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22 July 2014updated 09 Sep 2021 6:55am

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.

By Dexter Dias and Charlotte Proudman

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.

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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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