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The mother of a young girl was found guilty in a London court on Friday of committing female genital mutilation, becoming the first person in the U.K. to be convicted of the practice since it was banned more than three decades ago.
The 37-year-old woman, originally from Uganda, performed the procedure on her daughter in their north London home in 2017 when the child was three years old, according to the Crown Prosecution Services, which brought the case to trial.
“It is significant that this is the first FGM conviction in the UK and I hope this sends out a clear message that the Met and other partner agencies will thoroughly investigate FGM cases and pursue prosecutions, whilst offering full support to victims and affected parties,” Inspector Allen Davis, lead officer for FGM of the Metropolitan Police, said in a statement.
Authorities discovered the girl’s genitalia were either removed or partially removed, after her parents took her to the hospital with serious injuries about 12 hours after she was cut with a sharp instrument.
At the time, the mother and the father, neither of whom can be identified for legal reasons, insisted the girl’s wounds were the result of a hapless accident. They claimed she had fallen from a kitchen counter onto an open, metal-lined cupboard door. But doctors determined the child’s injuries could not have been caused by such an incident and found they were consistent with FGM.
The mother and the girl’s father — a 43-year-old man from Ghana — were arrested, but late released on bail. Eventually, he was acquitted of all charges.
Following the landmark conviction, Lynette Woodrow from the Crown Prosecution Service said, “Female genital mutilation has an appalling physical and emotional impact on victims that usually lasts their entire life. We can only imagine how much pain this vulnerable young girl suffered and how terrified she was.”
“A three-year-old has no power to resist or fight back,” Woodrow added, noting that the child had been coached “to lie to the police so she wouldn’t get caught but this ultimately failed.”
The Metropolitan Police said the victim in the case initially corroborated her parents’ account of what had happened during video-recorded interviews but she later told a different version of the story: that she had been held down and cut.
Throughout the investigation and subsequent trial both parents maintained their innocence, denying they mutilated the girl.
As police launched an investigation into the family, they discovered the mother had an interest in witchcraft. According to the Crown Prosecution Services, “They found a number of spells and curses in her home. This included two cow tongues in her freezer bound in wire with nails and a small knife embedded in them. There were also 40 limes and other fruit which when opened contained pieces of paper with names on them.”
On Friday, the jury deliberated for less than an hour before delivering the guilty verdict. A judge warned the weeping mother of a “lengthy” prison sentence. A sentencing hearing is scheduled for March 8.
FGM was outlawed in the UK in 1985 after passing the Prohibition of Female Circumcision Act, which was later updated in 2003.
While the government has tried other cases in the past none have led to a conviction until now.
“We cannot lose sight this this case is about a very young girl who was the victim of an illegal, horrific and life-changing act at the hands of her mother,” Detective Chief Inspector Ian Baker said in a statement.
According to estimates by UNICEF, there are at least 200 million girls and women who have been victims of FGM in 30 countries around the world. Data compiled by City University London suggests than in 2011, about “137,000 women and girls with FGM, born in countries where FGM is practised, were permanently resident in England and Wales.”
As NPR reported on FGM in 2017:
“There are multiple types of FGM, including altering or removing the clitoris, labia minora and/or majora. Rights groups condemn it as an attempt to control the sexuality of women — which is also how many of its proponents justify it
“FGM is practiced in dozens of countries, most commonly in Africa, but also in parts of the Middle East, Eastern Europe and South America. It is not restricted to members of a single faith; according to the U.N.’s Population Fund, it is practiced by some Muslim groups, ‘some Christians, Ethiopian Jews, and followers of certain traditional African religions.’ That’s why the U.N. views it as a cultural practice, rather than a religious one.”
In a ruling in November a U.S. a federal judge in Michigan ruled in November that a 1996 law banning FGM violates the Constitution and is unenforceable because criminal law is under state purview. The decision was the outcome of a case in which a Detroit doctor was accused of mutilating the genitals of several 7-year-old girls.
Advocacy groups celebrated the verdict on Friday on behalf of victims.
“The fact that we have a conviction today is a really historic moment,”Aneeta Prem, founder and director of Freedom Charity, told the BBC. But, she added, the illegal practice is “hidden in secrecy,” making it difficult to prosecute such cases.
“People are scared to come forward, professionals are scared to come forward to report this,” Prem said.
London Mayor, Sadiq Khan also noted the legal first on Twitter, writing that it sends “a clear message that this violent act will no longer go unpunished.”