The failure to punish anyone for carrying out female genital mutilation (FGM) in almost a decade since Labour introduced a new law designed to stamp out the practice is forcing prosecutors to seek alternative methods to tackle the problem. The Government was facing growing criticism from campaigners after an Independent on Sunday investigation into the horrifying practice known as "cutting", in which the genitals of women and girls are severed by unqualified people in the belief it will preserve the girl's virginity.
Keir Starmer, the Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP), told The Independent on Sunday last night that he and Justice Department officials are considering plans to use child-protection legislation to prosecute those who mutilate women, girls and babies. The IoS inquiry revealed that hundreds of hospitals, councils and police forces are failing to enforce the law designed to stop the agonising procedure. Only a few authorities have reported evidence of the illegal practice in the past three years; many admitted they did not even have a policy in place to deal with cases. Three government departments said they do not collect statistics on the prevalence of the problem.
The findings confirm campaigners' fears that laws designed to stamp out FGM are failing to protect tens of thousands of British women and girls every year, and have not led to a single conviction. In contrast, France has convicted more than 100 complicit parents and FGM "practitioners" since 1988.
The DPP revealed the change in tactics yesterday as he responded to the criticism and said he will not hesitate to call for a change in the law. He said he feared it would take another quarter of a century for present anti-FGM laws on their own to produce successful prosecutions, as they ultimately depended on girls reporting their own families to the police. "The nub of the problem is that we are talking about girls of 10, 11 or even younger. We can do all we can to make clear that FGM is an offence, but it is unlikely that a girl would come forward and give evidence against her parents and be separated from them. If we hope against hope that a girl will come forward, we'll be waiting 25 years," he said. He added that he was actively exploring ways to use a wider offence where the authorities would not necessarily need a child to be a witness.
The DPP admitted that prosecutors were being hampered by the failure to collect statistics on the numbers of women affected. "We haven't got the full picture. That needs to change." He said his plan of action also included the collection of "more robust data on allegations of FGM, so the scale of the problem can be gauged".
The lack of clear statistics contrasts starkly with Department of Health research carried out in 2007 which estimated that as many as 80,000 women in the UK – more than a quarter of them under the age of 15 – are at risk of having all or part of their external genitals removed, in line with ancient customs. The practice occurs in dozens of countries in Africa, and in some areas of the Middle East and Asia, where it is claimed FGM preserves a girl's virginity until marriage by limiting her sexual behaviour. The ritual has been illegal in Britain since 1985, and the United Nations General Assembly last month approved a resolution to ban FMG internationally following protests over its lasting impact on the physical and mental health of victims.
However, campaigners have warned that many young girls have been taken out of UK primary schools by their parents to be cut overseas, often with razors, knives or broken glass, usually without anaesthetic.
Ann Clwyd, a Labour MP whose 2003 FGM Act bans girls being taken abroad to have the procedure, said teachers, doctors and police had shown "a lack of sufficient will to confront minority ethnic groups on such an issue". She added: "It's very nice to get a law through Parliament, but if it isn't acted upon, it isn't worth the paper it's written on."
Hull MP Karl Turner will use a debate in Parliament this week to challenge ministers to force healthcare staff, teachers and police to work more closely together to ensure anyone suspected of cutting British children is brought to book. He said: "Female genital mutilation needs to be taken as seriously as any other child-protection issue. Hundreds of thousands of voiceless victims have been denied justice and this figure rises year on year."
Mr Starmer said he did not want to repeal existing anti-FGM laws, as that would "send the wrong message", but he conceded "the legislation clearly isn't nearly enough on its own". His FGM "action plan" also pledges to "explore whether evidence to prosecute offences under other legislation is possible and may be easier to support". He targeted the Domestic Violence, Crime and Victims Act, which creates an offence of "causing or allowing a child or vulnerable adult to die or suffer serious physical harm", as route to tougher action.
A Freedom of Information request to more than 500 hospitals and local education authorities found that fewer than 50 kept records of women and girls who were found to have suffered FGM, believed to have undergone the procedure or suspected of being at risk. Many police forces refused to release data, citing "confidentiality" and "sensitivity".
However, of those that reported cases, the Whittington Hospital in London and St James's University Hospital, Leeds, both recorded some 450 instances of female genital mutilation during the past three years.
Dudley council revealed that it had received reports involving three children "aged between newborn to four years of age", and four young adults. Newport council reported that a pupil aged eight was prevented from leaving the country as it was suspected that she might be a victim of FGM while abroad. The Metropolitan Police recorded more than 200 reports in which FGM was listed as a concern, including victims who feared they may be at risk, since 2003.
Jane Ellison, a Conservative MP who is chairman of the all-party FGM group, said knowledge of the problem among public authorities was "patchy at best and often non-existent". She added: "The law is very clear but I think the implementation of it has been woeful. There has been too much reliance on the idea of a traumatised seven- or eight-year-old girl walking into a police station and reporting her parents, whom she loves and trusts, as criminals."
An Association of Chief Police Officers spokesman said: "Detection can be difficult because some children are exposed to the practice before they enter the schooling system. There are dedicated officers working in this area and police will investigate where there is information that such practices are occurring. Officers are working with community representatives to highlight serious health issues that can arise."
Aissa Edon, 30, is a midwife working at Ealing Hospital, London. She was subjected to FGM in Mali, aged six, together with her one-year-old sister.
"My step-mum took me and my sister to see a woman who performed the operation. She didn't tell me or my sister anything about what was going to happen. My sister and I never discussed it since. I can't tell you the exact place it happened, but I know if you bring me there I will know it. There was one person to hold your legs, another to hold your arms and another to do the cutting. I have a memory of the pain, the blood, my sister shouting and my own shouting because it was so painful. It is like a bad dream but it is in my memory for life.
"I was adopted and moved to France a few months later. I was always in pain for years as I had a problem with my bladder and urinary tract because of the FGM and I had to have an operation.
"It was very painful to have a sexual relationship and mentally you think it is not right to have sexual contact. I had an operation to replace my clitoris in France in 2004 – the clitoris is 11cm, and the surgeon pulled up the part under the scar and connected it to a nerve – and now I get feelings like other ladies, lubrication when I'm excited. It was like a second birth and I felt complete again, but even now I am not 100 per cent with sex. I know my body is fine but my mind is still a little bit hesitant.
"I did a dissertation on FGM and I went back to Mali to confront my biological father. I told him how I felt and how painful it was. He promised me no one in his family would have FGM. It was a good step for our family; I hope he means it. I moved to England in 2011 and, through my work, I have seen women, some Somali, who have needed to have an operation [deinfibulation] to give birth. But when they come back for a second child they have again been sewn up [reinfibulation], so it is possible they are having FGM in the UK. I want to help other ladies. I feel complete but I don't want girls to go through this."