The failure to tackle the growing practice of female genital mutilation (FGM) in the UK is a “national scandal” that has resulted in the preventable abuse of thousands of girls, a committee of MPs has said.
In a hard-hitting report, the Commons Home Affairs Committee said FGM may be one of the most prevalent forms of “severe physical child abuse” taking place in Britain, with an estimated 65,000 girls under the age of 13 at risk.
While the practice has been outlawed in Britain since 1985, the first prosecution only took place this year – days before the Director of Public Prosecutions Alison Saunders was due to appear before the committee.
In its report, the committee blamed a “misplaced concern for cultural sensitivities over the rights of the child” for the failure of authorities to deal with a practice largely associated with communities from parts of Africa.
It called for prosecutions to show that the issue was being taken seriously in the UK and the implementation of a “comprehensive and fully-resourced” national action plan for dealing with it.
The Government should introduce “FGM protection orders” similar to those that exist for forced marriage, it said, and if necessary ministers should change the law to make it a criminal offence to fail to report child abuse.
The committee also highlighted the need for better services for women and girls affected by FGM, including refuge shelters for those at risk.
“FGM is a severe form of gender-based violence and, where it is carried out on a girl, it is an extreme form of child abuse,” it said.
“The failure to respond adequately to the growing prevalence of FGM in the UK over recent years has likely resulted in the preventable mutilation of thousands of girls to whom the state owed a duty of care.
“This is a national scandal for which successive governments, politicians, the police, health, education and social care sectors all share responsibility.”
There are an estimated 170,000 women and girls in the UK who have undergone FGM, the report said, while in two London boroughs almost one in 10 girls are born to mothers who have suffered the procedure and are therefore themselves at risk.
FGM is most commonly carried out on girls between the ages of five and eight and while in some countries it may be done by a health professional, it is often performed by traditional practitioners with no formal training, without anaesthetics, using knives, scissors or even pieces of glass.
The immediate effects can include severe pain, bleeding, shock, infection and occasionally death. In the long term, many women and girls experience mental health problems, such as depression and post-traumatic stress.
While police in the UK have investigated more than 200 cases over the last five years, the committee said there was still very little information on the girls most at risk.
While anecdotal evidence suggested it was common for girls to be taken back to their country of origin during the school holidays to undergo the procedure, there was also evidence that FGM was taking place in the UK.
The committee contrasted the lack of prosecutions in Britain with the situation in France where the large number of convictions had played a key role of discouraging the practice.
“One reason behind the UK’s poor record is that the police and Crown Prosecution Service have historically been far too passive in their approach to FGM by waiting for survivors to come forward and report,” it said.
“Yet the nature of FGM means that it is unlikely that this will happen.”
It was particularly critical of the Association of Chief Police Officers, saying it had shown “a distinct lack of leadership”, while it said the record of healthcare practitioners and other professionals, such as teachers and social workers, in reporting FGM was “extremely poor”.
“It is unacceptable that those in a position with the most access to evidence of these crimes do nothing to help the victims and those at risk,” it said.
“A key objective for a national action plan on FGM must be to overcome practitioners’ own reluctance to address FGM so that they respond to it in the same way as other forms of child abuse.”
The committee said there was a need for high-quality training for all the professionals concerned and that ministers should consider giving medical professionals the power to make FGM assessments where a girl is identified as being at high risk.
The process of identifying at-risk girls – such as those whose mothers have undergone FGM or come from a country where the practice is prevalent – should begin before they are born, the committee said.
It said there was a clear case for a national FGM awareness campaign on the scale of historic public health campaigns on domestic violence and HIV/Aids.
The committee chairman, Keith Vaz, said: “We need to act immediately. We owe survivors of FGM the chance to save others from this horrific abuse. We must use every opportunity the law allows to give victims a voice.”
Crime prevention minister Norman Baker said: “Female genital mutilation is a criminal offence, and it is child abuse. The coalition Government is already driving a step-change to end this extremely harmful and misguided practice, which has a lifelong impact on survivors’ physical and mental health.
“Earlier this year, ministers from across government signed a declaration to demonstrate their commitment to end this terrible form of abuse. We are working with religious and community leaders to forge a commitment to condemn FGM, and reaching out to communities to encourage them to seek help and advice and ultimately abandon the practice.
“We are also taking steps to improve professionals’ understanding of FGM and to protect foreign nationals who are habitually resident in the UK and are taken overseas to be cut. This summer, the Prime Minister will host the UK’s first Girl Summit, aimed at ending FGM within a generation.
“We will carefully consider the Home Affairs Select Committee’s recommendations and will publish a full response in due course.”