This month, the mother of a three year old girl became the first person to be convicted of Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) in the UK. The landmark ruling has been welcomed by campaigners who hope it will encourage other victims to come forward and report the crime.
Although the conviction certainly makes it clear that those practicing FGM will be brought to justice, it raises the question why has it taken so long – over 30 years in fact - for someone to be convicted of this crime? Legislation outlawing FGM was first introduced in 1985 and amended in 2003 making it illegal to perform FGM on a UK national in any territory.
Such a low conviction rate, and indeed trial rate (only three other FGM cases have gone to trial) suggests that the prevalence of FGM incidents in the UK is low, however reports from the BBC’s Victoria Derbyshire programme reveal that FGM is prevalent and is in fact increasingly being performed on babies.
What is FGM?
FGM includes the partial or total removal of the female external genitalia or other injury to the female genital organs for non-medical reasons. The procedure is the result of a combination of cultural, social and religious factors within families and communities, often seen as a part of bringing up a young girl and preparing her for marriage. The longstanding tradition surrounding the practice can make it difficult for the abuse to stop; nonetheless FGM is illegal in the UK.
The consequences of FGM can be life-changing. Severe pains, a susceptibility to certain infections (including HIV) and complex psychological problems have all been linked to FGM. Victims are often left with PTSD as a result of the trauma they suffered.
Since FGM is primarily carried out on pre-school girls and babies, usually by members of their family, the practice goes largely unreported with children either unaware of the significance of the procedure or unwilling to report their family members to the police or a public authority. By the time many victims are old enough to fully understand the extent of their mistreatment, their injuries are likely to have healed making it much more difficult to prosecute.
A lack of awareness
Since many victims of FGM fail to report it or rely on anecdotal evidence alone, it is often down to NHS workers, teachers and social workers to report incidents of FGM.
The Serious Crime Act 2015 made it mandatory to report FGM in an attempt to secure successful convictions, however there is a severe lack of awareness amongst those bound by duty to report it.
The subject of FGM is arguably something of a taboo, with cultural sensitivities and the fact that it is carried out on a very private area, making it a difficult subject for many to talk about openly. Children’s services are often unsure when to intervene, doctors do not always report cases and the police do not have enough experience to tackle cases effectively. There have been urgent calls for better training and a national public health campaign, with many urging the government to take a greater responsibility in tackling the issue.
Linda Weil-Curiel, a lawyer whose work has led to over 100 FGM convictions in France, believes the UK should follow the country’s tougher stance.
“In [the UK] system you need the victim to come and complain, but how can you expect a child to complain against her parents?” she said “It's for society to protect children, to take the initiative as soon as mutilation is documented - and the only way that happens is to have a medical examination.”
In France, all children undergo regular genital checks until the age of six with doctors expected to report any cases of physical abuse.
However, since many of the offenders themselves do not fully understand the consequences or severity of FGM, The National FGM Centre believes the way to prevent instances of FGM is to change the views of the affected communities and to develop ‘a cultural shift’ in cultures where FGM is commonly practiced.
Whilst raising awareness will undoubtedly help in identifying cases of FGM and subsequently result in an increased number of convictions, it remains unclear as to whether this will be enough to deter those whose understanding of FGM is steeped in tradition.
Director of Childcare at the Duncan Lewis Harrow office, Ravi Kaur Mahey has significant expertise in FGM cases. In fact, the Court of Appeal allowed an appeal in her High Court case: X (A Child) (Female Genital Mutilation Protection Order: Restrictions on Travel)  EWHC 2898 (Fam), the first ever FGM case to be heard in the Court of Appeal. She understands the difficulties surrounding FGM cases and how the recent conviction is a significant step forward in deterring incidents of FGM.
Ravi said; “It is now becoming apparent that in order to evade the authorities, those who practice FGM are choosing to perform FGM on much younger children, babies and toddlers who are not able to report. This case demonstrates that there is a need to look at a mechanism for preventing younger children from being harmed. This conviction is hugely significant as it sends a strong message that this crime will not be tolerated and the consequence will be severe for those who are convicted but also calls for more education in specific minority groups where the practice remains prevalent and a cultural norm.”
Ravi Kaur Mahey, Child Care Director at Duncan Lewis, has specialist experience in child abduction, FGM and public law cases. She has held advocacy for children and adults in the County and High Court and she has been a member of The Law Society Children Panel since 2011.
For expert child care advice, contact Ravi on 020 3114 1102 or email her at email@example.com.
Duncan Lewis Family & Child Care Department
Duncan Lewis family and child care team continues to be recognised by Legal 500 for our large team which ‘covers a broad range of family cases and excels in children’s cases’. The 2019 edition applauds the department for its notable expertise in representing domestic abuse victims under legal aid and mediation, as well as its handling of public law and cross-border issues concerning children, and the team’s niche shari'ah-law expertise.
The team has extensive expertise representing vulnerable clients under legal aid, supporting families in care proceedings. Guardians appoint the team to represent children in culturally complex care cases given the firm’s diverse ethnic workforce and experience dealing with vulnerable clients in physical and emotional abuse, drug or alcohol misuse, neglect, factitious illness, rare illness and non-accidental injury matters.
For expert advice on any family and child care matter, please call 0333 772 0409.