The powerful conclusion of the Home Affairs Select Committee on the brutal practice of female genital mutilation – “When it is inflicted on a woman, it is a horrific crime. When it is inflicted on a girl it is violent child abuse” – is indubitably correct. Powerful words, however, are not enough. Respect for culture or religious practice offers no sufficient excuse for the lack of progress in tackling FGM, as the group of MPs joining the debate today rightly points out. What is missing from Government is not the language to condemn but the willingness to act, and that is failure of grave proportions.
The mutilation of a woman’s genitals has been classified as a criminal act for three decades, yet across Britain it is still widespread. More than 1,200 cases of FGM were recorded in England in the three months to June 2016. Between January and March this year, there was 1,242 newly recorded cases of the practice noted by the NHS (which includes historic “cutting” becoming known authorities for the first time), according to the Health and Social Care Information Centre – and that figure included 11 girls born here in the UK. At least 2 per cent of all new cases were performed on girls under the age of 18.
In response, Janet Fyle, an adviser to the Royal College of Midwives, called for greater vigilance among her profession. And progress has, it must be noted, been made in the collection of information about FGM, on how and where it is still practised.
It is not just historic data though – far from it. The committee’s latest estimations suggest 137,000 women permanently resident in England and Wales have been subjected to FGM since 2011.
The failure, then, has come in translating the law from well-meaning policy into legal practice. The law states that FGM is illegal, and yet it goes ahead and its practitioners remain free men and women. FGM was outlawed in 1985, but more than three decades later not a single prosecution for the crime has been successful – a “lamentable record”, as the committee notes.
Last year a case against a London doctor accused of performing the practice collapsed, with the Crown Prosecution Service facing criticism for its handling of the case. No example has been set to prevent future incidents.
The purpose of FGM is to limit or eliminate sexual enjoyment in women in an attempt to prevent promiscuity. Like rape, FGM is a hidden crime that goes significantly under-reported because its victims fear (quite rightly, as the lack of convictions demonstrates) that seeking prosecution will ultimately end in failure, and in doing so they will have to expose themselves to scrutiny.
Some NHS clinicians, we now know, are ignoring rules which require the mandatory recording of FGM. It is not just in the courthouse that women’s voices are going unheard.
The Government appears to have a sensible strategy in mind to tackle the problem, including the sharing of information between agencies and departments, and with schools and border agencies to prevent children being taken out of the country during what has become known as “cutting season”. This is one policy area where the benefits of “big data” are absolutely clear: if sharing information can help teachers, doctors, community leaders and immigration officials identify who is at risk of experiencing FGM and stop it from happening, that will be an example of good preventative action.
But given the Government’s chequered record with projects or policies that are driven by data, it is fair to assume that in the meantime large numbers of girls and women will slip through the net. For them, prevention will not be enough. Prosecution is a more effective tool, but it requires the courage and commitment of all parties to see it happen.
Until the first person is sentenced for the crime of cutting a girl or woman, FGM will remain effectively legal practice in the UK. That situation, as the pain of its victims, cannot be allowed to endure.
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