Is legislation enough? The battle against Female Genital Mutilation

Posted On: 
15th March 2019

Female Genital Mutilation has been illegal in the UK for 34 years, so why has it taken until 2019 for the first conviction to take place, and what can the Government do to stop it? Dods Monitoring's Sophie-Rose Feary explains. 

Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) is one of the rare issues that has overwhelming cross-party support, nevertheless, tackling the issue has proved to be complicated.

It has been outlawed to perform FGM on children or adults since 1985, and it has been an offense to arrange FGM outside the country for a British citizen or permanent residents since 2005. Yet, Daughters of Eve a non-profit organisation dedicated to stopping FGM and helping their survivors, estimate that 23,000 girls are cut in the UK every year.

Despite legislation being in place for over 34 years, it has taken until February this year for the first prosecution to successfully take place.

A Private Members Bill which would amend the current legislation on FGM under the Children Act 1989 was objected to by Christopher Chope, in February and has since been pushed through on Government time. The Bill itself would address the issue of interim care orders which are currently not in place under the current legislation, closing the perceived “loophole”.

But tighter legislation is only a small step in the right direction.

Current levels of prosecution show how difficult it is to prosecute those that take part in FGM, and whilst tightening of the law is undoubtably welcomed, the issue will not be solved by legislation alone.

FGM is still highly practiced across the world, and though African governments have taken steps to eliminate the practice, including criminalising FGM. Yet, the numbers remain alarmingly high. This has driven NGO’s to invest in community-based services, that are able to tackle the issue from ground level.

FGM is a culturally sensitive issue that has caused many a headache for the police forces that search for evidence for convictions. The involvement of family members as well as the age of the victims has made it increasingly difficult for evidence to be collated. Moreover, the stigma attached to this brutal act has left women unable to come forward, whether this be to the police or healthcare professionals. These are challenges that cannot be solved by legislation alone.

If the Government were to look at recommendations from NGO’s and other lobbyist it would find that whilst tougher legislation is welcomed, it will require much more than a top down approach from government.

Plan International UK have listed three ways to protect those at risk of FGM: raise awareness, community outreach and vigilance.

The Tackling Female Genital Mutilation Initiative (TFGMI) supported by community-based organisations (CBOs) argued in their evaluation from 2010-2016 that:

“The strengthening of UK legislation was seen as necessary by those who want to end FGM and a useful tool to support ending the practice. However, greater community involvement has been crucial to ensure that increased government intervention is not seen as punitive, particularly around the implementation of ‘mandatory reporting’.”

Human Rights organisations, and campaigners and survivors such as, Hibo Wardere have stressed the importance of education in this sensitive debate, an approach the Government has welcomed with its recent funding in Home Office and Department of Education.

Steps have already been taken to address the issue of FGM from an early age in the current guidance released by the Department of Education, yet, there have been concerns that this information will be provided too late and will still struggle to reach those most at risk.

So, what is the Government likely to do once the legislation has been passed?

Judging by the number of headlines that hit the news after Chope objected to the FGM bill, it is no wonder the Government pushed the bill through parliament which reached its final reading in the Commons on Monday 11th March with few amendments.

Nevertheless, those lobbying the Government for action beyond legislation are likely to be disappointed. Once the legislation has been passed, it is unlikely that the Government will put a cross-departmental approach at the front of its agenda. Especially if the Government views the Bill itself as a big win amongst the public and press. 

It has taken this long to mention the dreaded B word, but it would foolish to ignore the significance Brexit has already had on the Government’s domestic agenda, and the time it is likely to consume after 29th March. Unfortunately, is it almost certain that the fight against FGM will become another casualty of Brexit and is likely to return to its shadow once the legislation is passed and the news stories have been printed.

Sophie-Rose Feary is a Health Consultant for Dods Monitoring. For more information around Home Affair policies related to violence against females, including Female Genital Mutiltion, click here to download Dods Monitoring's look ahead for April & May