The inadequacy of the legal response to the thousands of girls and women from the UK mutilated every year has finally become a major consideration of legal practitioners.

While the data on the incidence of FGM in the UK are limited, estimates by Equality Now and City University show that in England and Wales 103,000 women and girls aged 15-49 are living with the consequences of FGM and another 10,000 under the age of 15 had undergone FGM or are at risk of FGM. Although FGM was made a specific criminal offence in 1985, there have been no successful prosecutions. 

The House of Commons Home Affairs Committee’s report on FGM published on 25 June 2014 recommended a national action plan, which would involve “strengthening the law on FGM, principally to ensure the safeguarding of at-risk girls, but also to increase the likelihood of achieving successful prosecutions” (para 22). 

Five key legislative changes on FGM were introduced into the Serious Crime Act 2015, which was given Royal Assent on 3 March 2015. In this article we attempt to provide an overview of the legislative changes. 

1. Offence of FGM: extra-territorial acts

The Female Genital Mutilation Act 2003 was originally concerned with acts done by UK nationals or permanent UK residents to girls or women who are UK nationals or permanent UK residents. Perpetrators and victims who were habitually resident in the UK (but not UK nationals or permanent UK residents) were not covered by the legislation. The Bar Human Rights Committee of England and Wales (BHRC) noted in its report on FGM that “the UK’s legal obligations extend to all children within its jurisdictions – therefore UK organisers of such mutilations should face prosecution, irrespective of the child’s status” (p 3). 

The Serious Crime Act amends ss 1 to 3 of the 2003 Act so that it applies to UK nationals and habitual residents rather than only to UK nationals and permanent UK residents. A UK resident is someone who is habitually resident in the UK where the person’s ordinary residence is in the UK. 

The Act does not, however, address those who have a short and temporary stay in the UK. No provision is made, for instance, for the situation in which a woman travels to the UK for a short period, visits an NHS doctor who discovers that the woman has been subjected to FGM and intends that her daughter(s) should also be exposed to the procedure. 

2. Anonymity for victims of FGM

A new s 4A and Sch 1 have been inserted into the 2003 Act and provide for injunctions prohibiting the publication of any matter that could lead the public to identify the alleged victim of an offence under the Act. The prohibition lasts for the lifetime of the alleged victim. The power to waive the restrictions is limited to the circumstances necessary to allow a court to ensure that a defendant receives a fair trial (Art 6 ECHR) or to safeguard freedom of expression (Art 10 ECHR). The rationale is that anonymisation will encourage women and girls to report FGM offences committed against them, and to increase the number of prosecutions.

3. Offence of failing to protect girl from risk of genital mutilation 

A new s 3A offence of failing to protect a girl under the age of 16 from risk of FGM is introduced into the 2003 Act. A person is liable for the offence if they were responsible for a girl at the time when an offence is committed against the girl and when FGM has actually occurred. The term “responsible” covers two classes of person: first, a person who has “parental responsibility” for the girl and has “frequent contact” with her, and, second, any adult who has assumed responsibility for caring for the girl in the manner of a parent, for example, grandparents who might be caring for the girl during the school holidays. There are two possible defences: the first is that the defendant did not think that there was a significant risk of the girl being subjected to FGM and could not reasonably have been expected to be aware that there was any such risk. The second defence is that the defendant took reasonable steps to protect the girl from being the victim of FGM. The defendant will have to adduce sufficient evidence for the matter to be considered by the jury; it would then be for the prosecution to demonstrate to the criminal standard of proof, namely beyond reasonable doubt, that the defence had not been made out. This provision may lead to more difficult prosecutions given the wide parameters of the two defences.

4. Female genital mutilation protection orders

Section 5A is inserted into the 2003 Act which introduces new Sch 2 into the 2003 Act. The schedule provides for FGM Protection Orders. The orders can be made to protect a girl or woman at risk of being subjected to FGM. FGM Protection Orders are modelled on forced marriage protection orders introduced by the Forced Marriage (Civil Protection) Act 2007. The terms of such an order can be broad and flexible and enable the court to include whatever terms it considers necessary and appropriate to protect the girl. These include, for example, provisions requiring a person to surrender his or her passport. In addition, the BHRC supported the establishment of a central coordinating institution of an anti-FGM Unit equivalent to the Forced Marriage Unit in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. While the coalition government pledged to introduce an anti-FGM Unit last year, no unit exists yet.

5. Section 74: Duty to notify police of FGM

A new s 5B of the 2003 Act places a duty on persons who work in a “regulated profession” in England and Wales, namely healthcare professionals, teachers and social care workers, to notify the police when, in the course of their work, they discover that an act of FGM appears to have been carried out on a girl who is under 18. The term “discover” would refer to circumstances whether the victim discloses to the professional that she has been subject to FGM, or where the professional observes the physical signs of FGM. The section does not apply to girls under 18 or women over the age of 18 who might be at risk of FGM or cases where professionals discover a woman who is 18 or over has endured FGM.

The BHRC believes that this provision is deficient in a number of respects. First, there is no duty on professionals to notify the police when they discover that a girl or woman is at risk of FGM. Second, professionals do not have to report adults who have had FGM, and yet the FGM Act 2003 states that FGM is a criminal offence for adults and minors and consent is not a defence.

Third, we suggest that if there was a duty to notify police of FGM even when the woman is an adult, this could lead to a conviction of “failing to protect a girl from risk of FGM”. For example, a healthcare professional discovers that a woman of 18 years or more who was born in the UK has been subjected to FGM; theoretically her parents could be guilty of an offence of failing to protect her from FGM. However, the new s 5B offence provides that healthcare professionals have no duty to report an offence of FGM, thus no prosecution is likely to ensue.

The deficiency of this offence reflects the failure of the state’s responsibility and commitment to preventing and protecting girls and women from violence. Indeed, the BHRC’s report on FGM found that “the UK has been in breach of its international law obligations to protect young women and girls from mutilation” (p 1).

Further recommendations and legislative changes were identified in the House of Commons Home Affairs Committee’s report and the BHRC’s report, for example, the need to examine whether s 1(2)(a) of the 2003 Act provides a loophole for FGM to be performed under the guise of female genital cosmetic surgery on the basis that the surgery is “necessary for physical or mental health” reasons, and the introduction of a legal requirement for mandatory training and reporting for frontline professionals in regulated professions. Without a successful prosecution in the next few years, further legislative changes may well be on the political agenda.

This article first appeared in Family Law Week

Nkumbe Ekaney QC represented the father in B and G (Children) (No 2) [2015] EWFC 3, in which the court had to consider within care proceedings whether a girl had been subjected to FGM and, if so, what the implications should be for her and her sibling's future.

Charlotte Proudman was a member of the Bar Human Rights Committee's working group on FGM and she is working on a PhD in Sociology and Law at the University of Cambridge researching the role of law in changing behaviour, attitudes and beliefs towards FGM in the UK.