Amran Mahamood, who has made a living by circumcising young girls, looks into a piece of a mirror. Photo: Getty
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We need action, not more words: fight FGM the way we fight forced marriage

Instead of immediately implementing protective measures to fight female genital mutilation, the government has called for further "consultation". But it's time for action, not more talking.

Today’s Girl Summit on Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) and child and forced marriage has been convened by the Prime Minister to “empower girls by ending harmful cultural practices.” This important event closely follows this month’s publication of the much-awaited report on FGM by the Home Affairs Committee (HAC) of the House of Commons. In it FGM was, quite correctly, described as an “ongoing national scandal.”  As International Development Secretary Justine Greening has frankly stated, this mutilation of the genitalia of young women and girls is a subject we have historically “backed away from.”

So while the parliamentary report is to be welcomed, it does not go far enough.  There are two obvious measures that the government should immediately implement to protect at-risk girls more effectively.

Because what emerged with clarity during the parliamentary inquiry was the sheer scale of the FGM problem in the UK right now. There are 170,000 young women and girls living with the legacy of mutilation. A further 65,000 aged 13 and under at immediate risk of having their genitals mutilated. This is not someone else’s problem.  It is a problem in Britain and for Britain. Yet although FGM was made a criminal offence in 1985, there has not been a single successful prosecution. In other words, the state has stood back while perpetrators have abused girls with impunity.

It was this continuing governmental failure to tackle FGM that triggered the report we co-wrote for the parliamentary inquiry with the Bar Human Rights Committee of England and Wales. The subsequent HAC press release states that “a number of successful prosecutions would send a clear message to those involved that FGM is taken with the utmost seriousness in the UK and will be punished accordingly.” However, while prosecutions are necessary, it will be impossible to prosecute FGM into extinction. 

It is for this reason we argued that the UK should prioritise prevention over punitive approaches. Prevention not only avoids the pain of mutilation, but avoids the great expense and distress of prosecutions.  In moral and monetary terms, it’s the right course. To that end, we recommended the urgent introduction of two preventative measures.

The first is the creation of a range of tailored “FGM Protection Orders.” These are legal powers that equip a civil court with tools to intervene proactively to prevent genital mutilation. The court could prevent the removal abroad of an at-risk child. This is crucial because there is a wealth of evidence of children being taken back to countries of family origin to be mutilated.  This particularly occurs during the long holidays – what is macabrely called the “cutting season.”

We recommended Protection Orders to parliament because we know they work.  We modelled them on an identical range of legal powers already used in forced marriage cases more than 600 times since their inception in 2007. They have saved significant numbers of women and girls from a life of sexual exploitation and servitude.

The second recommendation is that the government set up an Anti-FGM Unit. This would be a government-run centre providing expertise and a helpline for at-risk young women and frontline professionals. Beyond this, such a unit could liaise with consular staff abroad to rescue and repatriate girls taken overseas to be mutilated.  This proposal is once again closely modelled on what works.

In January 2005 a Forced Marriage Unit was set up and is jointly run by the FCO and the Home Office. The unit has frequently rescued British women taken abroad to be forced into marriage.  Its remit could be usefully extended to encompass FGM.  This is because an obvious overlap exists between FGM and Forced Marriage as evidenced by the twin themes of the Girl Summit itself.

Both are fundamental human rights violations inflicted on some of the most vulnerable young women and girls.  Both intervene in the sexuality of young women.  Both remove autonomy and seek to control.  Sometimes (not always) FGM and Forced Marriage go hand in hand: the marriageability secured by mutilation can be a necessary step before early marriage.  Thus it would make sense for the practical expertise gleaned by the Forced Marriage Unit to be used in the fight against FGM.  We therefore propose one unit tackling two (connected) targets. 

To see how the two recommendations we’ve made would work in practice, consider the case of Ubah.

Ubah lives in London. Her elder sisters were taken back to Somalia and “cut” after their 10th birthday. Ubah has just had her 10th birthday and her family has planned a summer holiday. It is to Somalia. She’s overheard conversations among family members that it’s become too risky to have her cut in the UK, but they can take her “back home”.

For the last year she has been haunted by her sisters’ mutilations. She recalls how her family quietly gathered in their grandmother’s house in Mogadishu. How her sisters were taken into a room. She remembers the silence. Then the screams. And then another kind of silence after that ­– how no one would talk about what had happened. But Ubah has learned more about FGM at school. So she plucks up the courage and tells her form teacher Chris.

Chris at first doesn’t know what to do. But he recalls how the behaviour of Ubah’s older sisters changed after they returned from Somalia. Little things: not just being more withdrawn, but frequently visiting the lavatory. Coming to school and then saying they were unwell without being able to explain why.  Chris contacts the government’s Anti-FGM Unit. The adviser puts the school in touch with child protection lawyers.

Ubah goes home that evening and breaks down. She tells her mother what she’s done. But her mother is also distraught and distressed. She doesn’t want Ubah to be mutilated. But there’s huge pressure from the wider family. She wants Ubah to be protected but doesn’t want anyone to know. Her marriage may fall apart; the community would look down on the whole family.

The very next day lawyers go to court and apply for an FGM Protection Order. The court makes an order preventing Ubah from being taken out of the country. It also orders Ubah to be medically examined by a doctor on a regular basis since she is deemed to be at high risk. The judge makes it clear to both of her parents that they are responsible for ensuring that their daughter is not mutilated. Ubah is protected. Her mother gets her wish. No one in the community knows her true feelings.

But what if Ubah only emails Chris once she is in Somalia? It still might not be too late. The Anti-FGM Unit would come into its own. Lawyers could still apply to the court in the UK. Armed with a Protection Order, the Anti-FGM Unit could liaise with consular staff in Mogadishu to locate and return Ubah to the UK intact.

These are just two examples of how these protective measures could work – if they are given the chance. These changes are straightforward. But instead of implementing them immediately, the government has called for further “consultation” on Protection Orders. However, we need action, not more talking. And despite the obvious need for an Anti-FGM Unit, the government did not even acknowledge this recommendation.

Today’s Girl Summit will no doubt be used to advance David Cameron’s claim that the UK will take a global lead in the “empowerment of girls and women.”  But this laudable ambition will have more credibility if such rhetoric is matched with real action. The immediate focus should be on what is known to work. 

Future generations will gaze back in disbelief that for three decades this nation did nothing next to nothing while some of our most vulnerable young women and girls were genitally mutilated. The time has come to stop “backing away” from FGM. The time is ripe for the government to commit to pushing through FGM Protection Orders and establishing an Anti-FGM Unit. For the sake of the thousands of girls like Ubah, we cannot afford to wait.

Dexter Dias QC is a human rights barrister, a researcher at Harvard and a visiting scholar at Cambridge.

Charlotte Rachael Proudman is a barrister specialising in human rights law and a PhD candidate in political sociology at the University of Cambridge.

Dexter Dias QC and Charlotte Proudman are two of the co-authors of the Bar Human Rights report to the Parliamentary Inquiry on FGM.  They write here in a personal capacity.

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What Brussels can learn from the Italian referendum

Matteo Renzi's proposed reforms would have made it easier for eurosceptic forces within Italy to gain power in upcoming elections in 2018.

The Austrian presidential elections can justifiably be claimed as a victory for supporters of the European Union. But the Italian referendum is not the triumph for euroscepticism some have claimed.

In Austria, the victorious candidate Alexander van der Bellen ruthlessly put the EU centre stage in his campaign. “From the beginning I fought and argued for a pro-European Austria,” he said after a campaign that saw posters warning against “Öxit”.

Austrians have traditionally been eurosceptic, only joining the bloc in 1995, but Brexit changed all that.  Austrian voters saw the instability in the UK and support for EU membership soared. An overwhelming majority now back continued membership.

Van der Bellen’s opponent Norbert Hofer was at an immediate disadvantage. His far right Freedom Party has long pushed for an Öxit referendum.

The Freedom Party has claimed to have undergone a Damascene conversion but voters were not fooled.  They even blamed Nigel Farage for harming their chances with an interview he gave to Fox News claiming that the party would push to leave the EU.

The European Commission, as one would expect, hailed the result. “Europe was central in the campaign that led to the election of a new president and the final result speaks for itself,” chief spokesman Margaritis Schinas said today in Brussels.

“We think the referendum in Italy was about a change to the Italian constitution and not about Europe,” Schinas added.

Brussels has a history of sticking its head in the sand when it gets political results it doesn’t like.

When asked what lessons the Commission could learn from Brexit, Schinas had said the lessons to be learnt were for the government that called the referendum.

But in this case, the commission is right. The EU was a peripheral issue compared to domestic politics in the Italian referendum.

Alberto Alemanno is Jean Monnet Professor of EU Law and an Italian. He said the reforms would have been vital to modernise Italy but rejected any idea it would lead to an Italian Brexit.

“While anti-establishment and eurosceptic actors are likely to emerge emboldened from the vote, interpreting the outcome of the Italian referendum as the next stage of Europe’s populist, anti-establishment movement – as many mainstream journalists have done – is not only factually wrong, but also far-fetched.”

Renzi was very popular in Brussels after coming to power in a palace coup in February 2014. He was a pro-EU reformer, who seemed keen to engage in European politics.

After the Brexit vote, he was photographed with Merkel and Hollande on the Italian island of Ventotene, where a landmark manifesto by the EU’s founding fathers was written.

This staged communion with the past was swiftly forgotten as Renzi indulged in increasingly virulent Brussels-bashing over EU budget flexibility in a bid to shore up his plummeting popularity. 

Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker even publicly reprimanded Renzi for demonising the EU.

Renzi’s vow to resign personalised the referendum. He gave voters a chance to give him a bloody nose when his popularity was at an all-time low.

Some of the reforms he wanted were marked “to be confirmed”.  The referendum question was astonishingly verbose and complex. He was asking for a blank cheque from the voters.

Ironically Renzi’s reforms to the constitution and senate would have made it easier for the eurosceptic Five Star Movement to gain power in upcoming elections in 2018.

For reasons best known to themselves, they campaigned against the changes to their own disadvantage.

Thanks to the reforms, a Five Star government would have found it far easier to push through a “Quitaly” referendum, which now seems very distant.  

As things stand, Five Star has said it would push for an advisory vote on membership of the euro but not necessarily the EU.

The Italian constitution bans the overruling of international treaties by popular vote, so Five Star would need to amend the constitution. That would require a two thirds majority in both houses of parliament and then another referendum on euro membership. Even that could be blocked by one of the country’s supreme courts.

The Italian referendum was closely watched in Brussels. It was hailed as another triumph for euroscepticism by the likes of Farage and Marine Le Pen. But Italians are far more likely to be concerned about the possibility of financial turbulence, which has so far been mildly volatile, than any prospect of leaving the EU in the near future.

James Crisp is the news editor at