term abuse.”— Avon&Somerset Police (@ASPolice) February 27, 2018
The #FGMDetectives on Channel 4 tonight at 10pm. pic.twitter.com/Z1OzaOLeoR
The environment which allowed the case in Bristol to be brought forward in the first place is emblematic of immense progress in the wider fight against FGM. Integrate UK has trained young people, teachers, lawyers, and medical professionals all over the country for years — and this training is helping to bring the practice of FGM and how it does exist in British communities to light. This awareness will only be enhanced by mainstream programmes like “The FGM Detectives”.
After the verdict, Pook said the police force would “take some lessons from this and apply them next time.” The programme acknowledged the flaws within the evidence itself — and successfully unpacked the complexities in gathering it. The process is difficult, but through quite literal trial and error, a conviction seems increasingly likely in different cases in the future.
“We would much prefer to see an end to FGM to successful prosecutions,” said McCallum. “If the police and CPS continue with this determination, and awareness of FGM continues to spread, we may well see a successful prosecution.”
“However, I am also concerned that the wilting criticism directed against our young person, the police and prosecuting authorities in this case may deter witnesses coming forward and agencies taking the proactive stance illustrated in the programme,” he added.
Finally, there’s a subtle but vital contention. Integrate UK’s statement after the verdict referred to a “trend” of less “physically invasive” forms of FGM, like pricking, burning, or scraping, also known as type four FGM. It’s less noticeable in medical examinations, and far more difficult to gather evidence on.
Statement in relation to this week's FGM trial at Bristol Crown Court pic.twitter.com/tFky8AAUDe— Integrate UK (@_IntegrateUK) February 23, 2018
But the prosecution pursued the trial, sending a powerful message: all types of FGM will warrant investigation in Britain, without compromise.
The UK’s third-ever FGM trial is provisionally scheduled for March 5. A 49-year-old man from south London faces two counts of FGM against his daughter.
Global Citizen campaigns on the Global Goals, including Goal No. 5 for gender equality. Take action with us here — and demand that world leaders #LeveltheLaw by enacting and supporting the implementation of laws that protect girls and criminalise FGM. Help end this harmful practice for good.