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Thursday 5 November 2015, Bríd Hehir

FGM: repeal the mandatory report law

Forcing health and other professionals to report possible cases to the police will undermine relationships with communities and patients for little benefit.

A new law making it compulsory for regulated health professionals to report cases of female genital mutilation (FGM) in under-18 girls direct to the police came into force in England and Wales on 31 October. Lawmakers hope this mandatory reporting of FGM will result in better protection of girls, as well as securing prosecutions and discouraging potential perpetrators. But I fear that this approach will damage relationships between professionals - the new duty also applies to regulated professionals like social workers and teachers - and the people they serve and generate fear and mistrust among communities.

On the face of it, any attempt to prevent something routinely called ‘mutilation’ that is practised on children seems worthwhile. But some sense of perspective is required. Male circumcision is not illegal, nor should it be. Some forms of FGM are less severe than male circumcision.

The law creates a personal duty of care that cannot be transferred to anybody else because it is now a crime. Despite reassurances from a health minister, Jane Ellison, this development is causing concern among health professionals in particular because they fear that the change in practice that has to ensue will undermine the relationship of trust they try to foster between them and their patients. Professionals who fail to report FGM face being subject to ‘fitness to practise’ processes. They also worry that the new rules are likely to prevent young girls seeking healthcare.

Communities that have traditionally practised FGM fear that this initiative is yet another way of stigmatising them. Girls likely to be identified may have undergone the practice outside of Britain years ago. Many communities have already worked hard at abandoning the practice, as is evident by the absence of girls being identified having had their genitals cut.

I believe that this law is hugely problematic for a number of reasons. In particular, it prevents professionals from making their own independent assessment of a situation and encourages them instead to whistle-blow or snitch on patients. In the fevered political climate around FGM, the need to ‘cover their back’ might encourage some to mistrust their judgement and report a case of FGM where they would not have done previously, just to be on the safe side.

A girl who underwent FGM in her or her family’s country of origin as a child should be of no interest to the police or even healthcare professionals except where it impacts negatively on her health. Many will have undergone less severe types of FGM/C that do not lead to health problems despite scary and sensational headlines to the contrary.

Moreover, this law will open the door to calls for further child protection legislation making it compulsory for everybody who suspects ‘child abuse’ (and that’s open to subjective interpretations) to report concerns to the police. It may also give organisations like the Department for International Development even more reasons to intervene in countries where FGM is traditionally practised overseas, in the interest of ‘prevention rather than cure’.

FGM is a complex and challenging issue, and one we should be careful about attempting to address through legislation. This law is being introduced to the detriment of the relationships of trust that should exist between professionals, girls who’ve undergone FGM, their families and communities. It should be repealed before it does more damage.

Brid Hehir runs the website Shifting Sands, which looks critically at the issues around FGM. A fuller version of this article is available here.

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