Female genital mutilation must be treated as human rights abuse, say nurses and midwives.
Thousands of girls in danger of genital mutilation are being failed by the health and justice systems, a coalition of health professionals has warned in a report that recommends aggressive steps to eradicate the practice in the UK.
Female genital mutilation (FGM) should be treated the same as any other kind of child abuse and evidence of it must be reported to the police, according to the report.
Janet Fyle, a policy adviser of the Royal College of Midwives and one of the report’s authors, said that just as it was inconceivable that a health worker would not report evidence of child abuse to the police, it should be equally important to report evidence of FGM.
“If we are applying child protection laws, we cannot pick and choose which crimes against children we pursue,” she said.
“We are not asking for more money or legislation, we are just asking that child protection laws should work for all children not just some.”
According to the report more than 66,000 women in England and Wales have undergone FGM and more than 24,000 girls under the age of 15 are at risk of it.
Despite its regular occurrence, FGM has not resulted in a prosecution in Britain, whereas in France there have been about 100.
The report – Tackling Female Genital Mutilation in the UK – will be launched at the House of Commons on Monday by the Royal Colleges of Midwifery, Nursing and Obstetricians and Gynaecologists, the Unite union and Equality Now. It has been praised by the government.
FGM is carried out in Africa and the Middle East by Muslims and non-Muslims. It predates Islam and is not called for in the Qur’an although it mostly occurs in countries that became Islamic.
In countries such as Somalia and Egypt more than 90% of women have undergone some kind of FGM but it is also common in Ethiopia, Eritrea, Mali and Sierra Leone. Although FGM has been outlawed in the UK since 1985, migrants from countries where FGM is common have continued the practice here or by taking girls to their home countries for it to be performed.
Since 2003, Britons can be prosecuted for acts of FGM abroad.
The report recommends that FGM must be treated as child abuse and evidence of it should be collected by the NHS and shared with the police and education officials. It also recommends that health workers who detect evidence of FGM should treat it as a crime and inform the police.
The former director of public prosecutions, Keir Starmer, said it was only a matter of time before prosecutions for FGM took place.
“Through working together closely with the police, health and social careprofessionals and the third sector, we are now in a much better place to have a successful prosecution against those who perpetrate this practice,” he wrote in the report’s foreword.
“It is only a matter of time before this happens and this will send a very powerful message that FGM is a crime that will not be tolerated in a modern multicultural society.”
The report recommends that health workers identify girls at risk and treat them as if they were at risk of child abuse. Girls at risk are defined as girls born to a woman who has undergone FGM or a child who lives closely with someone who has.
It also calls for a government-funded awareness strategy, similar to the HIV campaigns, and for health workers to be held accountable for their success or failure in monitoring FGM among patients and sharing information.
The report clearly emphasises the importance of an individual’s safety over the respect for religious and racial sensibilities, a point welcomed by Shaista Gohir, the chairwoman of the Muslim Women’s Network.
“We need to be mindful of cultural and religious sensibilities but safeguarding the child from FGM has to be the priority. If a child is at risk it is better to protect them rather than religious and cultural feelings,” she said.
The report’s launch will be hosted by the public health minister, Jane Ellison, who has praised the report but not yet endorsed any of its recommendations.
She said: “One of my priorities as public health minister is to work towards eradicating female genital mutilation. Having supported this report during its development, I welcome its publication and the lead that the organisations involved, representing so many healthcare workers, are showing.”
A spokesman for the Department of Health said ministers had yet to study the report’s recommendations.
Other suggestions include that medical staff should question all new young female patients to determine the prevalence of FGM in their families and that teachers and schools should highlight the issue with at-risk groups and individuals.
Sarian Karim, a 36-year-old community worker from Peckham, south London, who suffered FGM as an 11-year-old in Sierra Leone, welcomed the report.
“FGM is a normal thing for us. We don’t know it is against the law, but I know that it damages girls and leaves them scarred for life – mentally and physically.
“It is very important that everyone knows that FGM is illegal. We suffer from a lot of complications [because of the procedure].
“We want those people who work in schools to have guidelines and be able to inform, prepare and protect children.”
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