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New female genital mutilation law

October 30, 2015

A new law in England and Wales has required teachers and doctors to report cases of female genital mutilation, or risk being fired. Some have criticized the law, saying it could deter girls from seeking medical help.

A woman who has made a living for 15 years by circumcising young girls, looks into a piece of a mirror
Image: Getty Images/AFP/N. Sobecki

A new law in England and Wales, which takes effect on Saturday, makes it a crime to not notify police when a girl under 18 years old has undergone female genital mutilation (FGM). Britain outlawed the practice in 2003 and considers it both a form of child abuse and violence against women.

"The duty is an important step forward in tackling this practice, and we believe that it will make sure professionals have the confidence to confront FGM," said Karen Bradley, minister for preventing abuse and exploitation, in a statement.

Teachers, doctors, nurses and social workers will have one month to report any cases of FGM in girls under 18 years old, whether through disclosure or observation. Those who fail to report will face disciplinary procedures.

An FGM ritual entails the total or partial removal of a girl's clitoris and external genitalia. In extreme cases, the vaginal opening is sewn closed. Alongside serious physical and psychological damage, FGM can cause complications in childbirth and painful sexual intercourse.

Around 137,000 women and girls in England and Wales live with the painful side effects of FGM after having the procedure done overseas. A 2014 study estimated that 60,000 more girls were at risk of undergoing the ritual, which is practiced by numerous ethnic communities such as Somalis, Eritreans, Sudanese and Egyptians.

"We need to ensure that where a serious crime has been committed, the police are informed and can instigate an appropriate multi-agency response to protect girls and bring perpetrators to justice," said Bradley.

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'This doesn't protect girls'

Despite the law's hopeful aims, certain charities in Britain worry that the measure could have unintended consequences for affected or at-risk girls.

"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. "Yes, we see a need to report and prosecute. But it has to be alongside prevention."

Otoo-Oyortey said that Britain has a higher number of young women who have been cut than most other European nations because of migration patterns. "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 asserts.

Other organizations fear that girls may be more reluctant to go to the doctor than before, especially if the police are involved. Ruth Taylor, operations director of the Orchid Project charity, cautioned that if the girls are afraid of receiving gynecological or other medical services, many problems could go undetected and untreated.

"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," said Taylor.

rs/jm (AP, Reuters)