Uncovered: Britain's FGM hypocrisy

(Originally published by the New Internationalist and broadcast on Deutsche Welle English)

Sarah G under a Creative Commons Licence
Olayinka Olatunde was 14 when she came to live in the UK with her mother and two brothers. She fled Nigeria in 2009 after attempts were made to kidnap her and subject her to female genital mutilation (FGM). 

According to UNICEF, more than 30 million girls are at risk of being subjected to FGM over the next decade and around 125 million women have undergone the procedure. Olayinka was one of the lucky ones to escape, or so she thought. Three years on the family find themselves embroiled in a legal battle against deportation after their asylum claim was rejected by the UK Border Agency (UKBA.)  

Olayinka’s mother, Abiola, is sure that if they are deported her daughter will be genitally mutilated. She has reason to be concerned. 20 years ago she watched as her first daughter bled to death following a botched procedure in a remote Nigerian village. 

“They did FGM on her and she started bleeding,” she tells me, “I knew something was wrong because I’ve experienced it before…so I was nervous and crying. Three days after, she passed away. I was helpless there was nothing I could do.” 

Neither Abiola nor her husband reported the eight year old girl’s death to the authorities. Although FGM is illegal in Nigeria, its practice is widespread - in some regions the proportion of adult women who have undergone it exceeds 50% - and deaths are not uncommon. “I know a lot of cousins and family members that have passed away through FGM”, she says, “Everybody goes through it so it looks stupid if I go and report it.”  

Naturally, when Olayinka was born four years later, Abiola was determined to protect her from genital mutilation. Her husband, however, continued to insist that she be subjected to FGM, so Abiola divorced him and went to live alone with her three children. But his conservative relatives refused to give in and when Olayinka was 13, her uncle – the family chief - launched a violent kidnap attempt. 

“One day in June, I wasn’t home and the family chief came home with three family members; two men and a woman. They became violent so my eldest son went to the nearest phone booth and called me and said they’ve beaten Olayinka,” Abiola recalls.   

Olayinka’s injuries were so severe that she remained in hospital for three weeks. Yet when Abiola approached the police for protection she claims her ordeal was dismissed as “a family matter.” Soon afterwards the family travelled 150 miles east from Lagos to Ondo State to stay with Abiola’s mother but it didn’t take long for the family chief to track them down. 

“We were there for about three weeks and I sent Olayinka and her brother to the corner shop to go and get some stuff. About 40 minutes later they came back running and crying. They said they saw the family chief and he asked them to come inside the car. How they managed to know where we are I don’t know.” 

In desperation they escaped to the UK, arriving with 6 month visas in November 2009. After settling in Rochdale they claimed for asylum based on their fears that Olayinka would be subjected to FGM if they returned to Nigeria. To their distress, their claims were denied.  

The threat of FGM does constitute grounds for claiming asylum in the UK. Nevertheless, according to a recent BBC report, hundreds of vulnerable women have had their applications rejected by UKBA in recent years. 

A document detailing the reasons behind Olayinka’s failed asylum claim reads: “You fear you will be forcibly circumcised by your father’s relatives if you return to Nigeria…The reason you have given for claiming a well-founded fear of persecution under the terms of the 1951 United Nations Convention relating to the Status or Refugees is not one that engages the UK’s obligations under the convention.” Although her story is not contested, UKBA insist the Nigerian police can be relied upon to protect Olayinka and advise her to relocate internally, away from her husband’s family.  A judicial review upheld the initial decision and the family have been told they may now be deported at any time. 

Cases like Olayinka’s appear to contrast with the government’s official stance on FGM. The home office has supported a campaign by the NSPCC to help protect children in the UK from mutilation, as well as launching its own initiative, the Violence Against Women and Girls Action Plan. The document boasts of significant government investment in “scaling up international work to tackle violence against women and girls.” A message on the foreign office website reads: “if you think that a girl or young woman is in danger of FGM…Contact the Foreign and Commonwealth Office if she’s already been taken abroad.” 

Dr Rhetta Moran of the human rights organisation, RAPAR, says Olayinka’s case exposes the government’s rhetoric as disingenuous: “At a fundamental level it’s in complete contradiction to their commitment to safeguarding the child. It also runs utterly counter to what is becoming quite a high profile if limited government campaign about female genital mutilation and it continues to further demonise the refugee as somebody who is intrinsically threatening to this country.” 

The psychological stress Olayinka has been forced to endure led her to attempt suicide earlier this year. A clinical psychologist who assessed her concluded that she suffers from “significant, chronic and complex mental health needs”, adding that “it is highly likely that this psychological distress will remain high unless the physical threat to her safety is addressed." 

The 16-year-old is now beginning her first term at a local 6th form college and dreams of one day reading medicine at university. Meanwhile the family’s legal team are submitting further evidence - including a report from a Nigerian human rights expert - in the hope that UKBA will reverse its decision. 

“If any of them that is making the decision, if they are a woman, if they have their children, the worst thing that can happen to any mother is to lose a child,” Abiola pleads, “For that reason alone, I’m appealing to them, and for the fact that Olayinka did not commit any crime, it’s not a crime for her to be a girl. She shouldn’t be crucified for that.”