FGM: Why is the UK failing to tackle female genital mutilation?

Group of MPs say the lack of successful prosecutions for the brutal practice is a 'national scandal'

(Image credit: 2004 Getty Images)

Female genital mutilation (FGM) is recognised as a serious violation of the human rights of girls and women, but the brutal practice continues not only in parts of Africa and the Middle East – but across the UK.

British MPs have described the lack of convictions for FGM as a "national scandal". Since it was outlawed in the UK in 1985, only a single prosecution has been brought to trial. Both defendants were cleared.

"That is a lamentable record, and the failure to identify cases, to prosecute and to achieve convictions can only have negative consequences for those who are brave enough to come forward to highlight this crime," says a report by the Home Affairs Select Committee published this week.

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What is FGM?

Female genital mutilation is the practice of removing all or part of the external female genitalia or causing other injuries to female genital organs, such as burning, scraping, piercing or cutting. Also known as female circumcision, it can involve removing the clitoris or labia, or narrowing the vagina opening, and is often carried out on young girls between infancy and the age of 15. It is not performed for medical reasons and is recognised internationally as a violation of the human rights of girls and women.

What are the consequences?

Immediate complications include severe pain, shock, heavy bleeding and infections, while longer term problems include cysts, infertility and complications in childbirth. Anaesthetics are not generally used and the practice is usually carried out by someone with no medical training using knives, scissors, pieces of glass or razor blades. One victim, speaking to the Evening Standard, said the pain was "indescribable" and worse than giving birth to any of her five children. Girls may have to be forcibly restrained, and victims are often left with psychological damage.

Why is FGM carried out?

There is a mix of cultural, religious and social factors involved. In some communities it is a social convention and considered a necessary part of raising a girl properly. Some believe it will reduce a woman's libido and therefore help her resist "illicit" sexual acts. Although no religious scripts prescribe the practice, practitioners often believe the practice has religious support.

Where does it happen?

More than 125 million girls and women alive today have been cut in 29 countries in Africa and the Middle East where the practice is concentrated. But the UK is not immune. According to the NHS, there are 66,000 victims living in the UK and more than 20,000 girls under the age of 15 at risk of FGM in the UK each year. However, the true extent is unknown due to the hidden nature of the crime. Some girls are taken to their countries of origin so that FGM can be carried out during the summer holidays, allowing them time to "heal" before they return to school, but there are also worries that FGM is being performed in the UK. The Guardian reports that some families are clubbing together to pay for practitioners to travel to Britain to mutilate girls in "cutting parties".

Why hasn't FGM been stopped?

Great global efforts have been made to counteract FGM since 1997, according to the World Health Organisation. Research, work within communities, changes in public policy and legislation are all believed to have helped decrease its prevalence globally. In May, FGM was finally outlawed in Nigeria, setting an important precedent, but the practice has certainly not been eradicated.

As of last year, UK clinicians are legally required to report incidents of FGM to the authorities, but MPs claim they are failing to do so. "The duty to report must not be seen as optional. A decision not to report puts children's lives at risk and is complicit in a crime being committed," the report said.

The MPs have called for tougher sanctions against healthcare workers who flout the law and have recommended adopting an approach used in France, where routine medical examinations of young children are believed to have resulted in a large number of successful FGM prosecutions, ITV reports.

But while prosecution is an "important" element in the fight against FGM, says the Royal College of Midwives, survivors lack adequate physical and psychological support.

"We must address the need for culturally appropriate physiological services for survivors of FGM," the college's professional policy adviser, Janet Fyle, told The Guardian.

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