Nothing can make female genital mutilation acceptable

Last week, a couple were detained by police for the alleged Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) of a 5-week-old baby girl. In common I’m sure with others who heard this story, I was sickened and reinforced in my view that we need to be taking urgent action to tackle FGM.

FGM is child abuse. It’s barbaric and it damages the mental and physical health of young women, leaving them scarred – actually and metaphorically – for life. It is recognised by the UN as torture and has been classified as a serious criminal offence in the UK since 1985. In 2003, the law was updated to the effect that Britons can be prosecuted for acts of FGM whilst abroad.

But despite all this, earlier this month a report by a coalition of health professionals, including the Royal Colleges of Midwifery, Nursing, Obstetricians and Gynaecologists, revealed that 66,000 women in England and Wales have undergone FGM and over 24,000 girls under the age of 15 are at risk of it. What’s more, there have never been any UK prosecutions for FGM.

There is a great deal more that we can and should be doing to ensure that young girls receive adequate protection and safeguarding from this horrendous form of child abuse.

First, we need to dispense entirely with any historical idea that FGM is somehow a religious or a cultural issue and that we therefore need to tread carefully when seeking its eradication. This view is entirely indefensible and wholly dangerous. FGM is a horrific form of child abuse – nothing, nothing at all, can make it acceptable.

Second, we need to make sure instances of FGM are properly reported to the police and that information is shared between education, health and social care professionals, which will in turn lead to prosecutions. The report Tackling Female Genital Mutilation in the UK recommends that those at risk of FGM are treated like potential victims of crime and that a reporting system should be put in place between the NHS and the police.

FGM can sometimes be picked up by health professionals and, when this happens, there should an obligation on the hospital to report it to the police as a crime. Such a reporting system is in place in France, where there have been 100 prosecutions for FGM.

We also need to deal with the fact that awareness of FGM, across a number of key areas, is not as high as it should be. Unfortunately, a recent NSPCC survey showed that 1 in 6 teachers wasn’t aware FGM is illegal and didn’t consider it child abuse. Compulsory awareness training for teachers, medical professionals and the police may therefore be a very good idea.

Fourth, it is vital that we see a UK prosecution for FGM, as the Director of Public Prosecutions, Keir Starmer QC, has recognised. A prosecution would act as a serious deterrent and send a strong message that FGM will not be tolerated in this country.

The Department of Health is apparently examining the recommendations contained in the above report, to ascertain their viability. Given the horror and barbarism of FGM, this can’t happen soon enough.