NOTTINGHAM, England — Female genital mutilation has been illegal in England and Wales since 1985. Scotland has similar but separate legislation. Much more comprehensive laws forbidding the practice were introduced in 2003 and again in 2015, creating additional safeguards and stringent punishments for those practicing FGM, as it is known. Yet no one in Britain has successfully been prosecuted for the crime, which suggests that programs to prevent the procedure are failing.
Many reasons account for the lack of prosecution, experts have explained, including the reluctance of family members to report on one another if the procedure is being practiced and the enduring cultural sensitivity of the topic. Globally, revised legal frameworks and growing political support to end FGM have not led to more successful prosecutions either, despite laws against the practice in 26 countries in Africa and the Middle East, as well as in 33 other countries with migrant populations from FGM-practicing countries.
In July 2016, the first-ever recorded figures for the number of FGM cases in England were released, showing that from April 2015 to March 2016, 5,702 cases were documented in England alone, according to NHS Digital, formerly known as the Health and Social Care Information Center, a government body. (Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland have not collected figures on rates of FGM separately.) The highest rate of FGM is occurring in London, according to a City University London report in 2015.
Most of the women and girls in the time frame of April 2015 to March 2016 were cut abroad, primarily in Africa, but 43 were born in Britain, with at least 18 cut inside the country. Government figures estimate that 170,000 girls and women living in Britain have undergone excision, as it is also called, and that 65,000 girls under age 13 risk being subjected to it.
Female genital mutilation is a cultural practice that has no medical basis. It is a procedure that intentionally alters or causes injury to female genital organs, according to the World Health Organization, and spans vast geographic areas and different religions and is not condoned by any holy book. It is most commonly carried out in about 29 countries of Africa, some nations in the Middle East and parts of Asia. Somalia, in east Africa, has the highest rate, accounting for a third of all new cases.
Diaspora groups from many of the countries where it is practiced are the most likely to practice FGM in Britain, the UN says, as well as in Australia, Canada and the United States. South America has recorded female circumcision activity in Colombia, Ecuador and Peru.
The World Health Organization describes four types of FGM, with degrees of severity, involving the partial or total removal of external female genitalia. The reasons given for the practice are generally related to ideas of purity and chastity, and it can be seen as a prerequisite for marriage in some cultures, ensuring a woman’s virginity. Ignorance or dismissal of related health issues it creates — it can even kill in some circumstances — abounds in those who carry it out.
Yet despite greater social and political awareness of the problem and proof that it is inflicted on British citizens, perpetrators remain unpunished, a situation that has been condemned by advocates campaigning against the practice.
“It is shocking girls born in the UK are still subjected to FGM, despite the practice being illegal here for more than 30 years,” said Celia Jeffreys, the head of the National FGM Center, a British public-private entity, to PassBlue.
The failure to produce a single prosecution has induced more government pressure on the Crown Prosecution Service, the principal prosecuting authority for England and Wales, acting independently in criminal cases investigated by the police and others. In 2014, four days before members of the British Parliament were due to question Alison Saunders, the director of public prosecutions as the head of the Crown Prosecution Service, the organization announced it was bringing the first ever charges of FGM against two men, one of whom was a medical doctor. In 2015, both men, however, were cleared of all charges within 30 minutes by jurors in a case that was later deemed a “show trial” by the media.
“There are a number of reasons which affect the prosecution of FGM cases, including the age and vulnerability of victims who may be too scared to report the offence or give evidence in court against their family,” a spokesman for the Crown Prosecution Service told PassBlue. “The law has been strengthened to encourage victims to come forward, including giving them lifelong anonymity, being able to give evidence via video or from behind a screen and it is now mandatory for teachers and doctors to report instances of FGM in girls under 18.”
The mandatory reporting requirement has been imposed on everyone working in regulated professions, such as teachers and health care workers, since 2015. The duty, however, is narrow in scope and requires professionals only to notify the police about instances of FGM they “discover” on girls under age 18.
Mandatory reporting does not refer to cases where a girl might be at risk of FGM or where FGM has not yet been performed; it also does not apply to cases where a woman older than 18 undergoes female cutting. This gap, advocates say, is important, as these numbers may have a crucial impact on gathering data on those more likely to be at risk.
Jeffreys also pointed to the vulnerability of FGM victims as a crucial barrier to prosecution, saying: “Successful prosecutions of perpetrators are complex, as many of them are family members, making it even harder for survivors to come forward.”
Other barriers to successful prosecution can be found in the enduring misunderstanding of female genital cutting in both the public sphere and the specific communities in which it is condoned.
The Crown Prosecution Service noted that it could consider only a charge and prosecution after the police have investigated and referred a case of suspected FGM to the service. If the police do not have enough evidence or are not fully informed of the relevant signs to look for regarding excision, the likelihood of the police referring a case is greatly decreased.
Additionally, the prevailing focus of both anti-FGM campaigners and law enforcers now seems to have shifted to protection and prevention, rather than prosecution. Many activists think that punishment is actually a sign of failure of the national campaign against FGM and that prosecution comes too late.
Adwoa Kwateng-Kluvitse leads the partnerships and global advocacy program at Forward (Foundation for Women’s Health Research and Development), a British-based, African diaspora campaign and charity focused on gender equality and upholding the rights of African women and girls. She spoke with PassBlue about prosecution being a belated step.
“The lack of a successful prosecution doesn’t condone the practice,” Kwateng-Kluvitse said. “Getting to the point of prosecution means Forward has failed, the law has failed, as a girl has been subjected to FGM — something she will have to live with for the rest of her life.”
As to why there has not been a successful prosecution in Britain, Kwateng-Kluvitse responded by asking, “How many girls have been saved because of existing legislation?”
This question is particularly pertinent amid the new FGM protection orders that were introduced in the 2015 legislation, called the Serious Crime Act. These orders allow courts wide powers to protect those deemed at risk of undergoing FGM. Judges can revoke passports to prevent parents leaving the country and having their child cut abroad; and they can restrict access to the child or even order the child be taken into state care. Additionally, it is now an offense to fail to protect a girl from FGM if a person has parental responsibility of the child.
Jeffreys highlighted in a Guardian article that authorities needed to be “braver” and more proactive in using these new protections, given that only 18 FGM orders were used in the first three months of their being implemented. Jeffries pointed to the need for better cooperation and education on the subject, saying, “Professionals working in education, health and social care need to be better at communicating with each other, to ensure girls at risk are spotted and those who’ve already been affected by FGM get the necessary support to bring perpetrators to justice.”
Several reasons for the hesitant response from many authorities have been suggested. First, there remains a stubborn ignorance of both FGM itself in British society and whether it even occurs. Second, the cultural nature of the practice presents a sensitivity aspect to the issue.
Valentine Nkoyo was a victim of FGM and now runs the Mojatu Foundation in Nottingham, England, which aims to empower women and girls through media, health and education. She told PassBlue, “I think there has been fear, especially among professionals, of not wanting to be seen as racists interfering with other people’s ‘culture.’ ”
Yet she was adamant that cultural sensitivities should not undermine the fight to eradicate the practice, saying, “I strongly feel if we all look at this as a purely form of child abuse that violates the rights of girls and women, we can confidently tackle FGM from that angle.”
More emphasis is being placed on education and the importance of work in communities practicing FGM — most of which occurs in the country’s largest cities, such as Manchester, Birmingham and London boroughs — with many campaigners thinking this is crucial to securing a successful prosecution. Nkoyo thinks that both education and prosecution are needed in equal measure to tackle FGM fully.
“Education and strong laws play a very important role if they go hand in hand, as there is a potential danger to push the issue underground by focusing only on prosecuting without trying to get communities on board,” she said.
Kwateng-Kluvitse noted, “More importantly, families and communities need to be made aware of the UK law on FGM, so that we do not end up prosecuting people who are practicing social norms in ignorance.”
As to whether the law is effective enough, Kwateng-Kluvitse said that not enough research has been done and that it would be useful to get information from social services, health departments and education departments if they were tracking FGM cases separately, she said.
Laws on FGM should focus, she said, “on the trauma the girl has gone through, looking at providing support and services to her” and not on merely securing a prosecution.
Echoing Nkoyo, she said, “It [FGM] is important because it is not a mainstream issue, so communities must be fully aware of UK position, but we should respond to it as we do to any other child abuse case.”