LONDON (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - British courts should give victims of female genital mutilation the same anonymity as rape victims, and Britain needs an immediate plan to tackle an FGM crisis which is “a national scandal”, the head of a parliamentary committee said on Thursday.
A report published by the committee says estimates of the number of girls at risk of FGM indicate it could be “one the most prevalent forms of severe physical child abuse in the UK”.
A recent study estimated 65,000 girls under 14 in Britain were at risk and 170,000 women had suffered FGM - a practice involving the partial or total removal of external genitalia. In its most extreme form the vaginal opening is also sewn up.
The failure to tackle FGM “is an ongoing national scandal which is likely to have resulted in the preventable mutilation of thousands of girls to whom the state owed a duty of care,” said MP Keith Vaz, chairman of the committee.
“Successive governments, politicians, the police, health, education and social care sectors should all share responsibility for the failure ... We need to act immediately.”
The report says frontline professionals must be far more pro-active in identifying and protecting girls at risk and referring cases to police.
“It is unacceptable that those with clear access to evidence of these crimes do nothing to help those at risk,” Vaz said.
FGM is considered an important ritual by various ethnic communities including Somalis, Eritreans, Sudanese and Egyptians, but often causes serious physical and psychological harm.
The report calls for all headteachers to have training on safeguarding girls, and to pass this on to teachers before the end of the year. Teaching children about FGM should become compulsory in schools in high prevalence areas.
The education minister wrote to every headteacher in the country about FGM earlier this year, but the report revealed that less than a third of them clicked through to the guidance on protecting girls at risk. Schools should be penalised if headteachers do not read the guidance, the report said.
It also calls for the health service to introduce mandatory questioning about FGM when women register at a doctor’s surgery or book antenatal interviews. When a girl is born to a mother who has undergone FGM a note should be put in her health record and the health service should notify social services.
The wide-ranging proposals follow a Home Affairs Committee inquiry into Britain’s failure to protect girls from mutilation in the 29 years since FGM was made illegal. Britain announced its first FGM prosecution in March, but the case has yet to be tried.
The report says a number of successful prosecutions would send a clear message that FGM will not be tolerated in Britain.
Prosecutors have a problem because so few cases are referred to police. Girls are often cut when very young and older girls do not want to give evidence against their families. Victims also face huge pressure from their communities to keep quiet.
Vaz said it was important that FGM victims receive anonymity if they testify. “We owe survivors of FGM the chance to save others from this horrific abuse,” he added.
Because of victims’ reluctance to come forward, police have to rely on other sources including health professionals, social workers and teachers, but many do not know what to look out for or are afraid to intervene for fear of being considered racist.
Vaz said that if reporting of FGM offences does not increase within a year, failure to report child abuse, including FGM, should be made a criminal offence.
In contrast to Britain, France has prosecuted scores of parents and cutters. This is due partly to a national system of regular medical examinations for all children. The report did not recommend introducing similar checks in Britain, but said medical staff should make “periodic FGM assessments” where a girl is at risk.
Other recommendations include:
- Introduction of FGM protection orders similar to those for forced marriage
- The provision of refuges for girls at risk of FGM
- A national campaign comparable to those on domestic violence and HIV/AIDS
The report also suggests the law on FGM should include re-infibulation as a crime. Women who have been stitched up or infibulated have to be opened up during childbirth, but midwives say some women return with subsequent pregnancies having been re-stitched.
FGM campaigner Efua Dorkenoo, who has led calls for a national plan, said the report had “a lot of clout”, but did not go far enough.
“There should be penalties for all professionals who do not refer on FGM – that’s the only way we can get them to act systematically across the country,” said Dorkenoo, FGM adviser to Equality Now.
Britain is due to host an international summit on FGM and forced marriage on July 22.