After Eighty Years, No Prosecutions for FGM in the UK

Kenya 2012

By Julia Manning

July 25, 2012

Also published at the Daily Mail

As long ago as 1932, the MP Colonel Wedgwood (direct descendent of the famous potter) spoke in parliament on the 'horrible practice of female circumcision' that he had seen in Kenya and questioned any acceptance of 'their customs...their cruelties'. It’s a practice that involves the partial to complete removal of a girl’s external genitals which inevitably has a severely damaging impact on her physical, sexual and mental health.

Eighty years later what have we got? Two laws banning female circumcision – more commonly known as female genital mutilation (FGM) – but no prosecutions despite significant evidence that thousands of girls every year in the UK are at risk of this abusive practice.

Newsnight have featured two excellent programmes over the past two evenings on the abhorrent practice of FGM. Last night they had a group of teenagers in the studio who boldly and rightly asked Minister Lynne Featherstone why FGM is not seen in the same light as child abuse. They were right to ask. If parents were having their daughter’s ears cut off I can’t believe the Prime Minister himself wouldn’t be denouncing it from the dispatch box and ordering a judicial enquiry.

The Newsnight programme detailed the approach in France, where apparently there have been over 100 prosecutions for FGM. There, all girls have an annual health check which includes a quick look at their genitals by a medical professional. This approach was ruled out immediately by Lynne Featherstone, but as one of the teenagers put it, all women have smear tests which are a much more invasive check, so what would be the problem with a quick visual inspection on younger girls by a nurse?

More worryingly, when the discussion turned to girls being brought to England for FGM from other European countries, the Minister said that this was the first she had heard of it. Hasn’t she or her officials been reading the papers this year?

It seems quite clear to me that we need cultural change. The government need to get their act together, declare afresh that FGM is child abuse that will be prosecuted and direct some resources into investigation and prosecution. Any reports by health professionals or teachers of their concerns should be acted upon immediately. At the same time, community leaders in the UK need to establish new rites of passage for girls that don’t involve FGM but still initiate them into their culture and womanhood.

These new rituals were reported on in The Lancet as long ago as 1998 and when in Kenya last month I came across several examples of faith-based rites-of-passage for girls that had replaced FGM.

The summer holidays are a prime time for FGM. Tory MP Jane Ellison initiated an excellent parliamentary debate on the subject just two weeks ago - it was a shame she wasn't on Newsnight. Girls, mostly from ethnic minorities, growing up in the UK are being betrayed if the government thinks that another discussion with officials in October is enough, which is what the Minister said she was going to do. Developing countries look to the UK and hear our talk of gender equality and intolerance of child abuse.

It will remain empty rhetoric and incredibly ironic if we are left wringing our hands over this barbaric practice while they replace it with humane, gender-affirming ceremonies for girls.