Female cutting is abuse. That’s what ministers have to relay

There is no doubt the law needs further toughening, and that now looks likely to happen

This year marks a 30th anniversary of which Britain should be both proud and ashamed.

In 1985, the first legislation prohibiting female genital mutilation reached the statute book. And yet no successful prosecution has been brought for an abhorrent practice which leaves profound physical and psychological scars on tens of thousands of women and girls in this country.

Last year, it appeared that this dismal record could be about to change as the Director of Prosecutions, Alison Saunders, announced that the first charges for the offence were being brought against a doctor and another man.

Her announcement came as public pressure mounted for action against FGM, with leading politicians including Theresa May, Justine Greening and Yvette Cooper speaking out against the practice.

Shortly after becoming DPP, Ms Saunders hinted at her determination to act, saying she hoped to bring a prosecution “relatively shortly”. She confirmed the prosecution just three days before she appeared before the Commons Home Affairs Select Committee to explain why no perpetrator had been brought to justice despite 140 referrals to police in the previous four years.

 

Ms Saunders’ move was widely described as a landmark, although leading gynaecologists expressed their anger over the case selected for court action.

After a jury took just 30 minutes to clear the two men on Wednesday, and amid widespread criticism of the DPP’s decision to bring them to trial, Keith Vaz, the committee’s chairman, has reached the same conclusion. He said: “This prosecution appears to have been born in haste.”

From the start the prosecution struggled, with defence lawyers quietly confident the two men would be cleared.

For all the accusations, though, that it was a “show trial” the judge refused three times to throw out the case for lack of evidence.

The episode has created an unfortunate backdrop for the Government as it today marks the International Day of Zero Tolerance for FGM.

The ministers Jane Ellison and Lynne Featherstone will be joined by Ms Saunders at an event to proclaim their determination to tackle the practice.

The Government will point to the establishment of a specialist unit to help sufferers and will shortly announce plans to make it mandatory for professionals to report evidence of FGM.

Legislation is also going through Parliament to guarantee anonymity for victims who give evidence, and to make it an offence for a UK resident to take a girl abroad to be mutilated.

But all today’s warm words fail to mask the central dilemma facing prosecutors: that FGM is a hidden crime whose victims are often unwilling to talk of their suffering. There is no doubt the law needs further toughening and that looks likely to happen.

The conviction and jailing of just one “cutter”, rather than the bungled prosecution of a doctor who acted to save a newborn baby’s life, would send a powerful deterrent message that such barbaric practices have no place in modern Britain.

However, one MP who has dealt with several cases insists a new generation of girls whose mothers were subjected to FGM is growing up believing it is unacceptable for them – or their daughters – to be mutilated in the same way.

Ultimately, this is a battle that needs to be won well before police and courts are involved by getting the message into communities and schools that cutting is not a cultural practice, but a form of child abuse.

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