On International Zero Tolerance to Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) day on 6 February 2014, Government ministers signed up to a declaration on FGM. It said there is no justification for this practice – it is child abuse and it is illegal.

FGM has been illegal since 1985 and the most recent Female Genital Mutilation Act was introduced in 2003.  Despite this there have been no successful prosecutions for FGM in the UK.  Estimates suggest that around 24,000 girls in the UK are at risk.

A Westminster Hall debate today has been prompted by an e-petition from the organisations Daughters of Eve and Equality Now that calls upon the Home Office to introduce a National Strategy and Action Plan to ensure the elimination of FGM in the UK.  It says that the recent activity against FGM has not been enough and the abuse has not been stopped – there needs to be effective leadership from the Home Office and a national approach. The e-petition currently has over 105,000 signatures.

Why have there been no prosecutions?

This is a question that has prompted a Home Affairs Committee Inquiry that will hold its first evidence session this week.  The Chair of the Committee, Keith Vaz, explained what would be considered:

It is shocking that 28 years on from female genital mutilation first being made a criminal offence, there has not yet been a successful prosecution in the UK. The Committee’s inquiry will seek to find out why this is the case, as well as considering what more needs to be done to protect at risk girls.

The Bar Human Rights Committee’s written submission to the Inquiry has expressed grave concerns that current measures are insufficient and that the Government are in breach of their international law obligation to protect girls from FGM.

A 2013 report Tackling FGM in the UK, written by a number of medical and nursing colleges, outlines the barriers to the prevention of FGM in the UK.  They highlight a lack of awareness from health, education and social care professionals, under reporting and a lack of a comprehensive approach to this issue.  The report, An Unpunished Crime, written by Julie Bindel in 2013 also suggests that ‘excessive cultural sensitivity’ has got in the way of taking the necessary action against FGM:

For too long in Britain, female genital mutilation has been presented as a cultural issue. But it is not: it is an issue of abuse against
children and violence against women. All the institutions of the state should be committed to reframing the debate, thereby making FGM wholly unacceptable on any basis in our society. In recent years, we have witnessed transformations in public attitudes to homophobia, domestic violence, drink-driving and child sexual abuse. The same should happen with FGM.

Recent approaches to FGM in the UK

A Crown Prosecution Service Action Plan, updated in 2013, aims to improve prosecution rates through gathering more robust data on allegations, identifying what has hindered investigations in the past and ensuring better working between police and prosecutors.  The Attorney-General confirmed there were 6 cases of FGM being considered for prosecution in December 2013.

It has recently been reported in the Evening Standard that the Director of Public Prosecutions, Alison Saunders, has said that the law on FGM may need to be changed.  One potential change she suggests is that parents are given a legal duty to protect their children from FGM and that doctors, teachers and other professionals could be given a new statutory duty to report cases where FGM is suspected.

The Home office is providing grants to frontline organisations who work with communities at risk from FGM and is providing funding for a prevalence study due to be published in Spring 2014.  A statement opposing FGM which outlines that the practice is a criminal offence can be carried by girls and taken abroad with them.

Following a recent petition by a 17 year old Bristol school girl Fahma Mohamed, the Secretary of State for Education, Michael Gove, has confirmed a commitment to write to all head teachers in the UK to provide guidance on keeping children safe.  He will also consider how FGM might be taught age-appropriately in schools.

From next month, all acute hospitals will be required to collect and report information about patients that have undergone FGM. The Under-Secretary of State for Health, Jane Ellison, recently said this is the beginning of a wide ranging programme of work.

This is by no means a comprehensive list of recent policies.  There appears to be a consensus that when considering the tools to tackle FGM, an array of different policy approaches need to be coordinated.  The criminal justice system, education, health and social services can all play important roles in eliminating this horrific practice.

Author: Sarah Barber