In their latest bid to prevent and decrease the on-going problem of female genital mutilation (FGM) in the UK, the government unveiled new FGM Protection Orders last year in the hope of bolstering the legal protections available for girls under the age of eighteen against this barbaric practice.
For those unaware, FGM involves the removal or alteration of all or part of the external female genitals for non-medical reasons. It is an African cultural practice not linked to religion, as it predates Islam. Most widely practised in Islamic countries by both Muslims and non-Muslims as it is often deemed a prerequisite for marriage in their societies, it is also prevalent in ethnic minority communities in Western countries, including the UK. Reported figures for FGM vary due to the difficulty in obtaining accurate data. However, one report compiled by City University was based on 2011 census data and Office for National Statistics birth figures, and estimated that 170,000 women aged 15 and over currently living in England and Wales had been subjected to FGM, while 63,000 remained at risk.
FGM has been illegal in the UK since the introduction of the Prohibition of Female Circumcision Act in 1985, first banning the practice. The Female Genital Mutilation Act 2003 then replaced the 1985 Act, in England, Wales and Northern Ireland (Scotland passed separate but similar legislation of their own in 2005) and made it illegal to assist a girl in performing FGM on herself or to take a girl out of the country to have FGM performed. It also increased the maximum penalty from a five year to fourteen year jail sentence.
However, despite the legislation in place and the increasing number of cases of FGM, there has yet to be a successful prosecution for the offence. This fact led to wide-spread allegations of inadequacy and in 2014 the Prime Minister, inspired by the forced marriage protection orders in Family Law, Act 1996, proposed the FGM Protection Orders at the first ever Girl Summit in the UK.
The new protection orders were built into the existing legislation of the FGM Act 2003 as an amendment, through the Serious Crime Act 2015. This amendment placed a duty on certain regulated professions to report any instances of FGM which they might “discover” in their professional capacity. “Discover” is taken to mean specifically when a girl tells a professional she has undergone FGM or where the professional suspects she might have undergone FGM due to physical signs not attributable to child-birth or medical intervention (such as surgery).
If an order is put in place it can be extremely flexible and can contain any prohibition, restriction or requirement the court might decide is necessary in the situation. This could include confiscation or revocation of passports, or access to certain family members being withheld from the child thought to be at risk. Breaching an order is a criminal offence and also carries a jail time sentence of up to five years.
The first successful FGM Protection Order was used in July last year by Bedfordshire police, just as the schools were breaking up for the summer holidays – one of the most common times of year for girls to be subjected to FGM. The Order allowed the police to take the passports of two young girls they believed to be at risk of being taken to Africa to have FGM carried out. At the time DCI Nick Bellingham gave a statement lauding the new powers as “a really positive step forward in the fight against this horrific, cruel crime”, however he also pointed out, “A change in law isn’t in itself enough to end this barbaric practice. I’d urge anyone who suspects that a child is at risk of FGM to contact police immediately.” His words highlighted the most problematic aspect of tackling FGM as people are generally incredibly unwilling to come forward to report the crime, making it difficult to gather enough evidence to take legal action.
However, despite the promising start for the FGM Protection Orders, this problem of insufficient reporting is clearly still evident as already there are echoes of the same complaints from the past. Only twenty eight applications were made and only eighteen protection orders were issued within the first three months of the orders coming into force, according to the Family Court Statistics for July to September 2015, issued by the Ministry of Justice in December 2015.
As campaigners cry out for a braver, harder stance on the issue it is clear that while the political and public will is there, the delicacy of the issue continues to prevent progress. Yet as Celia Jeffreys, head of the National FGM Centre, commented: “We’re just starting to get to grips with how we use the orders and how useful they can be. Professionals need more support to enable them to do this and it’s something the centre is working on. But I would say be brave, use them.” The Ministry of Justice also issued a statement promising to provide greater clarification on how the orders should and can be used, in early 2016. Greater clarification will no doubt assist the authorities in relation to these orders, and unlike pursuing a prosecution for a case of FGM which has already been committed, they have the capacity to end the practice before it begins and in the process hopefully preserve the innocence and health of many vulnerable girls at risk. Hope remains that the relevant authorities will register the importance and impact the Orders could have and will take a less hesitant approach to instigating them in the future.
15 January 2016