September 10, 2010
In 1985 the practice of female circumcision – or female genital mutilation – was outlawed in Britain. Since 2003 it has also been illegal to take girls out of the country to have them "cut" abroad, usually in East Africa. It is a brutal, invasive, dangerous procedure that leaves young girls scarred physically and emotionally. The maximum penalty is 14 years. No one has ever been prosecuted.
Meanwhile, the Observer has learned of an increased incidence of mutilations being carried out in the UK, as recession makes it harder for parents to take their children for bogus "holidays" with family back home.
Why, when this is all happening on a systematic basis, has no one been brought to justice?
Partly, it is because the communities where it is widespread are often insular, making it hard for police to gather evidence for a successful prosecution. Partly it is a failure by teachers and health professionals to recognise or acknowledge the symptoms of mutilation, and report cases, although the law obliges them to do so. But largely it is the result of queasiness on the part of officials to intervene against a traditional practice that some immigrant communities consider an important component of their identity. In other words, a fear of transgressing against cultural sensitivity has led to a softly-softly policing approach and wider social denial.
That is horribly misguided. Taking resolute action against female genital mutilation would not be an act of prejudice against a minority. Quite the contrary, it would be consistent with the principle that all are equal before the law, and a demonstration that all are equally entitled to protection from cruelty and abuse, regardless of race or religion. Increasing numbers of women from the affected communities are making that case, refusing to have their own girls harmed and campaigning on behalf of others. Their brave voices would be immeasurably strengthened by a successful prosecution.