Female genital mutilation in the UK

Female genital mutilation (FGM) is the ritual removal of some or all of the external female genitalia. The abhorrent practice is mostly found in North-West and North-East Africa and parts of the Middle East (such as Yemen and Iraq), and within migrant communities from those countries. In the UK, the practise largely appeared during the 1970s and 1980s following increased immigration from countries in North Africa, in particular. FGM has become a significant policy priority for government in the last seven years. However, despite that focus, there have still been no successful convictions relating to FGM.

A history of FGM in the UK

Prior to the 1970s, FGM was relatively unknown in the UK. During the nineteenth century, FGM was performed in the UK to treat a wide range of conditions including “hysteria” and mental illness. It was also used as a treatment for behaviour considered “unfeminine” and as a threat to marriage. These included a “distaste for marital intercourse”, “a great distaste for her husband”, and violent behaviour. However, the practise largely came to an end when the Obstetrical Society of London concluded that there was little evidence of its efficacy and that it was unethical.

FGM began to be performed again in the UK during the 1970s and 1980s. The practise was highlighted by a Minority Rights Group report entitled Female circumcision, excision and inbulation: the facts and proposals for change. This report, and apparent increase in FGM cases, led to a subsequent debate in the House of Lords. Following the debate, Wayland Young, 2nd Baron Kennet, introduced the Prohibition of Female Circumcision Bill, which passed into law in 1985. The law made conducting the practice of FGM an explicit criminal offence in the UK for the first time.

While there are no statistics on the prevalence of FGM during the 1970s and 1980s (the first estimates were not produced until the 2000s), anecdotal evidence presented in the Minority Rights Group report and during the subsequent Parliamentary debate suggest that the practise increased from being almost unknown to become a significant problem affecting certain communities.

This increase is thought to have been driven by immigrants from North West and North East Africa and parts of the Middle-East (such as Yemen and Iraq) where FGM is performed frequently. During the 1980s and 1990s, the civil war in Somalia lead to a large number of Somali immigrants moving to the UK. In Somalia, according to Unicef, 98% of women have undergone female genital mutilation.

The current situation

In 2003, the 1985 FGM Act was superseded by the Female Genital Mutilation Act. According to the Act, it is prohibited to carry out, aid or abet any form of FGM, including excision, inbulation or mutilation in relation to the whole or any part of the major lip, minor lip, prepuce of the clitoris, the clitoris, or vagina. This 2003 Act modernised the offence of FGM and the offence of assisting a girl to carry out FGM on herself while also creating extra-territorial offences to deter people from taking girls abroad for mutilation.  

In the past seven years, the first research studies attempting to estimate the prevalence of FGM in this country have been conducted. In 2011, using evidence from the Census, researchers from City University estimated that there were 137,000 women and girls affected by FGM in England and Wales. The Health and Social Care Information Centre estimated that there were around 5,700 new cases of FGM in England in 2015-16. Both these figures have been used by the Government.

FGM has also experienced significant policy attention since the election of the Coalition Government. Under William Hague’s leadership, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) attempted a number of initiatives to prevent the practise of FGM abroad. William Hague and the FCO were central to organising the Girl Summit held in London in 2014. The summit made ending FGM one of its core ambitions. At the same time, the Home Office, under Theresa May’s leadership, also made tackling FGM a key priority. It introduced a number of measures to increase prosecutions during 2015 (as described below).

Prosecuting FGM

While the performance of FGM has been illegal in the UK since 1985, there has, to date, been no successful convictions for its practise. Indeed, there has only been one attempt to prosecute someone for performing FGM. Considering the prevalence of FGM in estimates used by the Government, this is a policy failure.

Subsequent governments have announced a number of measures to increase the prosecution of FGM. From October 2015, nurses, doctors and other healthcare professionals have had a legal duty to report cases of FGM to the police. Healthcare professionals who observe evidence of FGM during their professional duties but do not report it could face action from their professional standards body (such as the General Medical Council).

The Serious Crimes Act (2015) introduced a number of measures aimed to increase prosecutions. It gives lifetime anonymity for victims of FGM and makes failing to protect a girl from the risk of FGM a criminal offense. In addition, it extends the 2003 FGM Act to also cover victims who are habitually resident in the UK. The 2003 Act was only concerned with acts committed by UK nationals or permanent UK residents on girls or women who are UK nationals or permanent UK residents.

Since these reforms are relatively recent it is difficult to measure their effectiveness. However, it remains the case that there have still been no successful convictions for FGM. Some other countries have been more successful at prosecuting FGM. In France, for instance, there have been more than 100 successful prosecutions since 1983. This has partly been attributed to the French practise of routine medical check-ups.

In France, children up to the age of six generally undergo regular medical check-ups by doctors which include examination of the genitals. These check-ups ensure that the child is growing as expected, is not being subjected to physical abuse, and is not ill. Check-ups are not mandatory, though they are routine and receipt of social security is dependent on participation. Girls identified to be at risk of FGM are usually examined every year and when they return from abroad. Medical practitioners are expected to set aside patient confidentiality and to report cases of physical abuse against children.

Conclusion

FGM in the UK has been an increasing policy concern since the 1970s. The UK made the performance of FGM an explicit offense in 1985, following large amounts of immigration from countries which practise it such as Somalia. Despite this legislation, and further updates to it in 2003, there have been no successful prosecutions for FGM. In the last two years, the Government has introduced a number of new measures to increase the number of prosecutions relating to FGM. It is too early to determine how effective these measures have been, but the Government may need to look at international examples of successful prosecutions if the prosecution rate remains zero.

James Dobson is a researcher at Bright Blue