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Home Affairs Committee report fails to recognise realities of FGM data collection in the UK, says leading expert

Better evidence is needed to inform and evaluate strategies to prevent girls resident in the UK from being subjected to FGM

by George Wigmore (Senior Communications Officer)

The new Home Affairs Committee report ‘Female genital mutilation: abuse unchecked’ fails to recognise that the government’s current methods of collecting data on FGM have inherent problems and are largely uninterpretable, according to a leading City, University of London expert on FGM statistics.

Having authored a significant study on the prevalence of FGM in the UK which is widely quoted in the report itself, Professor Alison Macfarlane said that the report’s proposal for mandatory reporting of FGM to the police could in fact deter people who have been the victim of such abuses from seeking medical help for health problems.

The new government report reviewed a range of aspects of FGM and calls for the government to impose harsher punishment on health professionals who decide not to report FGM in children, saying they are “complicit in a crime being committed”.

Speaking about the report, Alison Macfarlane, a professor of perinatal health at City, University of London, said:

“While a review of FGM is welcome, the report fails to recognise the inherent problems with the methods of collecting data on FGM. The data is completely uninterpretable as mandatory reporting of women with FGM to the Department of Health includes only women receiving health care, rather than women in the population as a whole. In addition it largely includes women who were subjected to FGM in their countries of origin before they migrated to England.

“The data which has been collected is also of poor quality as key data items are missing. As a result they carry cautions from NHS Digital. However, even if they were complete, the data would not provide valid estimates of prevalence or be adequate to evaluate the impact of the other initiatives under way.

“It is also important to note that girls aged under 18 with FGM who should mandatorily reported will include many migrants, including refuges and asylum seekers who have been subjected to FGM in their countries of origin. Reporting them to the police will not help prevent FGM in the UK and the requirement to do so may deter them from seeking medical help for health problems.

“There is also no evidence that increasing penalties against doctors who do not report cases of FGM will contribute to preventing it. Similarly, the measures taken in France may have led to successful prosecutions, but it seems that this may have resulted in delaying rather than preventing FGM. Better evidence is also needed to inform and evaluate strategies to prevent girls resident in the UK from being subjected to FGM and adequate resources are needed to implement them.”

The City research, which was authored by Professor Alison Macfarlane and published in July 2015, provided detailed estimates of FGM prevalence for each local authority area in England and Wales. It estimated that 137,000 women and girls affected by FGM and born in countries where it is practised were permanently resident in England and Wales in 2011. It showed wide variation with the highest estimated prevalence rates in London boroughs and in Manchester, Slough, Bristol, Leicester and Birmingham, but that there are likely to be affected women and girls living in every local authority area.

It was unable to estimate the numbers of women and girls born and resident in the UK who had been subjected to FGM because of the lack of data. Although there is evidence that many families give up FGM on migration not all do and many initiatives are under way to prevent this.

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