This summary provides an overview of the responses to the Scottish Government’s consultation on Strengthening Protections for FGM. The consultation ran from 4th October 2018 to 4th January 2019 and received 71 responses, 43 of which were from organisations.
The consultation was primarily concerned with gauging perspectives on five legislative provisions in relation to FGM, already adopted in England and Wales via the Serious Crime Act 2015. These legislative provisions concerned the provision of anonymity of victims of FGM, the creation an offence of failing to protect a girl from the risk of FGM, the introduction of FGM protection orders, the introduction of a duty to notify police of FGM and the introduction of statutory guidance relating to FGM.
Respondents were largely supportive of anonymity, protection orders and the introduction of statutory guidance. Views on an offence of failing to protect and a duty to notify the police were mixed, with many arguments both for and against these positions being raised. In terms of the additional practices mentioned in the consultation, vaginal elongation and breast ironing, respondents had limited evidence that individuals in Scotland had been subject to these practices and there was limited support for the creation of further offences.
The section below gives a brief overview of the responses to each of these questions in more detail.
Anonymity of Victims
There was strong support for providing automatic anonymity for victims of FGM. It was felt that this would protect the dignity of victims, encourage reporting and reduce the risks that may result from reporting. This latter point was emphasised particularly in relation to the risk of ‘honour-based violence’ that may accompany FGM given the small and closed nature of some of the communities where this practice was perceived to take place. Insofar as respondents disputed the need for anonymity provisions, this largely reflected their perspective that existing provisions were sufficient. The potential that victims may wish to waive their anonymity for campaigning reasons was also noted.
Failure to Protect
The respondents were quite divided on this question. Among those who were in favour of these provisions, this was in some cases seen as morally appropriate and a potential deterrent. However, these views were in a number of cases qualified by an emphasis on the need for clear guidelines and for the whole family situation to be taken into account. For those against this provision, this frequently reflected concern about the potential criminalisation of primary caregivers who, in this context, may have limited agency to influence events. Several respondents also noted that this provision might make individuals less likely to report FGM.
There was strong support for the creation of FGM Protection Orders (FGMPOs) among the respondents. FGMPOs were perceived to be a fast, responsive and proven – with reference to Forced Marriage Protection Orders – method for reducing the risk to potential victims. Another benefit raised was that they would offer a civil mechanism that a range of parties could apply for, including women and girls at risk of FGM. Among respondents who recommended a sentence, many thought that penalties should resemble those for a Forced Marriage Protection Order, although there was also some support for sentences in line with grievous bodily harm.
Duty to Notify Police of FGM
Respondents were divided on this question. Respondents who were against this duty emphasised that there were already mechanisms for reporting child abuse and, in this context, creating an additional legal duty around FGM would potentially create situations where the interests of the patient/service-user would come into conflict with the needs of process and limit the exercise of professional discretion on the part of healthcare practitioners. Some respondents perceived that there was also a risk that this would create mistrust between healthcare practitioners and service users, when the priority should be on ensuring that victims or those at risk come forward. Those who supported this duty often emphasised the symbolic nature of this approach, given that it would emphasise strongly the seriousness of the crime and was viewed in a few cases as raising the likelihood of reporting.
There was strong support for statutory guidance on FGM. This was seen as potentially improving inter-agency working, removing knowledge gaps, reducing regional differences in knowledge, and offering clarity and certainty in engaging with this area. In terms of what the guidance should contain, there was a wide range of perspectives on this question, with suggestions ranging from clear definitions around FGM, signs for identifying victims/those at risk, training, data collection, data protection, highlighting pathways to support, reporting requirements, guidelines for inter-agency working, clear systems of accountability and guidance around risk assessments that would relate to protection orders. Those who referred to existing guidance viewed this as providing a good basis for statutory guidance.
There was limited knowledge and very limited evidence of the practices of breast ironing and vaginal elongation occurring in Scotland provided by the respondents. There was some limited support for the criminalisation of these practices as they were regarded as abusive, but this was tempered by an emphasis among other respondents that existing mechanisms may be sufficient and more evidence would be needed before the development of policy here. Regarding vaginal elongation, several respondents perceived this to be already captured within the definition FGM. In relation to cosmetic genital piercings, this was generally viewed as something over which those of appropriate age should have discretion, although concern was expressed about the possibility of recipients of these practices either being under the age of consent or being coerced.