What is female genital mutilation
Female genital mutilation (commonly referred to as FGM) is the term used for a traditional practice that involves partial or total removal of the external female genitals or injury to the female genital organs for non-medical reasons. It can range from partial removal of the clitoris to removal of all genitalia and the narrowing of the vaginal opening (infibulation). This practice may also be referred to as ‘female circumcision’.
Socio-cultural context of female genital mutilation
FGM is practised predominantly in Africa, and also in the Middle East and Asia, with some reports in other countries, such as south America. However, due to international migration patterns, the World Health Organization has identified FGM as being a global human rights concern.
FGM is deeply embedded in cultural, social and religious beliefs and can only be understood within this context. Despite its harmful effects FGM is perceived as a beneficial custom providing girls and women with many cultural, religious and social advantages within their own culture.
Female genital mutilation in New Zealand
FGM is an illegal practice in New Zealand. There is a maximum of 7 years in jail for anyone found guilty of practising it.
The law also states it is illegal to:
- make any arrangement for a girl to leave New Zealand for female genital mutilation to be performed
- assist or encourage any person in New Zealand to perform female genital mutilation on a New Zealand citizen or resident outside New Zealand
- convince or encourage any other New Zealand citizen or resident to go outside New Zealand to have female genital mutilation performed.
There is no documented evidence that FGM is practised in New Zealand and we receive very few reports of concern involving FGM. However, some women immigrating to New Zealand have already undergone FGM, and some girls here may be at risk of it occurring.
Responding to actual or suspected cases of FGM
National contact centre – initial assessment phase
All reports of concern received at the national contact centre, or by anyone else in Oranga Tamariki, that allege that a child has been subjected or is at risk of being subject to the practice of FGM should:
- meet the threshold for Further Action
- be considered for referral to the Police under Child Protection Protocol
- consider including other female siblings aged 15 years and under
If the national contact centre is considering assessing the report of concern as No Further Action, they need to consult with the International Casework Team.
FGM can cause life-threatening injuries. If there are allegations that a child has recently undergone an FGM procedure, the report of concern requires a critical response.
Investigation and response
1 Complete a child/young person and family consult
As part of the consult, we need to:
- identify the girl's correct ethnicity/tribe/clan and religion and then consult or include an appropriate advisor
- consult with the International Casework Team
- identify if consultation with a medical professional is needed and whether a medical examination is required
- consider if there are enough concerns to apply for a Prevention to Remove Order while the investigation is ongoing
- assess the risk to other girls in the family
- consider whether an interpreter is required – use a professional, independent interpreter, not a family member
- decide if a specialist child interview is required.
2 Undertake an investigation
Assessing immediate safety
When considering risks for a child, we should engage with the family, except, for example:
- when there is evidence that engaging with the parents may place the child at greater risk of harm
- if there is a risk that evidence related to the criminal activity of FGM may be lost or destroyed
- if engagement with the family may encourage them to abscond with the child.
Assess whether the child is safe to remain at home. If we’re considering a kinship placement, the carer’s attitude to FGM requires careful consideration.
Our investigation plan can include:
- requesting information from Immigration New Zealand and/or the Department of Internal Affairs to identify the child’s citizenship or immigration status and whether she was born in New Zealand
- if the child was born overseas, checking how she entered New Zealand and how long she has been here for
- checking if the child has travelled out of New Zealand and who accompanied her, which port she left from and how long she was away for
- exploring any plans for international travel
- finding out who the child’s primary caregivers are – this may not be the child’s birth parents as she may have entered New Zealand as a refugee who was adopted by a family member, or she may have entered under the Family Reunification Programme as a result of an application made by an extended family member
- if the child entered New Zealand as a refugee, noting that her age is likely to be an estimated age determined by the United Nations High Commission of Refugees – she may be older or younger than the age that is recorded on her legal documents
- consulting with the child’s school – the school may have heard information from the school community which is aligned to the allegations of FGM
- consulting with any health professionals known to the family
- consulting with a community worker who is part of the same community or culture/clan as the family – this needs to be done with considerable care as the contact person may endorse the practice of FGM.
Engaging with the child
It is essential that the child’s voice is heard in the early stages of the investigation.
When interviewing a child:
- we treat the child with sensitivity and respect because of the belief that FGM has their best interests at its heart
- we use words that the child will understand – for example, a child is unlikely to use terms such as ‘FGM’ or ‘female circumcision’
- we are alert for indications that further exploration is needed – for example, a child might talk about travel or a celebration or party.
Engaging with the family
When we engage with the family:
- we allow ample time to discuss this very sensitive subject
- treat the family with sensitivity and respect because of their belief that FGM is in the best interest of the girl and the practice is supported by customs, values and sociological pressures – however, we don’t lose sight of the fact that FGM is an extremely harmful traditional cultural practice
- we are mindful that the mother of the girl or other female family members may have undergone this procedure themselves
- we remember that each community that practices FGM will have different words, phrases and terms to describe the different types of FGM – we should use the word that the family uses
- we check the views, values and opinions of any interpreter we use
- we check if they are aware that New Zealand law prohibits FGM, which includes making arrangements for this to be done overseas.
3 Forming a belief
If our investigation finds that FGM has occurred or is likely to occur, we need to follow our usual guidance and in addition include:
- a timeline that outlines when FGM has occurred or is likely to occur, where it occurred or is likely to occur and by whom (if known)
- ensure that the girl and her family receive sensitive counselling and culturally appropriate support.