Elimanting Female Genital Mutilation in England and Wales

Female Genital Mutilation (FGM), which is defined by the World Health Organisation as ‘procedures that intentionally alter or cause injury to the female genital organs for non-medical reasons’ is a growing problem in the United Kingdom due to the large number of migrants who originate from countries where FGM is practiced (WHO, 2014).

The Home Office estimates that over 20,000 girls under the age of fifteen, residing in the UK, are at risk of female genital mutilation each year (FGM – the Facts, nd).

FGM has been a specific criminal offence in England and Wales since the Female Circumcision Act 1985. This legislation was replaced by the Female Genital Mutilation Act 2003, which broadened the scope of the offence, extended it to acts committed overseas and increased the maximum sentence from five to fourteen years in prison.

To date, there has only been one prosecution for FGM in England and Wales and this resulted in an acquittal. One of the reasons why there have been so few prosecutions is that victims have been reluctant to report instances of FGM.

In addition to this, girls at risk of FGM have not been the subject of child protection investigations because frontline professionals have not identified FGM as child abuse. Consequently, the law in England and Wales has been subject to much criticism e.g. by the Home Affairs Select Committee on Female Genital Mutilation 2014.

The Serious Crime Act 2015 contains provisions designed to improve the law relating to female genital mutilation in England and Wales. For example, the Act introduced Female Genital Mutilation Protection Orders, modelled on Forced Marriage Protection Orders, which are civil orders ‘for the purposes of (a) protecting a girl against the commission of a genital mutilation offence, or (b) protecting a girl against whom any such offence has been committed.’

Just days after the Serious Crime Act came into force on 17th July 2015, the High Court made protection orders to safeguard three young Nigerian girls living in England who were at risk of being taken overseas by their father for the purpose of FGM (Re E (Children) (Female Genital Mutilation Protection Orders) [2015] EWHC 2275 (Fam).

The protection order, which was applied for by the girls’ mother, prohibits the father from removing the children from England and Wales until further order and requires the children’s passports to be deposited with the court to ensure that this is adhered to. The father is prohibited from using violence against the children and their mother, and from encouraging, permitting or causing others to do so.

He is also forbidden to come within 100 metres of the children’s place of residence or their school. If the father breaches the order, he will have committed a criminal offence, punishable by up to five years in prison. FGM protection orders are welcomed as they focus on prevention, rather than punishment of those who commit FGM or arrange for it to take place.

In addition to the introduction of protection orders, the Serious Crime Act 2015:

  • Provides that a criminal offence is committed if a person fails to protect a girl under the age of sixteen from FGM
  • Grants lifelong anonymity to a person who is alleged to have been the victim of FGM in order to encourage more people to come forward
  • Requires regulated professionals, such as teachers and social workers, to notify the police of cases of FGM and
  • Changes the terminology used in the Female Genital Mutilation Act 2003, so that those who are habitually resident in the UK (rather than permanently resident) are protected by and subject to the Act.

These legislative reforms, together with a package of measures promised by the Government, which includes: the establishment of a Female Genital Mutilation Unit, increased funding to improve the way the NHS tackles female genital mutilation; improved training for frontline professionals and increased funding for community engagement projects, will hopefully reduce the occurrence of FGM in England and Wales and assist those who have been subjected to the practice.

About the author: Dr. Ruth Gaffney-Rhys is a Reader in Law, specialising in Family Law. She is the co-director of the Centre for Gender Studies in Wales.

Find out more about studying Law at USW.