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Female Genital Mutilation Act: Prosecutions

Volume 670: debated on Thursday 3 March 2005

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11.8 a.m.

asked Her Majesty's Government:

How many prosecutions there have been under the Female Genital Mutilation Act, which received Royal Assent on 3 March 2004.

My Lords, there have been no such prosecutions although there are some ongoing investigations. But the success of the Act is not necessarily to be measured solely in terms of the number of prosecutions. Prosecution after the fact does not relieve the victim of a lifetime of pain and discomfort. Ideally, we want to obviate the need for prosecution by preventing this practice occurring in the first place. To that end, the 2003 Act is intended to send a powerful message of deterrence.

My Lords, I thank my noble and learned friend for his Answer. Does he agree that part of the reason for there being no prosecutions may be the widespread ignorance among the public and some health professionals that female genital mutilation is against the law? Is he aware that, in research by the Development Support Agency, 50 per cent of those interviewed did not know that female genital mutilation was an illegal practice and 31 per cent of those questioned said that they did not care if it was and still intended to go on doing it? Is the Attorney-General aware also that of 50 midwives attending a recent midwifery conference, fewer than five knew that female genital mutilation was against the law?

My Lords, I absolutely agree with my noble friend that raising awareness, particularly among the practising communities, and educating them about the dangers and unacceptability of this brutal practice is essential. I had not been aware of the details that the noble Baroness has just mentioned until she kindly provided them in advance.

The Government are doing a lot to raise awareness. They are promoting work through FORWARD, which is the leading body actively working with communities to bring an end to the practice; the ACCM, the Agency for Culture and Change Management; and BWHAFS, Black Women's Health and Family Support, which is giving significant financial support. I agree with my noble friend that it is important that that work continues. To that end, I have invited those groups to meet me along with the FGM group of the Women's National Commission to discuss the issues further.

My Lords, the noble and learned Lord the Attorney-General referred to the organisation, FORWARD. Is he aware that it estimates that 74,000 first-generation African women in this country have undergone mutilation of this type and that 7,000 girls under the age of 16 are at risk every year? In what way are health professionals encouraged to report this illegal, and therefore criminal, activity to the police?

My Lords, those are statistics that I have seen before. One has to be a little careful about the "at risk" figure because it is based to some extent on the number of girls of a certain age in communities that have practised the procedure. Each of the major professional bodies has issued guidance or position statements on FGM, particularly since the 2003 Act came into force. I can provide hereafter a list of those bodies if the noble Lord wants it. I agree with him though that it is important that we should continue that work and, particularly, bring home the message, which I know that police are doing at least in London, that it is important to report such events, that they will be taken seriously and that, where appropriate, prosecutions will take place.

My Lords, am I correct in thinking that there has never been a prosecution, even since the 1985 Act? Under the 2003 Act, it is a question of whether you have taken someone abroad to have the procedure carried out. It is difficult to know who has been abroad and for what purpose. Therefore, the only way to discover mutilation would be when a midwife or an obstetrician or some medical person subsequently examined someone. The professional would know according to the age of the woman, particularly if she was young, that it had been done somewhere. What is the actual procedure of reporting? If, as the noble Baroness, Lady Rendell, said, so few people are even aware that the practice is illegal, is there not a need to publicise more widely to the health profession the fact that it is?

My Lords, I think that the noble Baroness is right to say that no prosecutions have been made. At least I have not come across any examples. One of the reasons why the 2003 Act was passed was to deal with some of the difficulties involved in prosecution; that is, if it was suggested that the procedure had taken place abroad, it was difficult, if not impossible, to prosecute. I agree with the noble Baroness also about the importance of raising awareness, and that is going on. I take some small comfort from the fact that the research that I have seen in relation to other countries indicates that they too have difficulties in prosecuting.

My Lords, in reply to the noble Baroness, Lady Rendell, my noble and learned friend mentioned that some investigations were ongoing under the 2003 Act. Is he able to indicate how many such investigations there are?

My Lords, I cannot. The noble Lord will understand why it would be undesirable to go into too many details. It is important that the message is given out strongly to health professionals and others that the matter will be taken seriously. It is a brutal practice; it causes lifelong damage to the girls and women to whom it is applied; and we really must do all we can to stamp it out.

My Lords, is the noble and learned Lord the Attorney-General aware that most of these unfortunate children are taken abroad for the operations and, when they come back here, they can have horrific infections and terrible problems? Can he set up some form of reporting system for such conditions because the women concerned may visit GPs or hospitals?

My Lords, the noble Baroness is of course right to draw attention to the consequences of female genital mutilation, not just in the long term, but immediately in the aftermath of the procedure being carried out. Seven specialist clinics in the NHS provide healthcare for girls and women who have undergone FGM, including reversal surgery. So the Government are taking steps to deal with this in the ways that I have indicated.