Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) is illegal in the United Kingdom. The Prohibition of Female Circumcision Act 1985 makes it so. However, to date, there is no record of any prosecutions having been brought in the UK. By contrast, France is well known for prosecuting circumcisors and imprisoning those convicted. Deciding which approach is the more effective is not without its difficulties.
The French approach protects the interests of the weak and vulnerable and ensures that their rights are not sacrificed at the altar of “culture”. However, imprisonment may be seen as too harsh a punishment and thus deter people from reporting circumcisors or parents who seek to have their daughters circumcised. Moreover, given that the practice is found in minority groups who often feel misunderstood by the dominant group, might not a strictly legal approach lead to minority groups feeling further alienated and victimized? The evolutionary approach has in its favour cultural legitimacy. It is said that if change comes from within the affected community it will have greater force and provide a more long lasting solution than a solution imposed by the government. But how does one measure change? By allowing communities to continue the practice in the hope that they will change themselves, is one not sacrificing the rights of young girls? From where they stand the gradual approach may be too little too late.
Law, clearly has a role to play but clearly, law on its own is not enough. Perhaps what is needed and what is being used, in both France and the UK (by groups such as FORWARD), is an approach which tackles the problem holistically and engages not only legal agencies but also those dealing with educational, social and medical issues.
Dr Fareda Banda joined FORWARD’s Council of Management in December 1999. She lectures in law at the School of African and Oriental Studies (SOAS).