5 August 2015

How do we deal with FGM?

Guest blog by Hannah Cotton.

This year I completed an Extended Project titled; ‘is the UK government doing enough to stop FGM?’ I chose this topic because it was one I was entirely uninformed about. I have never received any education on the procedure. I did not know why it happens or even what it is. I did have many assumptions about Female Genital Mutilation. For example, I had always believed it was a religious practice. Yet, during my research I discovered the practice predates both Islam and Christianity. As such it is a cultural, and not a religious, practice. It was through my project that I became much more informed about FGM and many of its ramifications. However, many of my peers do not share my newly developed knowledge. Many did not know what FGM stood for; others did not know that FGM occurs in the UK. Personally, I find it quite worrying that only through an optional project can the next generation inform themselves about a hugely relevant issue. Despite the increased news coverage FGM has gained since the first Protection Order was obtained by Bedfordshire police, many are still uncomfortable to openly discuss FGM. There is no denying that FGM is a horrific experience for the victims and an unlikely dinner time discussion topic. However, it is well established that only through open discussion, education and understanding can an engrained cultural norm ever be prevented. Similarly, to the ‘segregated heart’ Pat Boyle described during the Civil Rights Movement in America, FGM could be seen as another example of attitudes that need changing; a notoriously difficult notion.

My main interest, however, lies in a more certain area; the UK law. FGM was first made a specific criminal offence in the UK under the 1985 Prohibition of Female Circumcision Act. The law was enhanced in 2003 by the Female Genital Mutilation Act and the 1985 Act was repealed. The Crown Prosecution Service (2014) explains that within the 2003 Act it was made an offence for UK nationals or permanent UK residents to carry out FGM abroad, even if the country where the offence was committed allows FGM to be practiced legally. Also, to aid, abet, counsel, or procure the carrying out of FGM abroad it was made illegal under the act.  Anyone accused of intentionally encouraging an offence of FGM, is doing so contrary to section 44(1) of the Serious Crime Act 2007. Furthermore, the maximum penalty available was increased from five years to fourteen years imprisonment.

Also, in a situation where FGM is suspected to occur or have happened, there is legislation in place to allow authorities to take action. As explained by the Home Office and Department of Education in their published document; “Female Genital Mutilation: Multi-agency practice guidelines,” professionals are able to bypass issues with confidentiality, such as health care professionals, in order to try and prevent a crime. The published document states “both law and policy allow for disclosure where it is in the public interest or where a criminal act may have been perpetrated.” In addition, Police Officers have powers under Section 17(1)(e) of the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984 to “enter and search any premises in order to protect life or prevent injury.” Furthermore, children or young people at risk of FGM can be removed from risk and placed into protection. If an individual under the age of eighteen is at “risk of significant harm” a Police Officer is able to remove that individual from the parent(s) and use the powers for ‘Police Protection’. This is under Section 46 of the Children Act 1989, and can be enforced for up to 72 hours. After this amount of time the child must be returned to an adult with parental responsibility. However, the Children’s Social Care can apply an Emergency Protection Order, under Section 44 of the Children Act 1989, at any point within those 72 hours.  

In addition, the Serious Crime Act 2015, made into law on the 3rd of March, allows police to obtain a protection order, which bans travel by people who are believed to be at risk of FGM. Despite all this legislation there have been no successful convictions. 

Similarly to my Extended Project, I hope this blog gives you an insight into UK law and how it is relevant to FGM. It is true to say that I am no expert and am yet to study law, but I still hope my descriptions are useful and accurate. Throughout my research it became clear that people have very different reactions to FGM. When a friend of mine heard that I would be writing this blog he said “is it really appropriate for you to write a blog on something like FGM?” My response is fairly simple. I believe that something like FGM should concern us all. In my personal opinion, national consensus is essential in the fight against FGM. I believe that a long-term and calculated response is needed to eradicate FGM. Over the last decade the UK government has carried out measures to reduce smoking in the UK. These plans were designed to gradually, over so many years, reduce smoking in the UK. The plans targeted all areas of smoking. Through taxation the government made smoking an increasingly expensive habit. They banned advertising to make the habit more socially unacceptable. They change the packaging to raise awareness of the risks as to try and educate smokers. Finally, they unveiled plans in 2005 to make smoking even more unacceptable by banning it from social areas such as pubs and restaurants. Although, there have been some shortcomings with these plans, such as the growth in illegal tobacco, they have been more effective than arguably a straight out ban. 

I believe that it is this type of strategy the government needs to employ to tackle FGM. They need a careful, extensive and calculated response over a set number of years. There needs to be consensus across all the political parties so that these plans can be carried out regardless of election results. These plans need to address areas such as education and institutional culture. The government has gone so far as to bring FGM before the law and identify the practice as a form of child abuse and a criminal offence. However, this is not enough. The strong legislation now needs to be enforced with as much precision and conviction as possible. Our society needs to be educated on FGM so the practice cannot remain in the shadows, unchallenged. Our society needs the courage to stand against these types of practices despite their cultural links. We need a national consensus that the government simply has not done enough to achieve. Guidelines are largely useless if people are too afraid and ignorant to use them. We need public discussions and training so that we can eradicate FGM in the safest and most effective way.

Hannah Cotton is 17 years old and attends Torquay Girls' Grammar School. She is planning to read law at University.

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