Stokoe Partnership solicitor Ali Hussain has written an article for The Barrister’s December 2015 issue exploring the recent consultation by the Government into FGM.

This article has been published in The Barrister, 11th January – 23rd March 2016 edition.

The topic of Female Genital Mutilation (FGM), which has been in the public eye quite significantly for the past couple of years, is one which is simultaneously simple and deeply complex.

The simple part of the equation encompasses the seriousness of the crime and the desirability of protecting young girls and women from what is undoubtedly a distressing and life-limiting form of physical abuse. The complexity arises, however, from the secrecy within which the practice is shrouded, particularly within the UK, and the fact that some members of the communities within which it takes place, both male and female, regard it as a part of their cultural identity.

It is tempting and indeed fairly natural, in view of the horrific consequences of FGM, to regard such cultural concerns as having no legitimate place in the discussion; the government, in its latest consultation paper, for example, (published in July of this year) states that it is ‘clear that we will not allow political or cultural sensitivities to get in the way of tackling abuse in whatever form it takes’. Not allowing such sensitivities to ‘get in the way’ of tackling FGM is, indeed, a laudable aim, but the Government has to be extremely careful to ensure that not allowing cultural concerns to be used as a cover under which crimes such as FGM can be committed does not equate to pretending that such cultural concerns do not exist.

It is possible to condemn the practice of FGM unequivocally and set out to frame laws which will ultimately lead to its cessation, whilst at the same time making some attempt to reach out to the communities within which it is most firmly entrenched. Indeed, such a process of communication and, with it, education, will need to take its place alongside the much-welcomed tightening and fine tuning of the law if the crime of FGM is not, in many cases, to be driven further underground.

The reality is that there has still to be a successful prosecution for FGM, some 30 years after the Prohibition of Female Circumcision Act came into force. Ally this to the fact that the only trial dealing with FGM to date, which was held earlier this year, resulted in a jury exonerating the defendants after just 30 minutes spent deliberating, amidst a widespread perception that the prosecution itself had been an ill-considered response to the need to be seen to be acting, and you have a sense that the Government still has some way to go before formulating a genuinely successful approach to detecting and prosecuting cases of FGM. Anecdotal evidence would also tend to indicate that the recently introduced FGM protection orders, designed to protect girls deemed to be at risk, are, in some cases, being utilised in respect of families of African origin who are prevented from going on holiday by the police and social services, only for any suspicions to prove unfounded. Action of this kind will have a stigmatising effect and will, in the long run, do little to advance the cause of stamping out FGM.

The campaigners who have done much to push the issue of FGM to the forefront of the Governments  thinking will doubtless be delighted to see that the momentum appears to be moving in the right direction. The latest consultation, on a new statutory multi-agency guidance, indicates that the government is committed to taking on board the widest possible range of views from both the professionals tasked with dealing with the issue and the people coping with its ramifications on a personal level.

The exact scale of the FGM problem within the UK is difficult to quantify, with all of the problems mentioned regarding cultural pressures and the clandestine nature of the issue meaning it is rarely reported in a manner which would lead to the collating of reliable figures. A report published in 2014 by Equality Now and City University, however, estimated that as many as 60,000 girls aged up to 14 years of age had been born in England and Wales to mothers who had undergone FGM, whilst approximately 103,000 women aged 15-49 and approximately 24,000 aged 50 and over had migrated to England and Wales whilst living with the lifelong consequences of FGM. Perhaps the most ‘current’ source of information regarding statistics for FGM is provided by the figures provided by the Health and Social Care Information Centre between September 2014 and April 2015, during which period 3,963 newly identified cases of FGM were reported nationally 60 of which involved patients under the age of 18.

In a sense, however, the broader statistics move us away from the kernel of the matter, which is the hugely damaging psychological and physical impact of FGM upon every single victim, and the possible number of girls within the UK who may be at risk. A consultation period of the kind currently being undertaken by the Government provides an invaluable opportunity to take stock of the measures which have been put in place so far, bring on board the views of both the communities concerned and the practitioners tasked with identifying the problems at ‘ground level’ and examine the reasons why, for all the undoubted good intentions, the FGM law as it stands at the moment has proved, in the truest possible sense, ineffective. Actions such as introducing the offence of failing to protect a girl from FGM, guaranteeing lifelong anonymity for victims of FGM and the extension of the extra-territorial reach of the 2003 Act all show a positive direction of travel, as does the mandatory reporting duty which will commence this month (October 2015).

The key to taking the next step and actually preventing and prosecuting cases of FGM will lie in ensuring that the current consultation process takes in as broad a spectrum as possible, to ensure that the communities wherein this practice is till entrenched can, to at least some degree, take ownership of the process of rooting it out once and for all. Above all else, the eagerness to be seen to be acting on the problem, however well founded it might be, must not (as was sadly the case in the single FGM prosecution to date) be allowed to cloud clear thinking and good judgement.

The ability of untold women who have not yet even been born to live to their full potential may rest upon the right voices making themselves heard during the current consultation.

 

You can also find Ali’s article below.

Download the PDF file .