Life

“I’m a human rights barrister – and this case made me question the government’s approach to FGM”

An 11-year-old girl called Jasmine is at risk of deportation from the UK, despite facing FGM in her home country. Here, human rights barrister Charlotte Proudman explains why the case should concern us all.

Jasmine* left Sudan when she was a small child. Her mother, Amina*, believed she would soon be expected to subject Jasmine to female genital mutilation (FGM), and was determined to protect her. Ultimately, Amina didn’t want her daughter to suffer as she had. As a girl in Sudan, Amina experienced type III FGM, the most physically invasive form of the practice, and two of her sisters died as a result of the procedure.

But Amina also knew that, as a vulnerable single mother, she would be unable to withstand overwhelming familial and community pressure to have Jasmine cut. FGM is highly prevalent in Sudan, with rates ranging from 86.6-97.7%. Though the procedure was criminalised nationally earlier this year, and has been illegal in certain Sudanese states for some time, these laws have not historically been enforced. And so Amina took Jasmine and fled, moving first to Bahrain before arriving in the UK in 2012.

Once in the UK, Amina filed an asylum claim while Jasmine enrolled at primary school in Suffolk. But their claim was refused, and after a series of appeals, the Home Office gave the family notice of their imminent deportation – which is where I came in. 

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As a barrister specialising in FGM, I represented Amina in the family court. Jasmine, then aged nine, had plucked up the courage to tell her teacher that she and her mother were due to be sent back to Bahrain. Because Amina and Jasmine have not lived in Bahrain for years, there is a real danger they will be sent back to Sudan if forced to leave the UK – putting Jasmine at high risk of FGM. The teacher raised the alarm with Suffolk children’s services, who mounted a groundbreaking legal battle to try to stop the deportation.

I am talking about Jasmine’s case publicly because I believe we should all be concerned with the devastating impact of FGM on girls’ lives around the UK. I also want people to know how our government is failing to protect girls and women with insecure immigration status from FGM. This is the story of one child. But it highlights a much bigger problem with the UK’s approach to ending FGM.

Suffolk
FGM in the UK: Jasmine initially enrolled at primary school in Suffolk after arriving in England

The legal battle

During the hearing in the family court, we heard from a range of experts who agreed that Jasmine is at high risk of FGM abroad, not least because she is a vulnerable child who only speaks English and would be unable to protect herself. Ultimately, the judge found Amina to be a credible – albeit highly traumatised – witness, and agreed that removing Jasmine from the UK would be tantamount to sentencing her to FGM. In fact, Mr Justice Newton concluded: “It is difficult to think of a more serious case where the risk to [the girl] of FGM is so high.”

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Unfortunately, Home Secretary Priti Patel appealed the case, arguing that it should not be up to the family courts to assess the risk of FGM for girls and women with insecure immigration status. This claim was rejected by the Court of Appeal, yet Patel has still not granted asylum to Jasmine and her mother. Instead, the Home Office has invited the family to make a new immigration application – a gruelling process that could take years. After eight years in and out of court already, Jasmine and her mother should not be subjected to this ordeal again.

I’m not the only one who thinks so. A recent open letter calling on the home secretary to grant asylum to Jasmine and her family was signed by over 300 people, including Helena Kennedy QC, campaigner Dr Leyla Hussein OBE and more than 30 MPs. Nurse and activist Hoda Ali, who was cut aged seven and is unable to have children due to FGM-related complications, has also launched a petition on Jasmine’s behalf, which had attracted over 17,500 signatures at the time of writing.  

Priti Patel
FGM in the UK: Home Secretary Priti Patel has still not granted asylum to Jasmine and her mother

We must do more

As intersectional feminists, it’s important to understand and show compassion for the inequalities that girls and women suffer due to FGM, especially those without secure immigration status. And how could one not have compassion for Amina’s desire to protect her daughter? Not only is FGM agonising, it can have irreversible consequences for the long-term health of women and girls, ranging from chronic pain and infections to infertility and death.

It’s also understandable that Amina might believe her daughter would be safe in Britain. Successive UK governments have vowed to eradicate FGM, something an estimated 137,000 women and girls in England and Wales have experienced. David Cameron made failing to protect a girl from FGM a criminal offence, introduced FGM protection orders and created a reporting duty that means professionals must report known cases of FGM in under-18s to police. Theresa May pledged that FGM would be history “within a generation”, and Boris Johnson has been praised by activist Nimko Ali for working to protect young girls from FGM while he was London mayor (despite openly mocking efforts to end the practice in Africa during his time as a magazine columnist).

But while the UK talks the talk about being opposed to FGM, there has been just one conviction for the procedure since it was criminalised in Britain 35 years ago. Financial support has also been slowly withdrawn from anti-FGM organisations working on the frontlines to end the practice, despite NHS statistics showing that hundreds of new victims are identified every month. In 2019-20, these organisations received £432,000 in government grants – a staggering drop of 84% since 2015. The National FGM Centre, which played a crucial role in protecting Jasmine, is now facing closure after having its annual funding slashed by around £700,000.

Ultimately, the government’s priority seems to be creating more legislation around FGM. It is much more reluctant to fund specialist services and grant asylum to women and girls at risk of FGM – and its focus on reducing immigration is leaving women and girls at serious risk of gender-based violence, torture and inhuman treatment.

Jasmine’s case has the potential to be a turning point. Together, we can put pressure on the government to walk the talk and take direct action to end FGM in our generation by protecting girls like Jasmine. Otherwise, her story will be one of many more to come – and an indictment of a society and government that has allowed FGM to continue.

A Home Office spokesperson said… 

“It is untrue to claim the government does not take FGM seriously. We have made huge efforts to eradicate this despicable practice in the UK and internationally.

“This includes providing a £50m aid package to the Africa-led movement to end FGM, the single biggest investment worldwide. We have also strengthened the law to improve protection for victims and introduced a mandatory reporting duty on certain professions to report known cases of FGM in under 18s.

“The family in this case is able to make further submissions on their asylum claim and our lawyers have contacted their legal representatives to ensure they are clear about the next steps.”

Dr Charlotte Proudman is a barrister at Goldsmith Chambers specialising in gender-based violence and a Fellow at Queens’ College, Cambridge. She represented Jasmine’s mother in her family law case.

Find out more about Jasmine’s case and sign the petition for her to be allowed to remain in the UK here

* Names have been changed

Images: Getty Images