Research suggests many barriers stand in the way of
prosecuting cases of FGM
A child with a blackened eye, broken bones, or other obvious signs of abuse would raise eyebrows instantly. However, many medical professionals, legal experts, and government officials are asking why such an extreme, although hidden, form of abuse is yet to have its first prosecution.
Despite female genital mutilation (FGM) being illegal in the United Kingdom since the Prohibition of Female Circumcision Act was passed in 1985, not a single prosecution to date has been carried out against FGM in the UK.
The Female Genital Mutilation Act 2003, which replaced the 1985 Act intended to close a loophole in the system which legally allowed people to take girls outside of the UK, usually to their countries of origin where FGM is a common cultural practice, says Alison Humphreys from the Violent Crime Unit at the Home Office in London.
This “made it an offence for the first time for UK nationals or permanent UK residents to carry out FGM abroad, or to aid, abet, counsel or procure the carrying out of FGM abroad, even in countries where the practice is legal,” Humphreys says.
However, this law doesn’t cover non-residents or refugees under the same law, so “FGM that takes place outside is not necessarily within the law,” says Naana Otoo-Oyortey, the Executive Director of the Foundation for Women’s Health Research and Development (FORWARD). This also creates problems of possible prosecution.
There is no reason for it
According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), the definition of FGM is partial or total removal of the female external genitalia or injury to, for non-medical reasons. FGM is most practiced in some regions in Africa, some Asian countries as well as parts of the Middle East.
Many believe that FGM is solely an Islamic practice, however a 2010 report by the European Campaign and Amnesty International states that “despite the fact that FGM is not prescribed by any religion, religious beliefs play an important role in its continued support. It is predominant among Muslims, but also occurs among Christians, animists and Jews.”
According to the same report, not even medicalization of FGM should happen because even that “goes against the principle of medical ethics which is “do not harm,”” and even less extreme versions of FGM, like incision or pricking may promote FGM as acceptable in some form.
“We should go and ban all forms because the moment you give room for other forms to be performed you never stop FGM,” says Efua Dorkenoo, Advocacy Director of the FGM Programme at Equality Now, an international human rights organization.
Otoo-Oyortey says that there has been a shift within some of the communities in London, specifically those practicing Type III have moved to practicing type I. She suggests that it should fully be stopped “but the reality for communities is that they’ve shifted and is up to us to engage them to drop the practice all together,” she adds.
Research shows it’s not just a lack of data or unwillingness to gather the information needed to prosecute, but many underlining reasons remain making it a difficult area of the law to tackle.
Still widely unreported
“There’s a reluctance to speak out,” says John Cameron, the Head of Child Protection Operations, NSPCC, a London based charity helpline that provides 24-hour help and independent advice to the public with concerns about child safety. On June 24 2013 the NSPCC launched a FGM helpline and since then have received 132 contacts seeking help regarding FGM.
“The other element is around the professional contact. So when health visitors, teachers have suspicions there’s a little bit of anxiety about how to intervene on that,” says Cameron.
“We know that FGM is not necessarily a cultural specific issue, but there is that kind of confusion that might make matters worse, so gathering information from professionals is also very difficult,” he adds. Cameron suggests that there is a dilemma from adults that come in contact with girls that have undergone FGM and reporting them to the authorities. He says the dilemma stems from the fact that those children are at any other time unremarkably looked after, so there is that fear about making things worse.
Another challenge is that the victims of FGM are often too young to understand the situation fully and they fear if they report their family members they’ll be taken away.
“At the time of mutilation, victims may be too young and vulnerable, or too afraid, to report offences to the police or to give evidence in court,” Humphreys says.
“Of course children services wouldn’t want to add to the trauma, however these are traumatic events,” says Cameron.
A lack of evidence
The British legal system works majorly on evidence, something Dorkenoo, says is not helping future prosecutions happen. A year ago a British newspaper completed an investigation and found doctors in England that performed FGM to people who requested it. “In the UK this kind of evidence is called entrapment and is not accepted in court,” says. Dorkenoo
On November 1, 2013, the Royal College of Midwives published a report suggesting recommendations for tackling FGM in the UK, two of those recommendations were treating FGM as child abuse and the importance of documentation and collection of data.
According to that report “Evidence for a prosecution will include proof that FGM has taken place, including medical evidence. There is also some reliance on the victim to provide details of when and where the procedure took place and who was responsible to enable an investigation to commence.”
However, the Crown Prosecution Service in London says that victims are at times young, “and would often have to give evidence against a family member, there are particular obstacles to investigating and prosecuting FGM.”
“I call this ‘abuse with the best intentions,’” says Cameron. He suggests that the overall care of girls in FGM practicing families are generally satisfactory. “There’s not that kind of ongoing, emotional abuse you see in those archetypal typical abuse scenarios. This is a one event,” he adds. The problem that arises in these cases is gathering information, unlike when child abuse is physically obvious, adults around that child will speak out and report it, Cameron says.
“The incident has happened, there’s no future danger to that child. Children services are not [going to] take children away because an incident has happened and no further incidents are going to occur,” he says.
Currently, the CPS has six FGM cases they are working on. Four of them are being reviewed “in which a decision had previously been made not to prosecute,” however there is a great pressure and attention awaiting an FGM prosecution in the near future, The Crown Prosecution Service states.