The failure to tackle the growing practice of female genital mutilation (FGM) in the UK is a “national scandal”, which 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.
“We need to act immediately. We owe survivors of FGM the chance to save others from this horrific abuse”
While the practice has been outlawed in Britain since 1985, the first prosecution only took place this year.
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.
“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,” the report stated.
“This is a national scandal for which successive governments, politicians, the police, health, education and social care sectors all share responsibility,” it said.
An estimated 170,000 women and girls in the UK 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. 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 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 said there was a need for high-quality training for all the professionals concerned and that ministers should consider giving clinicians 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 recommended the inclusion of mandatory questioning on FGM for antenatal booking interviews and at GP registration, and changes to the Personal Child Health Record/Red Book to refer explicitly to FGM.
It also 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 chair Keith Vaz, MP for Leicester East, 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.”
“We must improve knowledge of all professionals working with children so that cultural understanding – or lack of it – is not an issue”
The union Unite called for more trained health professionals to tackle the problem. It said there are currently not enough school nurses of health visitors with the right training to identify which girls are at risk of FGM.
Obi Amadi, Unite lead professional officer, said: “Now is the time to act on the issue of FGM and the Home Affairs Select Committee report is very clear cut.
“However, this is a complex area with layers of cultural sensitivities that can’t be overlooked and which pose challenges to health and social care professionals, including health visitors and school nurses,” she said.
“We must improve knowledge of all professionals working with children so that cultural understanding – or lack of it – is not an issue,” she added.
Louise Silverton, director for midwifery at the Royal College of Midwives, said: “We welcome this report and national action plan. Professionals in all sectors, including midwives, should ensure the safeguarding of at-risk women and girls.
“We also back the committee’s finding of the need for better health and welfare services for woman and girls living with FGM,” she added.
“We look forward to the well-meaning rhetoric of this report becoming a reality in the lives of vulnerable girls and women.”