UK: Ruth Rendell Speaks Out Against Female Genital Mutilation

When Chief Inspector Wexford, one of Britain's most beloved fictional policemen, is called to investigate his latest case - a body discovered in a trench - he finds his attention diverted by a crime yet to be committed, but one that he knows he is powerless to prevent. It creates a terrible dilemma for the old-fashioned, peaceable, claret-drinking detective.

Ruth Rendell addresses the issue of female circumcision in her latest novel
On the case: Ruth Rendell addresses the issue of female circumcision in her latest novel

Wexford learns that a five-year-old girl is due to be brutally mutilated and left permanently disfigured - and that the suspects are the child's parents. It is as horrifying to him as the murder he has to solve. No one understands that conundrum better than Ruth Rendell, the author who created Wexford, and who has placed her hero in this torturous position in Not in the Flesh, due to be published in paperback later this month. For once, this haunting scenario has not been taken from her own imagination but from a real-life situation that happens thousands of times a year in Britain.

''Female genital mutilation (FGM) - or female circumcision - is a dreadful, iniquitous, illegal business - and it is happening here," says Rendell, 78. "As soon as I heard of it, I thought, this must be stopped, but I didn't realise then quite how difficult that would be."

FGM has been practised for centuries, principally in the Horn of Africa; the UN estimates 6,000 young girls are subjected to it every day, in 28 countries. Those under the age of 15 are ''cut", their genitalia maimed or even removed, and the wound sewn up. The practice is believed to encourage chastity and prevent sexual pleasure, and many parents still believe it is the only way their daughters will be able to find good husbands.

After marriage, the damaged area may be cut open by the husband just enough to allow intercourse but, when a baby is due to be born, it will have to be opened fully. Women who have been circumcised are at greater risk of cysts, fistulas - holes in the bladder, urinary tract and bowel caused during labour that can lead to incontinence - and even death in childbirth.

"The 'circumcision' is done mostly by elderly women who have no medical qualifications," says Rendell, who sits in the House of Lords as Baroness Rendell of Babergh. "They perform this operation on girls aged around seven or eight, without anaesthetic, getting other women to hold them down. A knife is used, or a sharp stone; the business is awful."

With emigration from Africa, the practice has been taken abroad and is now carried out in America, Australia, most of Europe and, of course, Britain. But just who does it, when and even how are difficult questions to answer as the practice is shrouded in secrecy - as Inspector Wexford himself finds out.

In real life, too, there have been few prepared to speak out against it. One is Somalian supermodel Waris Dirie, who has admitted that she was cut; she has since been appointed a UN Special Ambassador. But the practice continues in many ordinary families behind closed doors.

This secrecy has been the major stumbling block in Rendell's campaign to end FGM in the UK. A recent study produced by the Department of Midwifery, City University, and the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine in October 2007 estimated that more than 20,000 girls are at risk in Britain every year - and although doctors and midwives know it goes on, they are powerless to prevent it happening.

"We believe things have improved since 1985, when the Female Circumcision Act was passed which made it a criminal offence in this country," says Rendell, who is patron of the FGM National Clinical Group, based at the Elizabeth Garrett Anderson hospital (part of the University College London Hospital NHS Trust). "But over time, that has been thought inadequate. So we secured the Female Genital Mutilation Act 2003, which makes it a criminal offence to take a child out of the country to have it done abroad. The penalty is a maximum 14 years' imprisonment."

But there have been no prosecutions - even though health professionals and the police are aware the practice continues. "What campaigners need is a girl who turns up at a doctor's surgery with a fresh wound. If she has only just arrived from Somalia, nothing can be done. But if she has been living here for two years, and she tells them that, and the doctors can tell [the cut] was done in that time, then there would be grounds for a prosecution. Until then, we are tied - yet we know it goes on in pretty much all the major cities in the UK."

It is not just the secrecy that perpetuates the practice; it is also a desire for conformity, explains Rendell. "Girls in the community here will ask each other, 'Have you been cut?'?" She also points out that the language barrier can be part of the problem: "A lot of the older women and the mothers don't speak English, so they simply don't understand how FGM is viewed in this country - they won't know it is against the law. One thing we have done is to encourage older women who do speak English to do missionary work among their community, instructing women in what the penalties are and why it is illegal."

When Rendell was writing Not in the Flesh, she strived to get into the mind of a young female officer who has to confront the family involved: "She's very PC - and torn in this situation. She is always being nice and fair?minded towards immigrants and yet, as a woman, is horrified by this particular act." Tradition is one of the most difficult aspects to counter: "FGM is an inexcusable, monstrous thing - but, of course, it is cultural, and I suppose the family think it is their duty."

Rendell thinks it would help if more immigrant families learnt English. "I feel strongly that people should - not as a condition of coming here, but as a requirement after they are here." She also advocates classes in British citizenship, to teach immigrants the law, what you may do, and what you may not.

"This is complex; one wants to respect traditions and customs, but how can you if they are grossly damaging and cruel to women? Women's rights are more important than their ethnic rights. I don't think people should bring such a dreadful custom here and expect it to be respected. What we should respect are the people themselves, their feelings, their emotions."

When Inspector Wexford reviews his feelings about the case, he realises he was na´ve to think he could bring a prosecution and so protect young girls against this kind of mutilation. He resolves to examine the legislation more closely to see if it contains provision for ''intent".

His creator, however, doesn't see this as the answer. "A lot of people - and I used to be among them - think all we need is one prosecution," says Rendell. "But do we really even want one? We want prevention; we want to stop it happening ever."

  • For more information, contact The FGM National Clinical Group, c/o Elizabeth Garret Anderson & Obstetric Hospital, Huntley Street, London WC1E 6DH;
  • 'Not in the Flesh' by Ruth Rendell is available from Telegraph Books for £6.99 + 99p p&p. To order, call 0870 428 4112 or visit

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    DATE: 19/07/2008

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