Comment: Even today we’re failing the girls facing genital mutilation

By Dexter Dias QC and Charlotte Proudman

Earlier this month the home affairs committee published its much-anticipated report on the ongoing national scandal of female genital mutilation (FGM).

We are two of the co-authors of the report to the parliamentary inquiry by the Bar Human Rights Committee of England and Wales.  We broadly welcome the conclusions of Keith Vaz MP and his colleagues.  But in the UK at this very moment 65,000 girls aged 13 and under are at immediate risk of mutilation.  No one can afford to indulge in self-congratulation.  And the inescapable fact remains that the parliamentary report contains both good and bad news.

In stating the case for a national action plan, the committee in several significant respects adopted our critique and concerns about the phenomenon of FGM in the UK. It repeated our analysis that the UK’s failure to protect has resulted in the preventable mutilation of thousands of girls to whom the state owes a duty of care.  It concurred with our stance that current legal loopholes severely limiting the protection of children who are not UK nationals or permanently resident are morally indefensible. 

However, what is of paramount importance at this vital time is not praise but progress.  Progress in the more effective protection of young women and girls from this physically and psychologically scarring crime. 

Let there be no misunderstanding: the report constitutes a historic intervention.  It will come to be viewed as a watershed moment in our nation’s collective response to FGM.  But watersheds necessarily divide the stream.  We wish to ensure that the UK's response is now directed down the strongest channel.  Towards the end of this month the prime minister will hold a summit on FGM.  We write this piece to argue for the urgent reconsideration of two of our recommendations that meaningfully strengthen the protection of children from mutilation. 

The history of FGM in the UK makes for sobering and shocking reading.  It is estimated that 170,000 women and girls are living with the legacy FGM in this country. And despite having been criminalised here in 1985, there has not been a single successful prosecution. By abjectly failing to fulfill its duty to protect young women and girls, the state has allowed perpetrators to inflict this egregious form of child abuse with impunity. As we stated in our report, thousands of lives could – and should – have been saved from ruination.

In our report we argued in particular for the introduction of two matters: a change in the law to introduce FGM protection orders, and the establishment of a dedicated anti-FGM Unit. In its response the government appears not to have fully recognised the urgent need to implement these measures.

Regarding FGM protection orders, the government's stance is that further consultation is required. But do we really need more talking? The protection orders we proposed to parliament are a civil law remedy we closely modeled on existing forced marriage protection orders.  In this comparable field of women’s rights protection, such orders have already been used more than 600 times. They provide a critical preventative intervention, enabling those fearful of being subjected to FGM (or those concerned about a child at risk) to apply for court protection.

The raft of associated powers we recommended – once again modeled on those available in forced marriage cases – would include the prohibition of foreign travel, residence reporting, and mandatory examinations. They would also have the advantage of not requiring the removal of children from their parents, which remains the option of last resort for children regarded as at immediate risk.

The added advantage is that they could be made even if an at-risk child has already been removed from the country.  This is vital since a wealth of evidence exists that girls are taken abroad during the school holidays – what is macabrely called the 'cutting season' – to undergo mutilation.  Such orders would facilitate the repatriation of an at-risk child to the UK. Additional consultation sought by the government will result in further delay – and further avoidable mutilations. This is the stark reality of the phenomenon we are seeking to eradicate.

Curiously, the report did not meaningfully engage with the question of an anti-FGM unit.  This omission is all the more baffling given the concerning history of previous governmental FGM responses.  For example, in 2011 the post of national FGM coordinator was abolished, a move which angered survivor organisations. 

Our proposal for a dedicated Anti-FGM Unit was tightly modeled on the similar forced marriage unit located in the Foreign Office.  It would act as a central coordinating institution for the UK’s anti-FGM response. Working with consular staff located in high commissions abroad, the unit would locate and repatriate women and girls taken overseas to undergo mutilation. The report acknowledged our analysis that FGM is distinctive in that it is a highly mobile form of gender violence often occurring once a child is taken out of the country.  A dedicated unit is indispensable to the more effective coordination of extra-territorial responses. 

Similarly to the forced marriage unit, an anti-FGM unit would lead on the government's FGM policy, outreach and casework. It could also operate a public helpline to provide advice and support to survivors of FGM as well as to frontline professionals dealing with cases. It would provide an identifiable centre of experience and expertise.

Overall, it is essential to recognise that the parliamentary report is unquestionably a step in the right direction. But the seasonal cycle of public life results in issues rising to national prominence, having their moment in the spotlight, and then fading into obscurity.  This is the time FGM is in the public spotlight.  Immediate action is required. 

The current prominence of FGM is the result of a tremendous amount of tireless campaigning and advocacy, of which our work constitutes a very small part. Public attention will soon shift.  But young women will still be mutilated.  Public life will move on.  But the devastating scars of genital mutilation will remain with disfigured girls.

Now is the time.  Our national response requires the central institutional focal point that an anti-FGM unit would provide.  It requires the immediate implementation of FGM protection orders.  We have the model for both these measures. They have added to the arsenal in combating forced marriage. We do not need to reinvent the wheel.  We know they work.

The point of this month's prime ministerial summit is, according to Vaz, to "demonstrate leadership".  We shall see.  For the sake of the tens of thousands of young women and girls in the UK at immediate risk of mutilation, we cannot afford to squander this historic opportunity.  There can be no further delay.

Charlotte Proudman is a human rights barrister, and a PhD candidate in political sociology at the University of Cambridge. Dexter Dias QC is a human rights barrister, a researcher at Harvard and a visiting scholar at Cambridge. They are  co-authors of the Bar Human Rights Committee's report to the parliamentary inquiry on FGM, but write here in a personal capacity.

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