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FGM: mind the prosecution gap

Is the law in England and Wales equipped to protect victims from FGM and prosecute those who have perpetrated these crimes?.

FGM: mind the prosecution gap

Date - 17th August 2021
By - Jennifer Holton
3 Comments 3 Comments}

Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) is a cultural practise which involves deliberately cutting, changing or removing some or all of the female genitalia with no medicinal reason to do so. It is illegal in the UK as well as in many countries internationally but regardless of this still has a high prevalence globally with an estimated 200 million females alive today having undergone some form of it (World Health Organisation, 2019). It is a form of child abuse that is both physically and emotionally traumatising and there are no health benefits to the procedures. There are four categories of FGM which are branded as Type 1, 2, 3 and 4 and each differ in severity.

FGM is normally carried out on prepubescent girls with the majority of victims being under 15 years of age (UNICEF, 2013) and, as the name suggests, cannot be performed on males. However, there has been debate on whether male circumcision for religious beliefs as opposed to medicinal reasons could or should fall into a similar category.

FGM has significant health implications including difficulty urinating, pain during intercourse, life threatening complications during childbirth and serious mental health conditions as well as the initial effects following the procedure such as pain and infection. Despite any form of FGM being illegal in the UK, practising communities still engineer ways of having the procedures carried out including removing children to familial countries of origin for it to take place.

Despite best efforts by Safeguarding Partnerships who attempt to tackle the issue with a multiagency approach to training, review and increased awareness, cases are rarely brought to police attention (Citizens Advice, 2019). Having sat on regional FGM discussion boards with other police leads reviewing the minimal cases that are brought to court has highlighted to me the importance of this topic. The fact is FGM is happening to innocent victims across the UK now with seemingly no agency adequately able to protect them.

Under the law in England and Wales there are four main sections which are set out in the Female Genital Mutilation Act 2003 and later updated by the Serious Crime Act 2015. These are the primary offence of FGM (section 1), assisting a female to mutilate her own genitals (Section 2), assisting a non- UK person to mutilate a female’s genitals overseas (Section 3) and the failure to protect a girl from FGM (Section 3A). The 2003 act also brought about mandatory reporting for all teachers, healthcare and social care professionals should they either be informed FGM has been carried out on an individual under the age of 18, or observe signs and symptoms that FGM has or is likely to be undertaken (Crown Prosecution Service, 2019).

As well as criminal law being present in the UK, civil law also exists in order to safeguard those who are at risk in the form of Female Genital Mutilation Protection Orders (FGMPO’s). This is a useful safeguarding tool as it allows for agencies such as police or social services to apply to a family court for an FGMPO on a victim’s behalf. With the burden of proof in civil law being the balance of probabilities, securing an FGMPO is a far quicker and simpler process than a criminal prosecution (Lexis, 2019). It can also be expanded to cover multiple members of a family, for example, if there are concerns that an individual may be due to have FGM performed. An FGMPO can be obtained which covers every female child within the household.

As alluded to previously there is an ethical debate regarding male circumcision and how that differs from genital mutilation when it is carried out on a Jewish boy for religious reasons as opposed to FGM when carried out on a girl for cultural reasons. Clearly there is a significant distinction between the severity, but FGM in its most minor form using practices such as ‘pricking’ (using a sharp implement to prick the clitoris or other part of the genitalia) can make it hard to find a distinction. (Wahlberg et al, 2017).

Campaigners brand FGM as a torturous practise with no medical benefits, yet very little thought is given to male circumcision which is considered ethical and potentially medically beneficial as well as hygienic. Rebecca Steinfield, a political scientist in America, goes as far as saying that the reasons for the difference in opinion stem from sexism, and that we are outraged about female cutting because little girls are vulnerable, whereas we’re less concerned about male circumcision because boys are seen as a stronger sex who can withstand pain (Earp, 2014).

Safeguarding against FGM is a difficult and multifaceted subject and it’s unsurprising the crime is so underreported. All safeguarding tools rely heavily on frontline professionals recognising the signs of the procedure being planned or having just taken place. ‘Working Together to Safeguard Children’ guidance has been produced in an attempt to improve recognition, but there is a continued issue of how well this information is cascaded down to frontline staff.

There are various resources available to the Education sector which include literature produced by the Iranian and Kurdish Womens Rights Organisation but schools often push back on displaying such things citing concerns of causing upset, fuelling racial stigmatism and creating a fear culture (Wardere, 2016).

As well as FGM being a specific offence in England and Wales since 2003 there was legislation passed in 1985 called the ‘Prohibition of Female Circumcision Act’ making genital mutilation illegal for 36 years, but regardless of this there has only been one successful conviction despite attempts by prosecutors (Gangoli et al, 2018).

There’s also concern that putting a child through a court hearing and sending her parents to prison would rarely be in her best interests (Milburn, 2018). In February 2018 a high profile case went to court in Bristol following a disclosure from a taxi driver that he had his daughter ‘cut’. A report was made to police and the daughter was examined with a 2-3mm cut observed on her clitoris. This medical evidence was challenged by the defence and a second examination was carried out by a different medical expert who stated that no wound could be observed but that it was possible it could have healed. Before it got as far as the courtroom it was downgraded from FGM to child cruelty and in court the Judge threw it out for insufficient evidence (Newman, 2018).

This is indicative of the problems faced with prosecuting for offences of FGM. With 90% of the abuse being Type 1, 2 or 4 the lasting physical damage to the genitalia is often minimal which results in a small forensic window for gathering evidence, notwithstanding the long term psychological effects that take place.

Given the length of time a police investigation and court hearing takes often essential evidence may no longer be present or appears ambiguous. Subsequently you are left with a child who has initially been through a traumatic procedure at the hands of her loved ones. She is then subjected to a police investigation, most likely removed from her parents and family members, and undergone several intimate medical examinations. It is unsurprising that people question whether criminal prosecution is in the child’s best interest.

Shortly after the disappointment of the first court case in 2018 a second was brought by prosecutors which involved the cutting of a 3-year-old girl by her mother. This trial secured the UK’s first ever conviction for  FGM  -  a landmark case in English legal history. Whilst this is positive, the facts of the matter are that the child was cut substantially which resulted in significant blood loss and her having to seek immediate medical care which triggered a safeguarding process and police investigation. Statistics tell us that this level of injury is not apparent in the majority of FGM victims and therefore this case does little to set a precedent for more common circumstances.

The term ‘black letter law’ is used to describe the literal and unambiguous way in which the law is read and interpreted. It does not allow for political or practical context (McConville and Chui, 2017). This can be viewed as positive because it creates a standardised approach and reduces ambiguities in interpretation. The reality is that no situation is completely black and white, particularly something as complex as FGM.

An alternative socio-legal approach allows analysis of whether laws achieve what they seek to prohibit (Banakar and Traver, 2005). Whilst this could be considered negative due to its ability to render everything up for individual interpretation, it allows for reflections of society when new laws are created and amendments to existing laws are made to ensure they remain fit for purpose. This approach has been applied to domestic abuse over the past decade, with a shift in terminology from physical violence only to one which seeks to recognise that emotional, financial and psychological trauma is just as serious as physical injury (Crown Prosecution Service, 2019). FGM legislation is yet to be looked at in the same way.

With an estimated 137,000 victims in the UK (and that is believed to only be the tip of the iceberg) FGM is an area that drastically requires improvement in order to safeguard future victims and educate the next generation. In order to achieve this we need to remove the stigma attached to FGM and identify that it is not a practise that is owned by specific religions, accepting that individuals from any faith could be victims. Raising awareness would have an enormous impact on the offence, with signs and symptoms becoming more likely to be recognised which in turn would apply legal pressure to perpetrating families. Increased awareness for victims would also help them to know where to seek help, advice or support.

It is apparent that whilst the UK has taken positive approaches to try and reduce or combat FGM it is ineffective in routinely safeguarding victims and preventing them from coming to harm, as well as prosecuting offenders. Only with increased social acceptance and understanding of the topic, along with embraced and detailed education in schools can the fight against eradicating FGM in the UK really begin to take effect.

Jennifer Holton is the Citizens in Policing Manager at Wilshire Police


Arts, K and Popvoski, V, et al. 2006. International Criminal Accountability and the Rights of Children. "From Peace to Justice Series". London: Cambridge University Press.

Banakar, R and Travers, M, 2005. Theory and Method in Socio-Legal Research. The Onati International Institute for the Sociology of Law. Hart Publishing.

Citizens advice, 2019. Online. Retrieved from: abuse/what-is-child-abuse/local-safeguarding-children-boards/

Costello, S, 2015. Female genital mutilation/cutting: risk management and strategies for social workers and health care professionals. Risk Management and Healthcare Policy. 2015; 8: 225–233.

Crown Prosecution Service, 2019. Online. Retrieved from: guidance

Crown Prosecution Service, 2019. Online. Retrieved from: family-relationship

Earp, B, 2014. Female genital mutilation (FGM) and male circumcision: Should there be a separate ethical discourse? Practical Ethics. University of Oxford. Available at:

End FGM EU, 2019. Online. Retrieved at: mutilation/what-is-fgm/

Equality Now, 2019. Online. Retrieved from:

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Ordered by:
M10 - Sat, 21 August 2021

What on earth does the role “Citizens in Policing” mean? Another ludicrous and woke title. I wonder whether Stephen Watson would entertain this in GMP?