On Thursday the 3rd of July, the Home Affairs Select Committee published a report “Female genital mutilation: the case for a national action plan.” The report condemns the lack of education, prosecution and action taken with regard to the growing prevalence of FGM within the UK.
It is estimated that every year 65,000 girls under the age of 13 in the UK are living at risk of FGM; a practice defined by the World Health Organisation (WHO) as the ‘partial or total removal of the female external genitalia or other injury to the female genital organs for non-medical reasons’. While it has been a crime within the UK for almost 30 years to carry out FGM, and illegal for over a decade ‘for a permanent UK resident to aid, abet, counsel or procure the carrying out of FGM abroad on a UK national or permanent resident’, there has not until this year been a single FGM-related prosecution.
Committee Chairman, Keith Vaz, declared this ‘failure to respond adequately’ a ‘national scandal for which successive governments, politicians, the police, health, education and social care sectors all share responsibility’.
Vaz claims that ‘A number of successful prosecutions would send a clear message to practising communities that FGM is taken seriously in the UK and will be punished accordingly’.
The report welcomed the £100,000 Home Office funding but regretted that alone this would not be sufficient. More, it is argued, is needed to implement a full-scale national awareness campaign in order to break the generational cycle of FGM and end what is at its root a serious, gender-based crime and a fundamental form of child abuse. This campaign would require a multi-agency approach from all health, education, social care, police and community sectors to tackle the ignorance and inaction that FGM-related practices face within the UK.
Specifically, the report argues the need for specialist FGM training for frontline officials, and the implementation of specialist pastoral and clinical services for FGM victims UK-wide. It calls for the strengthening of current laws on FGM to include the ‘habitually resident’ and temporary UK citizen within its remit. Moreover, it argues for ‘reinfibulation’ (the ‘re-stitching’ of Type 3 FGM, common for victims immediately following childbirth) to be included in its laws.
The Home Affairs Committee recommended that, if in 12 months time the level of reporting had not reached its expected level, the Government ‘take steps’ to make the failure to report this crime a punishable offence. Patterns within the report reflect a move away from solely victim-directed prosecution systems towards a wider and more multi-faceted approach to what is certainly a community-centred issue. For example, calling for recognition of parental liability in FGM crimes, and the need for a decent, common education about its harmful effects and illegality within communities, throughout healthcare systems and within structures of education.
This is a hugely positive step, and signals a shift in responsibility away from the victim towards the adults and communities who have removed the individual’s right to full bodily liberty in the first place.
The report also, and perhaps most importantly, recognises the need for FGM to be treated not just as a severe form of gender-based violence, or as a sensitive cultural and racial issue, but as a universal and ‘extreme form of child abuse’ where practiced on minors under the age of 18. ‘Misplaced concern for cultural sensitivities over the rights of the child’ is heralded as one of the main reasons why the UK has failed to successfully tackle FGM to date. Linda Weil Curiel, lawyer at the Paris Bar, says:
“People talk of culture and tradition, but children have a fundamental human right not to be mutilated.”
Professionals are called on to address FGM ‘in the same way as other forms of child abuse’ following the ‘leading example’ of France, who have had more than 40 FGM-related prosecutions since 1979. France has relied upon its existing criminal and human rights laws to prosecute FGM:
“There is no specific law against FGM in France. Instead perpetrators are prosecuted under general provisions of the penal code, such as acts involving intended bodily harm, causing permanent infirmity or mutilation.”
As the Home Affairs Committee has recognised, there is a significant argument to be made for following France’s direction in terms of tackling FGM, utilising the criminal law and human rights legislation against bodily harm and interference.
The UK’s Human Rights Act of 2000 is clear already in this respect:
“Article 3: No one shall be subjected to torture or to inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.”
“Article 5(1): Everyone has the right to liberty and security of the person.”
Every human child who is either habitually or fully resident to the UK holds the right to have their full bodily integrity safeguarded by the state. Having ratified the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, the UK is also required to ‘take all effective and appropriate measures with a view to abolishing traditional practices prejudicial to the health of children’.
A universalised approach to FGM within the UK could signal a positive development in the addressing of similar crimes of non-therapeutic surgical intervention. The report is decidedly silent on other forms of bodily and genital mutilation which are commonplace human rights violations both in the UK and worldwide: the surgical ‘normalisation’ of intersex children, and the genital cutting of boys. The majority of cultures that cut girls also cut boys, and the number of intersex infants born every year who are potentially victim to unnecessary genital mutilation is estimated at as high as 1 in 2000. While each of these practices carry the weight of vastly different cultural, religious and gendered intersections, each is at its base a denial of the right to bodily liberty. Each act is a violation of the most basic level of the child’s human right: the right to bodily autonomy.
If we are to follow France’s treatment of FGM as a universal human rights violation, should we not also be examining other forms of non-consensual, and medically-unnecessary genital surgeries committed upon infants who are also owed a duty of care by the state?
We receive this report as a necessary and welcome step towards the freedom of all children to have their right to liberty and security of person safe-guarded, and call upon the citizens of the UK to recognise that similar violations to dignity and bodily integrity are happening every day.
Report by Molly Farrell