The invisible crime of female genital mutilation

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By Roman Winter on

“Abused unchecked” report reveals zero convictions in 16 years, but maybe that’s because the law is far too unclear


Despite being illegal in the United Kingdom since 1985, the Commons home affairs select committee has delivered a damning report that shows there hasn’t been a single conviction for female genital mutilation (FGM) in 30 years.

The report, titled ‘Abuse unchecked’, reveals that this is one area of law which “must be enforced with stronger sanctions.” The scale of the problem is still unknown throughout the UK because of a lack of reliable data, but experts suggest there could be as many as 170,000 women and girls living in the UK who have undergone the procedure.

The fear is that the lack of convictions is a self-perpetuating cycle, meaning that those made aware of cases of FGM are deterred from reporting it because they fear nothing will be done. Although the majority of the cases are believed to have taken place in Africa, as many as 18 took place in the UK.

The current law states that, not only is it illegal to perform FGM in the UK or assist someone to carry out FGM on themselves, it is also illegal to “assist a non-UK national or resident to carry out FGM outside the UK on a UK national or permanent UK resident.”

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With 5,702 new cases reported in England between April 2015 and March 2016, it is shocking that none of these cases led to a prosecution. One FGM case was brought to trial in 2015, but the defendant — an NHS doctor — was acquitted within 30 minutes in the face of claims that the Crown Prosecution Service brought the case under political pressure.

Critics have argued that the fundamental flaw in the law is that it is too vague.

How can we tell one group of people that their cultural practice is illegal when another group can simply pop to Harley Street for a similar procedure with a different name? The rise of ‘designer vaginas’ came under fire in 2015 when a group of MPs called for this form of cosmetic surgery to be classed as FGM. It’s a grey area that has long puzzled law students, and caused very public Twitter spats.

On paper, cosmetic surgery ‘down there’ should be classed as FGM, in the same way that genital piercings are recorded by the NHS as FGM. In reality, cosmetic surgery meets the World Health Organisation definition of FGM as being “injury to the female genital organs for non-medical reasons”. And yet this form of cosmetic surgery remains exempt. How long before we see a botched designer vagina leading to a cosmetic surgery claim that accuses the surgeon of FGM?

According to one campaign group, Equality Now, the focus of the discussion should be on prevention over prosecution. Making it easier for victims to come forward and better safeguarding of children who are at risk of becoming victims of FGM needs to be at the forefront of government plans.

Roman Winter is an aspiring freelance writer with an interest in law and politics.

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