A new law requiring professionals to report cases of female genital mutilation to police for those under 18 is being introduced in England and Wales, but some warn the law could make girls reluctant to seek medical care.
The law taking effect Saturday makes it a crime not to notify police when health care workers, social workers or teachers see someone under 18 who has had their genitals removed or damaged for non-medical reasons.
The goal is to intensify a government crackdown on the practice of removing external genitalia in young girls, which is seen as a form of child abuse and violence against women and was made a crime here in 2003.
But some charities working to protect girls from this practice, which is still widespread in some parts of Africa, fear unintended consequences from the mandatory reporting law.
“The reality is this doesn’t protect girls, because the rationale is to report girls who have already undergone FGM,” said Naana Otoo-Oyortey, director of the Forward advocacy group, using the acronym FGM for the process. “Yes, we see a need to report and prosecute. But it has to be alongside prevention.”
Roughly 137,000 women and girls in Britain are believed to have endured the procedure, she said. Most of the cases have been done overseas. Among other measures, British authorities have been trying to prevent parents from taking young girls back to Africa to have the procedure done.
Otoo-Oyortey said the British government recently created a comprehensive plan to combat FGM after a parliamentary inquiry, but has only instituted parts of it, leaving out the community work she feels is vital for changing attitudes in neighborhoods comprised of recent arrivals from Africa.
“It’s a cultural practice, a social norm. There is pressure from the communities to go through it,” she said. “(But) the law says FGM is illegal. We need community training to make them aware that they need to make that shift.”
She said Britain has a higher number of girls and young women who have been cut than many other European nations because of migration patterns.
There are fears that requiring doctors and nurses in hospitals and clinics to contact police every time they see evidence of FGM may make some girls afraid to get treatment for medical problems. Being involved with the police is a frightening prospect for many young people, particularly ethnic minorities who live on the margins of British society.
“Statutory measures which raise the importance of female genital cutting are of course welcome,” said Ruth Taylor, operations director of the Orchid Project charity.
“However, women from diaspora populations are already less likely to seek medical support when pregnant and at other times, and there are concerns that this reporting could make them even less likely to get the right health care support when they need it.”
Taylor and others say if girls are too fearful of getting regular gynecological or other medical care, that could lead to serious problems going undetected and untreated.