LONDON (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – Although Britain outlawed female genital mutilation almost 30 years ago, there has never been a prosecution. But this could change following the launch of covert police investigations and an FGM hotline.
The national children’s charity, the NSPCC, which runs the anonymous helpline, said it had referred 34 cases to the police since going live less than three months ago.
The government says around 24,000 girls living in Britain may be at risk of FGM - a ritual practised by some ethnic communities in which the external genitalia are partly or totally removed. In its most extreme form the vaginal opening is also sewn up. It’s a practice which causes serious physical and psychological harm.
John Cameron, head of the helpline, said it had already received more than 90 calls – more than anticipated. Some were from members of communities practising FGM who were concerned about girls they thought were at risk. Others were general inquiries about FGM.
London’s Metropolitan Police said it had closed investigations relating to the 11 NSPCC referrals it had received, but it hailed the helpline as a crucial new channel for information.
It said everyone should understand that FGM is child abuse and appealed for health workers, teachers and social workers to help identify girls at risk.
Details of the referrals emerged at a meeting of police, lawyers, ministers, health workers and others to discuss an initiative launched by chief prosecutor Keir Starmer a year ago to tackle Britain’s failure to bring a single FGM case to trial.
One problem for police is that girls are highly unlikely to report their parents for FGM - an offence which carries a maximum 14-year prison sentence. Nor would the girls want to give evidence against them in court.
FGM is also shrouded in secrecy and people have been threatened with violence if they speak out. Prosecutors said they had to close one case because the girl had refused to testify. Compelling her to give evidence could have placed her at risk.
Police said they were concentrating efforts on targeting cutters – the people who perform FGM – and those who make arrangements for girls to be cut, whether in Britain or abroad.
They revealed they had recently mounted two covert operations in London. Neither led to arrests, but police said they had created a blueprint for future operations.
“Every single lawful covert tactical surveillance operation is definitely on the table,” Detective Chief Superintendent Gerry Campbell said. “All we need is one lucky golden nugget of intelligence that will take us to a cutter.”
"A MATTER OF TIME"
Police said they had received just 186 referrals mentioning FGM in the London area since 2009. Yet the NSPCC says more than 70 victims of FGM are seen every month by specialist clinics in England.
Starmer said there had been significant progress in the last year. “We have moved from a position of asking whether there will be a prosecution to when there will be a prosecution. It is now a matter of time,” he told Thomson Reuters Foundation.
Prosecutors said they had examined four new cases – three of them could not go to trial but one is still open. They are also re-examining four old cases.
Asked if he was disappointed there had been no prosecution yet, Starmer said: “I’m really pleased with the progress. I think we’ve put ourselves in a significantly different position. There never was a target to bring a prosecution within a certain period of time. We can only act on the information.”
Starmer said a prosecution would send "a very powerful message that this is a crime that is very serious, and that can and will be prosecuted where there is sufficient evidence".
But a senior midwife warned that families who practise FGM were "one step ahead". She said some parents were getting their children cut as babies. This reduces the risk of detection or their daughter being able to give evidence.
She also said maternity wards were seeing pregnant women who had been sewn up again after previously giving birth.
The NSPCC’s 24-hour helpline is on 0800 028 3550 and at email@example.com