This article was first published on LabourList on 15 September 2016.
Today’s Home Affairs Select Committee report on Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) is an update on our committee’s previous work, continuing our scrutiny of the government’s commitment to tackle this important issue.
As our report highlights, FGM is not a religious or cultural rite of passage which needs protection. It is a horrific crime which, when inflicted on a young girl, amounts to violent child abuse. It causes severe and often long-term physical, emotional and psychological pain - sometimes leading to death - leaving women and girls with lifelong physical and mental health issues.
The practice of FGM has been illegal in the UK since 1985, but the nature of the crime has made it difficult to identify and prosecute, so much so that no one has successfully been convicted. While the government has made efforts to raise the profile of the dangers and consequences of FGM, and is supporting work to eradicate it, there is still much more to be done.
It is estimated that approximately 103,000 women aged 15-49 and approximately 24,000 women aged 50 and over who have migrated to England and Wales are living with the consequences of this attack on women's bodies. In addition, approximately 10,000 girls aged under 15 who have migrated to England and Wales are likely to have undergone FGM. But Government data and information around levels of FGM still remains patchy. Data collection and identification across the National Health Service has been mandatory since July 2015, which has helped to build a picture. Clinicians across the NHS are required to record when a patient who is a victim of FGM is identified during routine healthcare. In their first annual collection of mandatory recording results in July 2016, The Health and Social Care Information Centre (HSCIC) identified 5,702 newly recorded cases of FMG. In my borough of Lambeth in London, the HSCIC’s initial findings suggest that there were, between April 2015-March 2016, 170 women and girls identified as being victims of FGM. But a lot of this data is incomplete and many clinicians are uncomfortable with having to record data without the patients consent.
Identification in the NHS is helping to create a clearer understanding of this crime, but more needs to be done and the Government must adopt a more sophisticated, data driven approach in order to move in the right direction of eradicating FGM. The Home Office must identify further ways of gathering data, with more proactive engagement with the communities, families and women who are directly affected by FGM.
FGM prevention also requires the collaboration of health services, social care, education and law enforcement agencies. However, there is too often a lack of joined up work across those public bodies. For example, the Department for Education, Department for Health and the Home Office all have their own FGM initiatives – each with their own focus, budgets and resources. So we think the Home Office's FGM Unit, should be given the remit to be the single source of government policy for safeguarding and preventing FGM. However the unit should be a cross-government project between the Department for Health, Department for Education and the Home Office. Hopefully such an approach would foster cooperation and remove institutional barriers.
The work done by the UK Border Force and police to detect and prevent young girls and women being taken out of the UK to undergo FGM is important too. But, again, there needs to be better join up. That's why we recommend the FGM Unit establish strong working links with the UK Border Force and police at ports and airports to help provide intelligence and good-practice.
More work can be done within education, as an avenue for prevention. Personal, Social, Health and Economic (PSHE) education has a significant role to play in equipping young girls with the tools to keep themselves and others safe. PSHE should be made compulsory in schools, including education on FGM and tackling violence against women and girls, specifically in high incidence areas like my constituency. By tackling these issues in the safe environment of the classroom, conversations between pupils and teachers can lead to further reporting and safeguarding measure being put in place.
So good work has been done on raising awareness of the issue of FGM, its dangers and consequences. As a result many more people are aware of it. However, the Committee has highlighted these, and other areas, where we as a society need to do more – it is shameful that there has not been a successful prosecution for FGM in the UK in the last 20 years. It must be repeated, loud and clear: the practice of FGM is a monstrous act and we must challenge it wherever we find it.