Why has there never been a successful prosecution for female genital mutilation in the UK?

There haven't been any convictions for FGM in the UK since it was criminalised 28 years ago, a remarkable fact that has led to the formation of a new Home Affairs Committee chaired by Keith Vaz MP.

As long ago as 1952 the UN Commission on Human Rights condemned the practice of female genital mutilation (FGM), and in 1985 the Prohibition of Female Circumcision Act criminalised it in England and Wales. These little-reported matters should hardly come as a surprise. FGM is a barbaric act, borne out of historic customs developed in male-dominated societies obsessed with female virginity. It is cruel and brutal by almost any standards.

Yet, according to last month’s report by the Royal College of Midwives, there are over 66,000 victims in England and Wales. So, one stunning question must be asked: why has not a single person in England or Wales been successfully prosecuted since FGM was criminalised 28 years ago?

That is the key question behind the major inquiry to be chaired by Keith Vaz MP, announced by the Home Affairs Committee on 18th December. The common perception is that FGM and Islam go hand-in-hand, but many Muslims and academics argue that the practice is a cultural rather than religious one. This contention has traction. The practice is condemned even in Saudi Arabia, and outside the UK FGM shows a clearer link with poverty than with Islam. For instance, it is practised in pockets of Africa far outside the reaches of Sharia.

Then again, the practice is widespread in the Muslim-dominated Middle East, and most religions, and perhaps especially Islam, are not only a matter of theology but also of culture. Indeed, the best that some Muslim clerics will do is to condemn only some types of FGM while refusing to apologise for what they consider to be Islamic approval of one particular method, sunna circumcision.

But while there is debate about the link between Islamic communities and FGM abroad, the relationship in Britain appears much clearer. And perhaps it is the significance of that fact that must be recognised by any investigation into the reasons behind the lack of criminal prosecutions. 

I am not the first person to observe that many liberal intellectuals seem incapable of viewing Islam as anything other than as victim. What it is about the world’s most totalitarian religion that has liberals scurrying to defend it is hardly within the scope of this article. Suffice it to say, there is a ready-made army with an arsenal of laptops and access to highbrow media, ready to condemn any policy of criminal prosecutions that can be accused of failing to take into account the sensibilities of Muslim communities.

And how many times have we encountered those shouting for the rights of women, but who fail to raise their voices when the oppressed happen to be Muslim? Is female subservience really to be tolerated so long as it is perpetuated in the name of a rabidly male-dominated religion? As a result, the police, the CPS and even government must tread carefully, knowing that any ingress in this arena is ripe for frenzied accusations of racism and Islamophobia. 

But what on earth would right-minded people say if it was little white English girls that were being mutilated? Howls of protest would rightly echo through society and prosecutions would undoubtedly follow. Surely if the ethnicity of the victims is a factor behind the failure to prosecute in the face of mounting awareness of FGM, such inaction would be a more worthy target of allegations of racism than would a robust policy of investigation and prosecution.

Perhaps the real difficulty lies in detection. Of course, the physical signature left on victims means that detection should be straightforward, but only at the cost of a gross invasion of the privacy of the girls in question. 

One can imagine how a programme of investigations could be carried out as a matter of routine in primary schools when girls reach a particular age, perhaps five or six. But how can one devise a screening system that avoids taunts of racism but that would not see entire schools needlessly checked merely to avoid those accusations in the first place?

As a practising barrister, I am frustrated when I see a lacuna in the law that facilitates unconscionable conduct. But that is nothing compared with the anger we should feel as parents and as UK citizens when we see vital laws rendered wholly ineffective and child abuse go unpunished as a result. 

Those who live in our country have the right to be protected from FGM just as much as from the likes of forced marriage and honour killings. And young victims unaware that they are victims, and who don’t cry for help because they don’t realise they need it, are the ones most in need of the state’s protection. 

So here’s hoping that Keith Vaz’s inquiry helps to put matters right before the damning statistics unveiled by the Royal College of Midwives are weighed down by a further 66,000 victims.

The Royal Courts of Justice in London, UK. (Photo: Getty)
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Voters are turning against Brexit but the Lib Dems aren't benefiting

Labour's pro-Brexit stance is not preventing it from winning the support of Remainers. Will that change?

More than a year after the UK voted for Brexit, there has been little sign of buyer's remorse. The public, including around a third of Remainers, are largely of the view that the government should "get on with it".

But as real wages are squeezed (owing to the Brexit-linked inflationary spike) there are tentative signs that the mood is changing. In the event of a second referendum, an Opinium/Observer poll found, 47 per cent would vote Remain, compared to 44 per cent for Leave. Support for a repeat vote is also increasing. Forty one per cent of the public now favour a second referendum (with 48 per cent opposed), compared to 33 per cent last December. 

The Liberal Democrats have made halting Brexit their raison d'être. But as public opinion turns, there is no sign they are benefiting. Since the election, Vince Cable's party has yet to exceed single figures in the polls, scoring a lowly 6 per cent in the Opinium survey (down from 7.4 per cent at the election). 

What accounts for this disparity? After their near-extinction in 2015, the Lib Dems remain either toxic or irrelevant to many voters. Labour, by contrast, despite its pro-Brexit stance, has hoovered up Remainers (55 per cent back Jeremy Corbyn's party). 

In some cases, this reflects voters' other priorities. Remainers are prepared to support Labour on account of the party's stances on austerity, housing and education. Corbyn, meanwhile, is a eurosceptic whose internationalism and pro-migration reputation endear him to EU supporters. Other Remainers rewarded Labour MPs who voted against Article 50, rebelling against the leadership's stance. 

But the trend also partly reflects ignorance. By saying little on the subject of Brexit, Corbyn and Labour allowed Remainers to assume the best. Though there is little evidence that voters will abandon Corbyn over his EU stance, the potential exists.

For this reason, the proposal of a new party will continue to recur. By challenging Labour over Brexit, without the toxicity of Lib Dems, it would sharpen the choice before voters. Though it would not win an election, a new party could force Corbyn to soften his stance on Brexit or to offer a second referendum (mirroring Ukip's effect on the Conservatives).

The greatest problem for the project is that it lacks support where it counts: among MPs. For reasons of tribalism and strategy, there is no emergent "Gang of Four" ready to helm a new party. In the absence of a new convulsion, the UK may turn against Brexit without the anti-Brexiteers benefiting. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.