21 October 2014

FGM: can't you just pass a law against it?

Guest blog by Caroline Overton.

“FGM is a severe form of gender-based violence, and where it is carried out on a girl, it is an extreme form of child abuse. Everyone who has a responsibility for safeguarding children must view FGM in this way.” Home Affairs Select Committee, Female genital mutilation: the case for a national action plan, 25th June 2014

The UK faces a game of chicken and egg. Whilst the UK government acknowledges that FGM is unlikely to end in the UK before it is abandoned by practising communities in Africa, it is also necessary for the UK to lead by example if it wants to have a credible voice in calling for an end to FGM overseas. Indeed, where an “extreme form of child abuse” takes place routinely among some sections of the UK population, it would seem reasonable to expect the law to guard against the practice. There have been laws against FGM in the UK for almost 30 years, but there has yet to be a successful prosecution. Are the proposed changes to the law needed? Are they enough? What other actions might be required to bring an end to FGM in the UK and beyond?

So what does the law currently say? In summary, it is illegal for anyone to perform or assist the performance of FGM, or to carry out FGM outside the UK on a girl who is a UK national or permanent UK resident. It is also an offence for someone who is a UK national or permanent UK resident to perform or assist in the performance of FGM abroad. The penalty is a fine and up to 14 years’ imprisonment.  

At present the Serious Crime Bill is progressing through the House of Lords, and it contains some new anti-FGM measures which were announced in the Queen’s Speech in June and at the Girls’ Summit in July. Girls who are protected by the legislation, and perpetrators who can be pursued, are to be extended from those who are “permanent UK residents” to those “habitually resident” in the UK. Parents will be able to be prosecuted if they fail to prevent their daughter being cut, and victims of FGM will be granted lifelong anonymity from the time of making an allegation to the police. In addition, new civil protection orders are being introduced which are designed to protect victims or potential victims of FGM. Orders may include, for example, residence reporting, mandatory examinations, or a requirement for a passport to be surrendered to prevent a girl being taken abroad for FGM.  

So, are these changes enough? Certainly an extension to the range of civil and criminal proceedings is a positive step. The civil protection orders would be an alternative to removing a girl from her family if there were fears that she could be subject to FGM. Victims, potential victims or third parties, including teachers, carers, social workers, local authorities or friends, who believe there is a real risk of FGM taking place, would be able to apply to the court for an order. The positive obligation on parents to prevent their children from being mutilated mirrors a provision in Spanish legislation which has been used successfully to bring prosecutions against parents. 

However, are these changes necessary? A leading example in tackling FGM is France, where there is no specific law against FGM. There have been more than 40 prosecutions, resulting in the conviction of more than 100 parents and cutters. Prosecutions are made under general legal provisions such as child neglect, and actual and grievous bodily harm. It is believed that the number of prosecutions has acted as a deterrent in encouraging families to abandon the practice. Such general laws exist in the UK, and we understand that the Crown Prosecution Service is currently considering the extent to which comparable English law provisions could be used in FGM cases.

So, why are there so few prosecutions in the UK? In essence, because there have been very few investigations by the police. For example, between 2010 and 2013, the Metropolitan Police recorded just 20 referrals made to it about FGM. This can be attributed to a failure of victims or witnesses to report FGM, and a failure of health, education and social care professionals to refer suspected cases to the police.

Whilst a successful prosecution in the UK would serve as a deterrent, more than this is required to make a difference. Greater awareness of, and discussion of, FGM in schools and the media is likely to increase the level of reporting. A recent NSPCC survey of 1,000 teachers in England found that one in six did not know FGM was illegal in the UK, and that there was a legal duty on them to take action to safeguard children at risk. Another survey conducted in Wales showed that whilst a large proportion of frontline professionals were aware of FGM, more than half were unsure who was at risk and had never received any formal training. For health, educational and social care professionals to be able to make any use of the proposed criminal and civil law changes, there has to be greater awareness building, training and publicity. In addition, there has to be better information gathering and sharing within the NHS to help understand the extent of FGM within the UK. This may also help to normalise the process of getting healthcare for survivors struggling with the physical and mental consequences of FGM.

Former British Prime Minister William Gladstone famously said: “justice delayed is justice denied.” It is important that successful prosecutions occur soon, and professionals don’t shy away from reporting concerns, so that girls at risk from FGM can be given the protection and justice that they deserve. Whilst passing laws and bringing successful prosecutions does provide some assistance in the fight against FGM, it is the joined-up response of the community and professionals along with a consistent public anti-FGM message that will protect girls in the UK from mutilation.

You can learn more about our work to end FGM and how you can help at www.28toomany.org. You can donate to support our research and campaigns and follow us on Facebook or Twitter for updates on the global movement to end FGM.

Caroline Overton is a lawyer who volunteers as Programmes Manager for 28 Too Many.