Women at the Frontline

A guest blog post by Baroness Helena Kennedy QC

Helena Kennedy QC (centre) in Ethiopia in 2008 speaking with girls who were cut when they were younger

Helena Kennedy QC (centre) in Ethiopia in 2008 speaking with girls who were cut when they were younger

Today is the day to celebrate amazing women activists. Around the globe, there are thousands of women who strive to improve the lives of others. They know that women’s rights are human rights, and they are doing everything in their power to change the fortunes of their sisters, working to end the social inferiority of women and the horrifying levels of violence, exploitation and abuse to which women are subjected. 

Over forty years ago, I learned about the practice of Female Genital Mutilation - FGM. I was at a meeting of feminists at the London School of Oriental and African Studies to discuss international collaboration on ending discrimination and the shocking tradition was described to us in detail by one of the academics at the seminar. Expressions of dismay were countered by a very articulate African woman who said that this was a cultural practice and it was not for women of the West to promote our cultural values over those of others. I struggled with this rebuke. I had already too often heard wretched behaviour towards women excused or defended but I was still troubled when women themselves accepted the underlying rationale for certain rituals and practices which operated to their disadvantage. The power of social norms runs deep in all our societies and women are socialised to accept male dominance and traditions which were created to satisfy male demands.   

FGM involves slicing into the genitalia of girls and frequently the removal of the clitoris. It often leads to haemorrhaging, chronic pain, bladder and menstrual problems as well as psychological harm. It is most often performed by community women on little girls when they are between the ages of seven and twelve, often without anaesthetic and using a razor blade. I have visited programmes of health education in Ethiopia with Nancy Durrell McKenna, the Founder Director of SafeHands, and have met with women who still perform these ritual incisions. I have also spoken with many women who have gone through the ordeal, as well as male leaders who still think it is a cultural practice, which is good for women and for their society because it stops promiscuity, preserves virginity until marriage, and makes women more passive. They actually say that is one of its purposes.  Little girls become more subdued and less boisterous and troublesome.  

They actually say that is one of its purposes.  Little girls become more subdued and less boisterous and troublesome.

I remember going to a hospital in north London at the invitation of a consultant obstetrician who was concerned about the prevalence of the problem and the failure of current policy to prevent the custom continuing. Women would arrive at the clinic expecting their first child and he would find they had had their labia removed and the vagina stitched so that the opening was a tiny aperture through which she would never be able to push a baby. Women would have to be told that at the time of birth they would need to cut an opening wide enough for the baby to emerge and that afterwards their vagina would be repaired, but not closed-up as it had been before as to do so would be contrary to our law. The women would listen intently as it was explained that it was not healthy to have a closed vagina. They often gave histories of painful periods and excruciating intercourse, as well as urinary tract and other infections. They would cry as they spoke of unsatisfactory sex lives and the pain of penetration. Sadly, after a healthy birth and delivery and a vagina returned as near as possible to normal, the women would often come back to the hospital for their second birth with their vagina re-infibulated. The doctors at the clinic knew that these operations were being performed back in the community by elderly women or that the women had had it done back in the country from which they had originally come. They were persuaded that their husbands would not want them with open vaginas.  British girls whose families were originally from Somalia, or other parts of Africa like Egypt and the Mena region, now speak out about the practice and describe being taken out of school for a holiday and having the practice performed back in their parents’ villages.  

There has been legislation in the UK against FGM for 27 years and not one successful prosecution. The law was extended in 2004 to make it an offence to enable such a practice to be performed on another, so that family members can be prosecuted too. Three cases have been referred to the Crown Prosecution Service in the last seven years but were not pursued because there were evidential problems. One case against a young doctor failed because there was no evidence that he was performing FGM deliberately; he was not of a culture that followed such practices and through inexperience and lack of supervision stitched the woman along her original scar seam. In that same trial the husband of the woman was also in the dock for complicity but was also acquitted. Further efforts to prosecute have failed too. 

The problem with FGM prosecutions is that those who perform such operations are invariably not qualified medical professionals but people in the community here or back in Africa who have become practiced in doing it. Unsurprisingly girls do not want to testify against their parents or other family members and although people whisper the names of those who perform such operations on kitchen tables, no one is ever prepared to give evidence. It is estimated that 200 million women worldwide are living with the consequences of FGM, which is tantamount to torture. Many new African constitutions such as that of Somalia prohibit the practice. It is said that as many as 65,000 girls under the age of 13 in the UK are at risk of FGM. This will be an estimate based on ethnicity and the fear that unless adequately challenged girls of identified communities will be forced to undergo the procedure. 

The best advocates against FGM are the fabulous young women of Somalia, Kenya, Egypt, Ethiopia and other nations where the practice endures. And there are now many incredible women here in the UK, whose families come from those regions, who are leading campaigns to end the practice. They need our support. Today is the day to celebrate them and all the other committed activists who are confronting the ill treatment of women around the world. Poverty and exploitation, trafficking and rape. The list is long. Together we can make the change.  


Baroness Helena Kennedy QC is a Patron of SafeHands. Her newest book Eve Was Shamed is available to purchase now.

Baroness Helena Kennedy QC