John Mullin: The evil of female genital mutilation

Masai women in Kenya meet to discuss FGM. Picture: Getty
Masai women in Kenya meet to discuss FGM. Picture: Getty
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MOVED by the bravery of a house guest, John Mullin argues that female genital mutilation is a problem that should concern us all.

If you count how long you’ve been married in decades rather than years, you’ll be like me. Your focus will no longer be exactly pin-sharp. So when she’s banging on about some worldwide calamity, you might signal a note of agreement. “Terrible, isn’t it?,” you say, while what you are really thinking about is whether Broadchurch is on tonight.

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Or, when she’s telling how some evil work colleague has made her life hell that day, you might stifle a yawn, and nod in what you hope comes across as both an interested and sympathetic fashion. But what, dear reader, is on your mind instead? “Mmm. I could murder a Twix right now.”

So when I was told there was someone coming to stay with us this week, I found my mind wandering to what I might like to drink that evening, now that Dry January is at an end. To be fair to me, I have mitigation here: there is always someone kipping in our spare room, and usually someone fairly exotic.

Honestly. It’s like Princes Street during the sales at our place. We already have a pregnant Afghan ex-au pair staying with us (for four months, apparently!). I’m not saying I wasn’t told about this, but I was obviously debating the relative merits of various confectionery with myself at the time.

To our guest: the young woman eating breakfast the morning before last was Domtila Chesang, 24, from Kenya. She soon left in tatters my self-indulgent and affected nonchalance.

Domtila now campaigns against Female Genital Mutilation, a barbaric practice which currently afflicts 130 million women worldwide. Prevalence rates remain around 90 per cent in 29 countries in Africa and the Middle East. Each day, an estimated 6,000 girls are cut. It’s not a pleasant verb. But it is still a terrible euphemism.

They will have their sexual organs cut off, and they will then be sewn up. The only anaesthetic is often cold water. They will suffer terrible pain, infection, psychological trauma and utter agony in childbirth. They will never enjoy sex. The impact lasts a lifetime, and all in the name of making them fit for marriage.

And it would be wrong to think this is a scandal which doesn’t touch what we might call the developed world. In the US, one recent study estimates half a million women have suffered FGM. And only in December, 500 women were diagnosed at hospitals in England: other studies have identified 2,000 more.

The United Nations designated yesterday a worldwide day of zero tolerance for FGM. And Domtila was off to Geneva to tell a top-level meeting there her story.

Ever get nervous, I asked? “Sometimes,” she replied. But her gaze, though good-natured, was steady enough. She meant: “No chance. This is far too important for any of that nonsense.”

As a girl born in to the Pokot tribe, she was expected to undergo FGM around the age of nine. This would happen for groups of girls at a ceremony, called Tum, involving dancing and singing. It was a celebration. But the party stopped soon after. The men were sent away, and the girls had no clue of what was to come next as they moved into a guarded area.

Domtila, curious, and still too young to be part of this second stage, sneaked her way into the nearby bush and watched unseen. Leaves were spread on the ground for the girls to lie on their backs. One circumciser using one knife cut all the girls, one after her other. Her cousin was first.

Domtila was lucky. She met a remarkable midwife, Cath Holland, an Irishwoman who had gone to Kenya with VSO for a mid-life adventure after her boys had grown up. She was appalled at the practice, and has dedicated her life since to ending it, through education and persuasion. Maybe 27 per cent of girls are still cut in Kenya, but, says Domtila, that’s a fraction of even five years ago.

Cath paid Domtila’s school fees, and she was able to graduate as a teacher. She gave her another gift too: the confidence to say No to being cut.

Although it was only woman who had themselves been circumcised who attend the cutting ceremony, Domtila says it is the men who are key. They don’t know what the procedure involves. Make clear exactly what it means for their daughters – and don’t spare the awful gynaecological detail, and prevalence rates fall dramatically.

By coincidence, Domtila was visiting our house just as a doctor was acquitted on charges of performing FGM on a woman who was having a baby at the Whittington Hospital in London, where two of my own children were born. It took the jury all of 25 minutes to clear Dhanuson Dharmasena, 32, and another man, the woman’s translator, Hasan Mohamed, 41.

FGM has been illegal in the UK for 29 years but no-one had ever previously stood trial. Perhaps the prosecuting authorities felt embarrassed at this, but the case against them was ludicrous. Faced with a woman who had endured FGM, Dr Dharmasena had to cut her to allow her to give birth, and to stitch her afterwards to stop her bleeding. What else was a doctor meant to do? Trouble is, the Crown Prosecution Service in England and Wales may have set back the chances of a future successful prosecution. That benefits no-one, particularly those girls – maybe even some of my own daughters’ schoolmates – whose parents might otherwise be forced to think twice about illegally sending them home for the procedure.

It was depressing to read the conclusions some drew from Dr Dharmasena’s rightful acquittal; that FGM isn’t a problem in the UK, and only the politically correct suggest it is. True, we might not quite know the magnitude of it, but FGM is here. It is a real, disgusting blight, and this ridiculous prosecution cannot detract from that.

Domtila will be passing back through this way this afternoon. I can’t wait to hear how it went, the day she addressed the United Nations.

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