Drop cultural niceties about female genital mutilation

Communities that practise FGM must be engaged with and educated, Gemma Lindfield writes

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May 08, 2017
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The New York Times recently announced an editorial policy to replace the word “mutilation” with “cutting” in articles concerning female genital mutilation (FGM). The newspaper’s editors take the view that using “mutilation” is “culturally loaded”.

The same day, on this side of the Atlantic, Ukip wheeled out its “integration agenda” in which the party proposed that “at risk” children should be subject to checks for evidence of FGM following overseas trips.

The next day, the London Assembly called for mayor Sadiq Khan to act on figures showing that of an estimated 170,000 women and girls who have undergone FGM in the UK, half reside in London.

I struggle with The New York Times’s decision as it seriously minimises this gross human rights abuse that is used to assert control over an estimated 200 million women and girls. According to the World Health Organisation and Unicef definition, FGM comprises all procedures involving the partial or total removal of the external female genitalia or other injury to the female genital organs for non-medical reasons. Simply put, this is a grave assault on women, and when it is performed on girls it is also child abuse.

Although it may be that FGM is prevalent in some cultures, the human rights of women and girls to be afforded protection from such practices significantly outweighs any need for cultural sensitivity. In 1985 a specific criminal offence relating to FGM was introduced in the UK. The law was amended in 2003 to criminalise performing FGM on a British national or permanent resident in any territory.

But there has never been a successful prosecution. In 2015 an amendment to the law introduced FGM protection orders for those at risk on application to the courts by the police, local authority or others. The courts have several powers in their arsenal, such confiscating passports and it is a criminal offence to breach a FGMPO. The 2015 law also introduced the offence for those with parental responsibility of failing to protect a girl from FGM.

To ensure the efficacy of the legal remedies, it is necessary for communities that practise FGM to be educated and engaged so that victims, those at risk of and those that perform FGM can be identified. The proposed Ukip policy of performing invasive examinations on children’s genitals will not facilitate an environment in which the authorities can tackle the problem. Unwarranted medical examination is also child abuse and a strange way to deal with this devastating human rights violation.

It is vital that Sadiq Khan heeds the call for effective action to end FGM in London and that there should be pressure on the government to step up efforts to tackle this practice in the UK.

We have a legal framework. Improved training is needed for professionals who lack confidence about how to respond, as is better co-ordination between front line services. But ultimately a problem of this magnitude needs supranational co-operation and collective condemnation.

Gemma Lindfield is a barrister at 5 St Andrew’s Hill chambers

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