Female Genital Mutilation is an issue which has come to the forefront in Britain over the past few years; and so it should. When I myself started to research FGM I was shocked to find out how ineffective our laws are in the U.K; in comparison to the efforts made in France to counter FGM, Britain falls far short. Repressive measures, like the ones carried out in France, are by no means a simple solution; however, in this case, are they the right one?
In 1985 the U.K introduced the Prohibition of Female Circumcision Act, and since it has witnessed a total of two prosecutions. It is true that in the past the law was limited and difficult to impose: there was little publicity of the crime, certainly no education, and very few mechanisms as a means to report it. It is also true that the law has since been reinforced to include U.K nationals committing the crime outside of U.K borders, and that we’ve seen a steady increase in anti-FGM campaigns and education.
How can it be then that despite the progress we’ve made we’ve still only just experienced our first prosecutions, almost 15 years after FGM was made illegal? It’s not as though prosecutions aren’t happening elsewhere; in fact, France, a country which made FGM illegal in 1983 under a section of its penal code, has witnessed around 100 prosecutions. This difference is startling, and it essentially comes down to differing attitudes towards multiculturalism.
There is no denying that France is a multicultural country. However, when this multiculturalism comes into contact with the state’s policy on secularity, tension is created. Indeed, France’s tough policy on secularity takes the separation of church and state to a whole new level. Essentially, wherever you find government money being spent in France, you will not find religious expression.
The most controversial piece of secular legislation was passed in 2011, which bans females from covering their face for religious reasons in public places. This law, along with many others in France, has come under fire for supressing freedom of expression and legitimising Islamophobia. However, when France’s legislation on secularity also includes the recording of FGM, or absence of FGM, in mothers and children, as well as a ban on religious symbols in schools, I can’t help but find myself supporting it.
Although awareness is increasing in the U.K, we still lack a mechanism for recording and reporting FGM. There are countless reports of pregnant women who have suffered FGM in their past, passing through the NHS without being asked any questions. This isn’t a failure by the NHS, it’s simply part of a culture of religious tolerance. There’s no doubt that religious tolerance is something a people and a country should be proud of practising. But if there is a limit to this tolerance, which surely there always is, it must be at the point where human rights are breached.