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Let's Drop The Clichés: Mandatory Reporting and Simple Protocols Are Essential to Prevent FGM and Other Child Abuse

There are points in any campaign where the emphasis shifts; and that's where we are now with female genital mutilation (FGM), at least in the UK.

There are points in any campaign where the emphasis shifts; and that's where we are now with female genital mutilation (FGM), at least in the UK.

For years, in some commendable cases decades, some of us have been demanding that the world faces up to the horror of this cruellest form of child abuse. Then, suddenly, we're in a situation where it seems everyone knows. At last there is a solid foothold for the campaign to eradicate FGM forever.

But what now?

Focus on specifics

Not all will agree, but I'd say the time has come to focus on specifics. We need to move forward. No more conferences asking 'what is FGM'? No more should we assume we have to make the case from the beginning.

The clichés about hypothetical little fingers being chopped off, and how 'cultural understandings' prevented meaningful action, were essential at the beginning; but that time is now past. We need to progress beyond these attention-seeking semi-truths.

If anyone still doesn't get what an appalling attack on human rights FGM is, they must be told straight. FGM, like harmful traditional practices, is hideous child abuse. No-one, ever, has the right to harm any child, possibly even to kill her or him, because of tradition or for any other 'reason'.

Of course there is a need to ensure people in the diaspora from traditionally practising communities know that FGM - by whatever name they call it - will absolutely not be tolerated in their host country; and of course those best placed to do this are others from the same communities.

But the second message must be, this is child abuse. There is nothing to distinguish it from other grim forms of cruelty. It demeans those, often otherwise decent people and good citizens, who do it; and it destroys lives.

When we routinely see FGM as straightforward child abuse we can move away from the claimed (but often dubious) concerns about cultural sensitivities. All groups in society have people who harm children. All children need protection.

Show resolve

And to make the point, we in the UK must show legal and policy determination. Leaflets and quiet chats about quitting FGM are part of what's required, but alongside that we must make action on child abuse of any sort watertight. Here are some suggestions around how to do this:

• Instigate a national, state-owned, strictly confidential reporting line for all forms of child abuse, * with fully trained professional operators - a few dozen could help better protect many thousands of children - who can respond immediately to suspicions of harm.

• The reporting line must have a system which wherever possible captures enough information to follow children through moves between schools, locations and the health service, so that some of those most at risk (insecure housing, changing care arrangements) are protected as far as humanly possible.

• Connect information from this reporting line to the FGM statistical returns now required of hospitals, and extend the legal requirement to report FGM so that it covers other public and civic services which may receive information about the occurrence of FGM. In that way a real picture of when and where children are being harmed, and in what ways, can be built. (This is essential for knowing where and how to develop effective policy to tackle the problem.)

• Make reporting mandatory. Regulations and recommendations already say that professionals must report concerns about child abuse, but currently this is not enshrined in law. Professionals may be struck off for not reporting, but they are not prosecuted. Where necessary they should be. (See my submission to the Select Committee Inquiry on FGM.)

• Along with mandatory reporting it is essential (and only fair) to support those who must report suspicions of harm by being realistic. There needs to be a clear, well-known and easily accessible reporting pathway. Here is the just-published statutory guidance for schools:

Warning signs that FGM may be about to take place, or may have already taken place, can be found on pages 11-12 of the Multi-Agency Practice Guidelines referred to previously. Staff should activate local safeguarding procedures, using existing national and local protocols for multi-agency liaison with police and children's social care.

In other words, find out for yourself.....

No wonder teachers, nurses and social workers feel unsure about what they should do. It's rarely cultural sensitivity which prevents reporting FGM or other cruelty; it's anxiety about who to tell and how to find them to do so.

Define levels of responsibility; respond holistically

Local safeguarding procedures are an essential element of response to suspicions that a child is at risk, but alone they cannot deliver good child protection; a proper national reporting line would be a big improvement. We must remove the unfairly placed responsibility on individual professionals to decide whether and how to respond to concerns about child abuse, and pass it instead via mandatory confidential reporting to people trained to make the decisions.

One nebulous reported concern may require only low-key response. A single substantive report, or two or more nebulous concerns submitted independently, should set alarm bells ringing.

At base, FGM and other child abuse is a public health issue; these are dangers which require cross-disciplinary responses encompassing many different aspects of our lives.

Individual professional practitioners are essential to support those abused or at risk, but these practitioners are not equipped to enforce prevention. Only legally enforced mandatory reporting and a single, clear pathway to do this will ensure children are safe.

If you think this will be expensive, consider the alternatives.

Protect the most vulnerable

Currently in the UK adequate measures to prevent FGM and other child cruelty are simply not there. But what greater obligation on the modern, democratic state can there be, than the protection of its most vulnerable?

Let's call FGM as child abuse, drop the clichés and concentrate on meaningful action.

Without mandatory reporting and a single pathway to do it, the safeguarding protocols which do exist seem intended primarily to protect politicians, not children.


* The NSPCC now have a voluntary reporting and advice phone line for FGM. I understand they do not endorse calls for mandatory reporting. If you are worried that a child may be at risk of FGM, you can contact the NSPCC 24 hour helpline anonymously on 0800 028 3550 or email

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