2015 has ushered in a huge cultural shift in the way communities view the practice of female genital mutilation (FGM) in the UK, following the introduction of laws aimed at protecting young girls from being subjected to the practice, according to experts.
Cris McCurley, a solicitor in Newcastle who currently has eight FGM protection cases, three where orders are in place, hailed the changes in attitudes from communities where girls would traditionally be cut.
“For concerned mums to go against their communities is massive,” said McCurley. “The more public is it the more likely parents are to come forward. Girls can go to their teachers, saying ‘I need help’.”
This represent a “huge cultural shift”, McCurley told the Guardian. Typically, her cases involve a British child with a mother who has been cut herself.
The new FGM measures include confiscating passports or travel documents of girls who authorities suspect are being taken abroad to be cut. Originally intended to begin in October 2015, they were brought forward to ensure protection over the summer holidays, when girls are most at risk because they travel with their families abroad.
Zimran Samuel, of 42 Bedford Row chambers, helped draft new FGM legislation after proposing the idea to MPs last year. Based on laws used to protect children from forced marriage, it provides a civil alternative to criminal prosecution, but crucially carries a five-year prison sentence if breached.
From July to September 2015 there were 1,385 newly recorded cases of FGM in England, latest figures from the Health and Social Care Information Centre show, 50% of which were in London. Among the cases, there were 17 girls under the age of 18.
“We have more cases brought to the high court in the past few months than we’ve had in the past 30 years,” said Samuel, a specialist in international child law, including FGM, child abduction and forced marriage. “Having very targeted protection is key.”
McCurley describes the new orders as putting a “protective bubble wrap” around a child. “It can ensure a child cannot be removed from Britain, it can go to the passport authorities, instructing them not to issue passports, it can be directed against a certain individual.”
FGM has been illegal in England and Wales since 1985, but only one prosecution has ever been brought to court. A doctor was accused of carrying out the illegal procedure when stitching a woman, who had previously undergone FGM, after she gave birth at the Whittington hospital, north London, in 2012. He was acquitted amid widespread criticism that the case was ever brought to trial.
In July, three London sisters, aged six, nine and 12, whose father was accused of planning to take two of them to Nigeria to undergo the practice and had allegedly sent ceremonial robes for the purpose, were issued with a protection order that stopped him approaching them and banned any travel abroad.
In August, a 13-year-old pupil from Kent who had been taken to Sudan and left there was successfully brought home after a judge deemed her to be “at real risk” of the practice.
In November, four sisters from the south of England were made subjects of a new FGM protection order, after their mother told authorities she was scared their father planned to take one to Egypt to be cut. Within the family’s culture FGM was considered to be an appropriate method to “inhibit sexual urges” in girls, she told the court.
The eight girls are among handful of new cases before the high court, creating what one barrister has described as a quiet revolution in child protection.
Samuel, who has been involved in four FGM protection order cases this year, involving 10 girls, said the Christmas school holidays also presented a danger. “The risk is greater when children travel – summer, Easter and Christmas holidays. It’s really important to raise awareness now. Family courts tend to be quite private but some judges have taken the unusual step of allowing press into cases,” he said, something that has helped publicise the protection orders.
Samuel said that, unlike forced marriage protection orders introduced in 2007, FGM orders have not had the same level of awareness raising.
“We don’t have posters in doctors’ surgeries and schools,” he said. “The vast bulk of it has been done by campaigners. My main concern as a barrister is that members of the public would know there is now protection that doesn’t necessarily involve the full force of the criminal law.”
The orders are part of a raft of measures introduced by the government aimed at stopping the practice. In October, a duty on doctors, nurses, teachers and social workers to report any cases of FGM in under-18s came into force, with professionals facing the sack if they fail to do so.
In Britain, an estimated 137,000 women and girls have undergone or are at risk from FGM, though there is some debate about the exact numbers. The practice, illegal in England and Wales, can cause infection, problems in childbirth and even death.
“The majority of my clients don’t want to use criminal law,” said McCurley. “From a child or teenage girl’s perspective, their parents are doing this because of a deeply held belief that it is the right thing to do. They want it to stop, but they don’t want their parents to go to prison.”
She praised campaigners including Leyla Hussein of Daughters of Eve, and Jasvinder Sanghera of Karma Nirvana.
“People used to say: ‘That’s their culture.’ But these amazing brave women have come forward and said: ‘Not in my name’.”