Protecting women and girls in Scotland from honour-based violence, forced marriage and female genital mutilation (FGM) requires action in a number of ways, but the first major step is to increase awareness among those at risk that help is available.
Scotland has not yet got to grips with these problems but the latest figures do at least show that progress is being made. Reporting of incidents is up. For instance, police have dealt with 19 cases of honour-based violence and six cases of forced marriage this year in Edinburgh alone, while officers across Scotland have also dealt with nine cases of FGM this year, compared to none last year. Work to increase awareness is bearing fruit.
These are crimes that typically take place behind closed doors in ethnic minority communities that can be hard for police and social workers to reach. In the past, when police have been called to disturbances where honour-based violence is involved, they may have sometimes failed to identify what has been going on, recording the incidents as domestic disputes or abuse instead. Change is afoot.
It is heartening to hear from DCS Gill Imery of Police Scotland that the amalgamation of Scotland's eight police forces has helped the service improve and standardise its approach, through training.
Some forces had developed a degree of expertise in dealing with honour-based violence and forced marriage, but clearly women and girls have a right to expect that police will take the same approach wherever they happen to live in Scotland. The police are not the only ones who are facing up to the need to improve their handling of such incidents. Last month The Herald reported how families have brought their daughters to Scotland to undergo FGM because the country is seen as a "soft touch". A majority of Scotland's health boards are unable to say how many cases of FGM they have encountered and fewer than one-third of the country's 32 councils have local guidelines on FGM as they should.
That is simply not good enough. It is reassuring that health professionals and social workers are working together with police and that officers are building relationships with charities that work directly with the communities affected.
There also appear to be strong grounds, as DCS Imery says, for a civil preventative order to be made available to protect girls from FGM, as exists for forced marriage. The orders in the case of forced marriage allow for instance for a vulnerable female to be taken to a place of safety. A crime is committed only when the order is breached.
Those at risk of FGM, or who fear that a loved one may be under threat, may be deterred from speaking out if they think they may be forced to testify against their relatives and that their relatives could be imprisoned because of it. That reluctance may help account for the fact that there have been no prosecutions for FGM at all in the UK to date. A civil preventative order would make it easier to protect those at risk without instantly criminalising family members and deserves serious consideration by ministers.
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