C. United Kingdom

Not surprisingly, FGM is alive and well in the United Kingdom. Ironically, because the sun never set on the British flag, many of those who lived in other nations under that flag have returned “home.” This has resulted in a huge immigrant population in the United Kingdom with many of the immigrants coming from countries that practice FGM.

1. The Importation of FGM to the United Kingdom

A March 2004 BBC News headlined shouted, “Female Circumcision ‘On the Rise.”’ Sadly, the headline meant on the rise in the United Kingdom. Adwoa Kwateng-Klviste, director of the Foundation for Women's Health and Research, stated she did not find this news “surprising.” The United Kingdom was a colonial power in many of the countries that practice FGM. As a result, there is a history of migration from those former colonies to the United Kingdom. In addition, in recent years, civil unrest and wars in a few African nations [p807] have increased immigration to the United Kingdom. Together, these factors have provided a population that is at risk for FGM.

A recent study of girls born in England or Wales between 1993 and 2004 to mothers who were born in countries that practice FGM, estimated how many of the girls were at risk for FGM. The study not only estimated the risk of FGM, but also estimated the risk for the types of FGM.

J. A. Black, a retired consultant pediatrician in England, reported: “There is evidence that the operation is being perform[ed] illegally in Britain by medically qualified or unqualified practitioners and that children are being sent abroad for a ‘holiday’ to have it done.” The United Kingdom considers FGM a form of child abuse because it is usually practiced on girls between the ages of seven and nine.

Although there are no hard figures on the number of girls and women who have undergone FGM while in the United Kingdom, it is clear that FGM has found a foothold there; both the physical and statistical evidence support this fact. One study estimated that 279,000 women, all current residents of the United Kingdom, underwent FGM in their home countries. One can assume from this large number that many of their female children are at risk for the same procedure.

2. The United Kingdom Reacts: Enacted Legislation

The United Kingdom enacted the Prohibition of Female Circumcision Act in 1985. On March 3, 2004, the newly enacted Female [p808] Genital Mutilation Act 2003 became law. The 2003 Act repealed the 1985 Act, but reenacted most of the provisions to make them stronger. The Act states a person is guilty “if he excises, infibulates or otherwise mutilates the whole or any part of a girl's labia majora, labia minora or clitoris.” There are exceptions if the procedure is done by an approved professional and is necessary for the girl's mental or physical health. Of note, the 2003 Act specifically provides that cultural or traditional norms cannot be taken into account when determining whether the procedure should be done for the girl's mental health.

In addition, the 2003 Act extends criminal liability to U.K. residents for the performance of FGM when it is done outside the United Kingdom. Therefore, parents who send their female children on “holiday” to have the procedure done can be prosecuted; as can any U.K. resident who leaves the country to perform FGM on a U.K. resident.

Scotland passed the Prohibition of Female Genital Mutilation Act in 2005. Section 1 of the Act changed the legal definition of FGM to include the excision, infibulation, or otherwise mutilation of “the whole or any part of the labia majora, labia minora, prepuce, clitoris or vagina of another person.” Section 4 of the Act increased the maximum penalty for FGM to fourteen years in prison. Aside from these additions, the Scottish Act mirrors the U.K. Act.

The purpose of these Acts was to stop FGM in the United Kingdom, but, unfortunately, there have been no criminal prosecutions for FGM in the United Kingdom as of the writing of this Article.

3. The Impact of Legislation in the United Kingdom

An October 2009 exchange between Parliament member Christopher Huhne and the Parliamentary Under-Secretary and Minister of Justice Claire Ward is telling about the relative ineffectiveness of FGM [p809] laws. When Huhne asked about the number of prosecutions and convictions there had been for FGM offenses in the last five years, Ward responded that although data for 2008 was not then available, there had “been no prosecutions or convictions for [FGM] reported to the Ministry of Justice up to the end of 2007.”

Thus, it appears that the law is having very little direct impact on FGM. However, there now does appear to be a national awareness of and, more importantly, a dialogue on the problem of FGM. In fact, Ruth Rendell, a world renowned British mystery writer, made FGM the subject of her 2007 novel. This has had a powerful impact on the national discourse.

Most recently, a medical consortium has commissioned a study to gain more knowledge on the prevalence of FGM in the United Kingdom. The study began in September 2009 and was funded by the Department of Health, FORWARD, Royal College of Nursing, Royal College of Midwives, Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, King's College London, and Florence Nightingale School of Nursing and Midwifery. The study is in two parts: (1) a survey of females affected by FGM; and (2) a survey of the health profession on the knowledge and training needed to combat FGM. One goal of the survey is to provide accurate data on the incidence of FGM in the United Kingdom.

In addition to enacting legislation and promoting education, the United Kingdom is now allowing more asylum claims based on FGM. This is due in large part because of the decision in the case of Zainab Esther Fornah. The Fornah case is considered the seminal case on the issue of granting asylum for FGM in the United Kingdom. The [p810] question before the House of Lords was whether women from societies that practiced FGM could be given refugee status based on that fact. The majority of the Court of Appeals had held that, although FGM was torture and persecution, young women could not qualify for refugee status. The House of Lords overturned that decision and held that women from countries which practiced FGM were members of a particular social group that could qualify for refugee status under the Refugee Convention.

FGM is on the rise in the United Kingdom, but conscious efforts are being made to effectively address the problem. The United Kingdom has taken the most important step--recognizing that female genital mutilation is torture.