FORWARD was featured on BBC Newsnight on the 5th September in a programme which investigated female genital mutilation (FGM) in the UK. FORWARD’s Head of UK Programmes and Operations, Toks Okeniyi was interviewed about the delays in investigations of FGM cases. FORWARD wishes to expand further on our experiences and perspective on the current investigation process for FGM Protection Orders and the impact it has on girls and their families.

FORWARD is an African Diaspora Women’s rights organisation working in the UK and Africa on FGM, child marriage and other forms of violence against women and girls. We run a support programme in the UK for women and girls who have been affected by, or are at risk of, FGM. This support work includes psycho-social support for families who are going through court cases were an FGM protection order is being considered or has already been approved.  As FORWARD states in the interview, these cases often take a long time to assess. While they are being reviewed girls may be taken into care with no evidence that FGM has taken place and before the level of risk to the girl has been established.

All FGM cases are complex and unique in their circumstances. FORWARD absolutely believes that it is necessary for these investigations to take place in order to protect girls in the UK from FGM. “[It is necessary to] use the right translators, ensure there’s effective support for families to get legal assistance, because of the problems with legal aid. Ensure that families are examined on time and children are as well, in a sensitive way and within the right environment.”

However, as Toks Okeniyi notes in the interview, in our experience of supporting families through this process, we have seen the flaws in the way these investigations are currently carried out. “A lot of times what becomes a problem is, possibly a lack of training for professionals – effective training. There’s a knee jerk reaction from professionals when they hear FGM – they’re so terrified sometimes, or wanting to make sure that something doesn’t go wrong. So they really go in too hard.”

FORWARD welcomed the Serious Crimes Act of 2015 which introduced mandatory reporting and related duties for professionals and families. However, we advocate for mandatory and standardised training for all professionals who may encounter women affected by, or girls at risk of FGM, in the course of work, particularly those affected by the mandatory reporting dutires. We believe comprehensive and tailored training for all key professionals is necessary in order to ensure sensitive responses, and to enable professionals to handle such cases in a timely manner with confidence and effectiveness, sensitively meeting the needs of vulnerable girls and women.

Since the FGM protection orders have been in place, FORWARD has dealt with 8 cases of FGM through referrals from the courts and social services pertaining to FGM protection orders.  It is our experience that the current investigation process is hampered by a lack of training for professionals in identifying risk and unacceptable waiting times for examinations. Where a family requests examination in order to establish that FGM has not taken place, either for mother or child, an examination should take place as soon as feasibly possible in order to establish facts, inform potential risk, and establish the next steps for protection, if and when these are deemed to be necessary.

To date there have been 137 applications for FGM Protective Orders and 113 orders have been made. There is a need to review the impact the POs have on families and children as there are still concerns from families who are often unaware of the full implications of these protective orders. Where cases have been closed due to lack of evidence, there is huge neglect of the emotional trauma that families go through.

FORWARD is concerned for the health and well being of families that we have worked with and urge that additional support be made available to families who are investigated, as a matter of standard procedure, in order to ensure the well being of girls, any siblings and parents. The Newsnight programme shows how parents are left in the dark about the actual investigation process that is taking place, and how this is detrimental to communities who are already feeling pressured by the new laws on FGM. FORWARD has seen a number of cases with prolonged investigations and how they have affected the mental health of the very children they are supposed to protect.

Our support services currently are under threat due to the lack of strategic funding from government and local authorities. This is becoming a neglected area as increased reporting results in increased number of cases requiring support. You can support FORWARD to continue our work providing psycho-social work with affected and at risk families in the UK by donating here.

The Newsnight episode can be seen here and the BBC’s article here.

FORWARD also offers FGM training for professionals who deal with FGM cases in their work, the one-day course is accredited and includes modules on responding sensitively, the law and mandatory reporting duties, as well as information about forms of FGM. Our next training takes place in October, you can register online now.