The barbaric practice of female genital mutilation is once again in the press - for the right and wrong reasons.
First, the positive: on 1 February Britain finally lodged its first successful conviction for female genital mutilation, despite having made FGM illegal all the way back in 1985. A mother and her partner were charged with ‘cutting’ their three-year-old girl, although only the mother was eventually found guilty. According to the judge, the mother will receive a “lengthy” sentence on 8th March. It is a significant, if long overdue, victory for anti-FGM campaigners.
And now the bad: a little over a week later, backbench Conservative MP Sir Christopher Chope blocked an FGM-related Private Members Bill from passing its Second Reading in the House of Commons. The Bill was tabled in the Lords by Lord Berkeley and sponsored by Tory MP Zac Goldsmith, and it seeks to amend the Children Act to enable courts to issue protection orders if they think a girl is at risk of genital mutilation, i.e. a much-needed step. Chope claims he objected to ensure a proper debate, but that’s complete nonsense.
Sadly, this wasn’t Chope’s first foray into blocking justice for women. Chope famously pulled the same procedural trick to block the recent ‘upskirting’ bill, whose only crime was trying to punish blokes for taking unauthorised pictures of women’s fannies. Regrettable though it is, Chope is throwing pebbles against the arc of justice. Justice will – eventually – be done. That said, Chope is a Luddite and his reflexive – and selective – opposition to pro-women Prime Members Bills is a deep and dark stain on this government’s admirable efforts to protect women and girls.
While only one of us has had our fanny cut, we are both strong defenders of girls and women and believe wholeheartedly in stamping out FGM. There are simply to many girls and women here in London and across the UK – some of them only babies – who are having this life-defining scar inflicted upon them. We can, and must, do more to protect them.
The raw FGM numbers are staggering. It is estimated that 170,000 girls and women are living with FGM in the UK, with a further 65,000 girls under the age of 13 at risk of being cut. A full 50% of these cases are recorded in London. This means one out of 50 of London’s women are affected by FGM, which is the highest rate in the country. That number rises to one in 20 in Southwark, London’s FGM capital. And the problem isn’t going away; recent NHS figures suggest there has been a 21% year-on-year increase in FGM in the capital. The almost complete lack of convictions for this backward practice is shameful.
The lack of legal action despite a clear law on the books suggests that our system isn’t currently set up in the right way to tackle a secretive practice like FGM; we need to bring it out into the light. That’s why we are calling for the creation of an FGM registry.
A national register for all of those girls who are at threat of FGM will make it easier for the police and the CPS to catch and prosecute these criminals. And it would help our public services and the justice system to move towards a more child-centric approach to ending FGM. Sunshine really is the best disinfectant.
To be clear, a registry is not about picking on a culture, or cultures, or a religion. Any such talk is just another version of Chopeism: a way to delay needed protection. Our advocacy is about one thing, and one thing only – keeping our country safe for girls who are at risk of having a key part of them taken away.
While only one of us is running for Mayor of London, both of us are resolutely committed to making London the leading city in the fight against female genital mutilation. We want to secure more prosecutions, and see more convictions.
Our treatment of women and girls is one of the questions of this age. We cannot waver or falter one bit in the fight to protect or empower them.
Shaun Bailey is the Conservative candidate for Mayor of London
Nimco Ali is an anti-FGM campaigner and co-founder of Daughters of Eve