Articles on Shifting Sands
FGM Protection Orders: Who benefits?
‘Female genital mutilation’ (FGM), no matter the type or severity, is officially considered child abuse. A raft of measures were introduced in the UK via the Serious Crime Act 2015 in response to what has been termed a ‘silent epidemic’ of FGM. Despite being promoted by the police as ‘Community Driven Solutions’ many within those targeted communities find them hugely problematic.
Among the measures is Mandatory Reporting (MR) which is contentious and I’ve written about this here and here. With MR, regulated health and social care practitioners and teachers are required to report known and suspected cases of FGM direct to the police within 48 hours. Or else.
Another measure, and the subject of this piece, are FGM Protection Orders (FGMPO’s).
FGM has been high in people’s consciousness for some years now. By July 2015, ‘a huge cultural shift in the way communities view the practice’ was said to have been wrought. Some however, believe this change had already happened, voluntarily, within traditionally affected immigrant communities. But demands that ‘something be done’ had been issued and were heard.
FGMPO’s came into force in July 2015 and were designed to provide a civil alternative to criminal prosecutions. Originally intended to begin in October 2015, they were fast-tracked for implementation to protect girls before the school summer holidays (the so called cutting season). And to address the supposed ‘tip of the iceberg’ problem.
Applications are made to and granted by family courts in England, Wales and Northern Ireland. FGMPO’s do not exist in Scotland, although FGM is a criminal offence there also. Any number of people can apply for the PO – the person at risk, a local authority, friends, the police, a teacher, a charity or a family member.
These PO’s have been described as putting “protective bubble wrap” around a child. They contain conditions like surrendering a passport to prevent the person deemed at risk from being taken abroad to undergo FGM, or requirements that no one arranges for FGM to be performed on the person being protected. An order can also seek the return of an FGM victim from abroad who is being prevented from returning.
Though likely to be time bound, FGMPO’s can be kept for as long as a Judge considers them necessary. They are lifted when the risk is no longer present. Families/young people as well as professionals can request this.
Breach of a PO is a criminal offence and if found guilty, can result in a fine or up to five years imprisonment. A civil route can also be pursued by making an application for contempt of court and if successful, could result in a prison sentence of up to two years.
So what has happening in regard to FGMPO’s?
It’s not an understatement to say that their introduction was met with a fair degree of enthusiasm from activists, campaigners, victims, survivors and professionals as a way of dealing with the supposed 63,000 girls ‘at risk’ of FGM; 21:1,000 at risk in London. Then there was the imaginary, impending ‘cutting season’. That problem appeared even greater and more urgent when Baroness Tonge (wrongly) suspected that 50 girls had been taken from the UK to Somalia to undergo FGM and reported it to the police.
So a high degree of public awareness had been generated and a variety of interventions planned. Included was training for professionals like teachers and border guards to spot potential FGM victims. Airports like Heathrow, Gatwick and Manchester were specifically targeted. Expectations of what could be achieved through them were high.
Some judges have taken the unusual step of allowing press into what are normally private hearings in family courts when applications are being made or re-considered. While this has helped publicise the PO’s which is no doubt the intent, it also signals that there’s something unique about FGMPO’s that makes it OK for usual rules of privacy to be broken. And that some issues are possibly less confidential than others, because they relate to certain people from particular parts of the world?
How many have been made?
In truth, fewer than were officially hoped for or expected. Government figures reported that during the first three months of their existence, 28 PO applications were made but only 18 granted. Data released by the Ministry of Justice in Sept 2016 showed that between July 2015 and June 2016, 77 applications were made and 68 orders granted (others were still under consideration then). Up to the end of 2016, 94 PO’s had been granted. The latest data (up to 31 March 2107) confirmed that only 137 applications were made and 113 orders granted. All were made in England and many were issued to families with more than one girl, some with as many as four.
Within days of the law coming into force, Bedfordshire Police had secured the first FGMPO’s. Although they didn’t provide details the police seemed confident enough to suggest that a further 20,000 girls under fifteen, were at risk of FGM in the UK, each year. Greater Manchester also secured early PO’s.
Official disappointment at numbers granted
When the first figures were released, the lead for the new FGM Unit expressed disappointed with the low number and urged health professionals to be ‘braver’ in applying initiative to safeguard thousands of children (my emphasis). Jane Ellison, then Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Public Health also expressed disappointment that fewer than 40 had been issued by February 2016. And suggested that not enough were being requested or made.
In response and to help encourage the sharing of best practice, a police officer from the Metropolitan Police was seconded to the FGM Unit. The Police representative visited all forces in England & Wales to understand their response to FGM and honour based violence and to identify and collate examples of best practice. Examples include: protection agreements with the family of an at-risk child, a risk assessment and protection plan for transferring cases between forces, and a template for gathering community intelligence.
Why were FGMPO’s sought?
Reasons for the applications or details in regard to them are neither easily accessed nor readily available. But because this is a new area of work for the legal system, some discussion has been held online and a few brief, anonymised details published about some cases.
Predictably, not all cases are straightforward and other factors and agendas, often domestic, confound them. So one of the first FGM PO’s granted in July 2015 was based on the presumption that there was a serious risk to three children, from their father, who wanted them to undergo FGM in Nigeria. But at a follow-up hearing, the risk was not considered sufficient to justify their continuation. Details can be accessed here.
Another case led to a PO being granted to the child of Gambian parents and the child’s passport was retained by the Local Authority. A follow-on hearing allowed access to the passport which allowed travel provided that conditions were met.
In August 2015, 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 2015, four sisters from the south of England were made subjects of an FGMPO. Their mother had told authorities she was scared their father planned to take one to Egypt to be cut.
A Newcastle solicitor reported she had eight FGM protection cases, three with PO’s in place, by Dec 2015.
South Yorkshire police had seven FGMPO’s issued ‘to protect both victims, and potential victims, of FGM.’
Information is not provided about the two PO’s granted by the Sheffield Family Court in April 2017 or the four issued to two women in June 2017. Nevertheless, concerns are still being expressed in Sheffield that enough is not being done.
More detailed reports
The most detailed summaries were published by solicitors regarding cases heard in London early in 2016.
‘The circumstances of the first concerned the daughter of a West African diplomat based in the UK whose child was less than a year old. Her mother had initially raised concerns with the police that the child would be taken abroad for FGM by family members. The mother herself had been subjected to FGM and was concerned that the father would not prevent FGM from taking place. The local authority made an application on the basis of the mother’s concerns. The father denied he would subject his daughter to the procedure.’
‘The second involved a mother from south-east Asia who had enquired during a medical appointment as to where she could have her daughter circumcised. After the mother was informed that it was illegal in England the mother enquired further as to whether there had been cases where people had been caught after having the procedure carried out. The mother herself had had the procedure carried out and failed to show any understanding as to the impact the procedure has on the victim. In light of this Staffordshire County Council applied for the order.’
Parents have reported their distress at what they perceive as the unfair granting of some of these PO’s but much of this is kept private. FGM remains a taboo subject for many and concerns are not widely shared. Community representatives have expressed particular concerns about the unprofessional way in which ‘suspects’ are treated by professionals, some of whom are considered to be overly zealous in their determination to identify girls/young women ‘at risk’.
Particular families say they are being targeted and viewed with suspicion when applying e.g. for a visa to travel to Africa, irrespective of where they intend travelling to there. It’s as though Africa is viewed by suspicious minds as just one country where all children are ‘at risk’ of the most severe type of FGM: infibulation. The lack of ‘country experts’ with in-depth knowledge about views and practices on FGM remains a concern.
Other concerns include the perceived low level of evidence that seems to be required when court applications are made, and the damage that these PO’s can inflict on children, families and communities.
The low level of press coverage (if any) when PO’s are withdrawn has also been noted, making it seem, in the public imagination, that the need for them is bigger than it actually is. There is anxiety that some are granted as a back covering exercise; ‘just in case’. But families fear speaking out for fear of reprisal from professionals like social care workers, the police force and the legal system. Trust in professionals has plummeted and many are now viewed with suspicion.
Yet the knock-on effects, in addition to financial loss, inability to travel overseas, flights cancelled, out of date visas, as well as ongoing surveillance appear acceptable inconveniences to the authorities, because they have been led to believe they are tackling a major problem. Yet, the only new cases of ‘FGM’ being seen in the NHS remain genital piercings.
An objective assessment of the need for measures such as FGMPO’s and Mandatory Reporting is desperately needed.
About the Author - Bríd Hehir
Bríd is a retired health professional. She started her career as a (volunteer) nurse and midwife in Africa, in Ethiopia and Botswana, where she worked for almost four years. She encountered FGM/C in Ethiopia. She then moved to London where she worked in the National Health Service as a midwife, community nurse, health visitor, reproductive and sexual health nurse and manager over a period of 30 years. She did not encounter FGM/C during that time despite working with immigrant communities who are reported to practice it still. She is puzzled by the current reported prevalence of the practice, the official response and associated activism. And is worried that they might cause more harm than good.