Friday was a historic day: 33 years after female genital mutilation (FGM) was made illegal, a mother was found guilty of cutting her daughter in the UK’s first successful conviction.
Just days later, an investigation by the BBC's Victoria Derbyshire show has now suggested that FGM victims are getting younger, reportedly in an attempt to hide it from authorities.
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FGM is the term used to describe the non-medical procedure that partially or totally removes the external female genitalia — with extremely harmful health consequences. Survivors have reported serious issues with sex, urination, menstruation, pregnancy, and more.
And the report found that babies, sometimes just “a few weeks old”, are increasingly being cut so those carrying out the procedure are more able to avoid detection.
Indeed, a Freedom of Information request to West Yorkshire Police discovered that a quarter of FGM reports between 2015 and 2017 involved victims aged three or under — with one girl reportedly just one month old.
"These girls are not at school, they are not at nursery, and so it's very difficult for any public authority to become aware," Dr Charlotte Proudman, a human rights barrister and FGM expert, told the show. "By performing it at such a young age, they're evading the law."
A spokesperson for the National FGM Centre, run by charity Bernardo’s and the Local Government Association, agreed — and pointed to the “anecdotal evidence” that suggested it’s easier for families to avoid prosecution if girls are cut younger.
"The girls are unable to report, the cut heals quicker, and prosecution is much harder once evidence comes to light and the girl is older,” the centre said. "There needs to be much greater recognition of this issue across different areas of the UK."
There are an estimated 200 million women and girls alive today who have undergone FGM — and in the UK, there’s a hope that the first successful prosecution will lead to more awareness of legislation and prevent more cases.
“It sends out an incredibly loud message to anyone considering carrying out FGM on their child that it is illegal,” Labour MP Sarah Champion told the show. “It's almost become a bit of an urban myth that it's illegal; whereas now it's in black and white.”
For decades #FGM has been shrouded in secrecy, but the reaction to our investigation shows barriers are being broken down. If it helps just one victim, all our hard work will have been more than worth it. This sums up just some of what's happened today:https://t.co/PNbzcpLoRn— Anna Collinson (@AnnaCollinson) February 4, 2019
While the investigation suggests that victims are getting younger, a fresh wave of fierce, young anti-FGM activists are rising to meet the challenge.
In February 2018, Global Citizen reported on the rapid growth of Integrate UK, a youth-led organisation in Bristol that trains professionals in how to deal with FGM, campaigns on the issue nationally, and, occasionally, makes music videos about vaginas.
It was co-founded by campaigner Muna Hassan when she was just 14 — a bold activist who at 19 told David Cameron, the UK prime minister at the time, to “grow a pair” and take action to end FGM.
Hassan is just one of many young Integrate members who travel the country to grow their movement. Indeed, the group featured in Channel 4 documentary The FGM Detectives last year, after one of its activists reported a man that he suspected of subjecting his daughter to the practice to the police.