First UK prosecution for female genital mutilation moves a step closer

BMJ 2013; 346 doi: (Published 08 May 2013) Cite this as: BMJ 2013;346:f2981
  1. Ingrid Torjesen
  1. 1London

The Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) is examining five cases of alleged female genital mutilation as part of its effort to try to finally bring the first successful prosecution for the offence in the United Kingdom.

Female genital mutilation has been a criminal offence in the UK for almost 30 years under the Prohibition of Female Circumcision Act 1985. The law was made tougher in 2003 when the Female Genital Mutilation Act made it an offence for UK citizens to take a child abroad for the procedure.

Each year more than 20 000 girls under the age of 15 years living in the UK are believed to be subjected to female genital mutilation or “cutting,” and 66 000 women are living with the consequences.1 However, no one has ever been successfully prosecuted under either act, and no case has even been brought to court.

The practice involves removal of the clitoris and sewing up of the vaginal area, leaving only a small hole through which the woman can urinate and menstruate. The procedure is traditionally performed by women with no medical training, who use knives, scissors, or razor blades and no anaesthetic.

In November last year Keir Starmer QC, the director of public prosecutions for England and Wales, published an action plan to target the perpetrators of female genital mutilation and to try to bring a successful prosecution for the offence, which is punishable by up to 14 years in jail.2 3

Under the initiative the Metropolitan Police have reviewed hundreds of historical cases of alleged female genital mutilation that had failed to meet the threshold necessary for prosecution, to see whether a case could be brought under alternative legislation. Offences considered include conspiracy charges and offences under the Domestic Violence, Crime and Victims Act (which established an offence of causing or allowing a child or vulnerable adult to die or suffer serious physical harm). The police have identified six cases that may qualify, five of which they have now referred to the CPS.

A CPS spokesperson said, “The Metropolitan Police service is currently looking at six investigations of female genital mutilation, of which five have been passed to the CPS. We are looking at what action can be taken and if alternative charges might be brought. This is in line with the DPP’s [director of public prosecutions’] action plan, which included ensuring police and prosecutors work together closely from the start of investigations.”

Jane Ellison MP, chairwoman of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Female Genital Mutilation, said, “Even a single prosecution would, I believe, make a significant difference and send out a strong message that the mutilation of girls living in the UK will not be tolerated. However, it would only be one part of the solution.

“There are existing, and very robust, safeguarding guidelines, yet many frontline professionals are either unaware of them or do not follow them. An example of this is the lack of referrals to health visitors when women who have had female genital mutilation give birth to daughters. We need to understand in more detail why, in many cases, best practice is not being followed, not least as the lack of referrals has historically been one of the stumbling blocks for the police and CPS.”

Until now only three alleged cases of female genital mutilation have been referred to the CPS, none of which made it to court.

Prosecutions for female mutilation are difficult because they could require a girl to implicate her own parents in a crime. There are also cultural taboos, and communities may stay silent or close ranks. It is also hard to obtain reliable evidence if the crime was carried out abroad.


Cite this as: BMJ 2013;346:f2981