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Non-therapeutic circumcision of male children ‘significantly harms’ them, the nation’s top family judge has ruled in a landmark case. However, the practice is a far cry from the ‘great evil’ of female genital mutilation (FGM) and is ‘tolerated’ by the law on cultural and religious grounds.
Sir James Munby, the President of the Family Division, said that the case was the first in which issues relating to FGM had been raised in care proceedings. He was giving his judgment on the case of a three-year-old girl who social workers suspected had been subjected to FGM by her Muslim parents.
Leeds City Council had taken the girl into foster care after her mother ‘seemingly abandoned’ her in the street. Exonerating the parents, Sir James said that a single genital scar did not prove that the girl had been subjected to FGM and there was no evidence that she would be at risk of FGM in the future.
Turning to the wider issues, Sir James said that there could be no doubt that FGM caused significant harm to girls. “The same must be so of male circumcision”, he added. However, there was a ‘clear distinction’ between the two practices.
FGM, which brought no health benefits and had no religious justification, could never form part of reasonable parenting. Male circumcision, on the other hand, was often performed for religious and cultural reasons and was believed by many to bring hygienic or prophylactic benefits. On that basis, both society and the law were ‘prepared to tolerate’ the practice.
Sir James urged local authorities to be ‘pro-active and vigilant’ in protecting young girls against the horrors of FGM. Thirty years after the practice was criminalised it remained ‘distressingly prevalent’. He concluded, “The courts alone … cannot eradicate this great evil, but they have an important role to play and a very much greater role than they have hitherto been able to play.”