Our female genital mutilation laws are broken

Here’s how to fix them

Jonathan Meddings


Image by Foxys Graphic licenced through Shutterstock.

A nurse once told me many health professionals don’t report female genital mutilation (FGM) because it could result in children being taken away from their parents. This fact, she said, is weighed against the potential for future harm being negligible because the procedure has already been performed and the parents are fundamentally good people.

I’m sure she’s right that most people who perform FGM on their daughters are good people, just as most people who cut the genitals of their sons in the absence of medical necessity when they are too young to consent are also good people. Of course, just because parents believe they are doing the right thing doesn’t mean they are.

At least our laws make it clear FGM is wrong. FGM is criminalised in every Australian state and territory with no religious exceptions, so problem solved, right? Unfortunately not. Australia has only had one successful prosecution for FGM despite it having been criminalised for decades, and its success hinged on a guilty plea.

An estimated 53,000 women living in Australia but born elsewhere have been subjected to FGM. Girls born in Australia to parents from countries where FGM is common are deemed at risk of FGM, but it remains unknown how many are subjected to it. Even so, with only one successful prosecution in decades, the current approach clearly isn’t working.

Changing cultural attitudes

I’m not saying we should repeal our criminal laws against FGM. The fact is we have laws against all sorts of things and people still break them, but that doesn’t mean we should get rid of the laws. As the former Tasmanian Commissioner for Children and my predecessor as chair of The Darbon Institute Paul Mason once said:

“We have laws against all sorts of things and the crime still continues. The law against murder hasn’t stopped people from killing each other, but it is now well accepted in our culture that is something you don’t do. And that’s I think where we need to go with unnecessary surgery on all children.”

While the criminal law sends a strong signal a practice is wrong, it is ineffective at stopping FGM on its own. The problem is not the criminal law…