Female genital mutilation (FGM), also known as cutting and female circumcision, is a procedure which involves partial or total removal of the external female genitalia or other injury to the female genital organs for non-medical reasons. Recent NHS data has revealed that English doctors addressed over 5,300 new cases of female genital mutilation (FGM) in 2016 alone.
There is little doubt as to the pernicious character of FGM. Deeply rooted in gender inequality and gender discrimination, the practice targets only women and girls, saddling them with life-long sequels that are as wide-ranging as they are severe. These include but are not limited to recurring infections, pain during and beyond sexual intercourse, infertility, childbirth complications and even death. However, the most devastating trait of FGM is that it is practised on children – the same NHS data revealed that 95% of the victims recorded in 2016/17 had undergone FGM when under 18 years old, and 44% of victims were subjected to the practice when they were between 5 and 9 years old.
Despite the outlawing of FGM in the UK in 1985 and the introduction of the 2003 Female Genital Mutilation Act, penalising anyone taking a child out of the UK to be cut elsewhere with 14 years of prison, not a single successful FGM prosecution has taken place to date. In condemning this ‘scandalous’ figure, the Commons Home Affairs Committee expressed fears of the lack of convictions deterring victims to come forward.
This shocking figure not only questions the effectiveness of police efforts in tackling the practice, but also its attitudes towards FGM. Earlier this year, the West Midlands Police received backlash after stating that parents practising FGM on their children should be educated instead of prosecuted. The issue is compounded by a lack of FGM awareness in schools, and the fear of victims to expose their families to the risk of being prosecuted, and suffer retaliation. Equally, cultural barriers and community secrecy have proved an obstacle for third parties to come forward.
However, recent strides made by the government may be turning the tide. Since 2015, it became mandatory for all hospital trusts, mental health trusts and GP practices to collect and submit FGM data to the NHS FGM database – thus strengthening figures on the procedure, allowing for greater transparency. In addition, the Children’s minister announced earlier this month that the National FGM Centre, previously in financial difficulties, was set to partake in £30 million of funding from the Department for Education’s innovation fund. It is hoped that these efforts will generate momentum in the fight and prosecution of FGM, and raise awareness of the issue in communities and the broader population.