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Female Genital Mutilation

Volume 695: debated on Thursday 25 October 2007

asked Her Majesty’s Government:

What progress has been made in combating the crime of female genital mutilation, and whether a reward by the Metropolitan Police of £20,000 for information leading to prosecution has assisted the Government’s efforts.

My Lords, the Female Genital Mutilation Act 2003 makes it an offence for United Kingdom residents to be taken abroad for female genital mutilation, with a maximum penalty of 14 years’ imprisonment. We have commissioned research on the prevalence of FGM and instigated awareness-raising initiatives, including the training of health professionals. The Metropolitan Police has been investigating 20 to 30 reports of suspected FGM since the reward announcement in July and is raising awareness in the capital.

My Lords, I thank my noble friend for his Answer and I am gratified to hear about these investigations. Is he aware that successful prosecutions have been brought in other countries? In the past year and a half, one has been brought in the United States and one has been brought in Sweden, this being the second to be brought successfully in that country. Is he also aware that according to FORWARD, whose report on FGM has just been issued, 22,000 girls under the age of 15 are at risk? That is a terrible figure given that this gross child abuse leads to permanent disablement.

My Lords, my noble friend raises some important points. I have to admit to not having had in-depth knowledge about this subject until last week, when I realised that I was going to have to answer the Question. Now that I have looked into it in some detail, I find it the most appalling barbarity. We take it extremely seriously. Prosecutions are difficult because of the cultural differences in these communities. It is often done to very young children, who are scared, frightened and cannot raise matters within their community. There is a sensitivity, but we would have no hesitation in pushing for prosecutions if we found that it was happening.

So far there have not been any prosecutions but, as I said, some cases are being investigated. Let me give a couple of examples of where we have acted. We have granted asylum to a 19 year-old girl who feared that she was going to be subject to this dreadful barbarity when she went back to her country, and another young girl was granted indefinite leave to remain last spring. My noble friend is right to raise this particularly horrible matter. We take it very seriously and a number of initiatives are under way.

My Lords, given that the education of young people is absolutely vital to the elimination of the practice of FGM, what is being done to enhance and resource school nurses in this educational programme? What is being done to promote the DVD produced by the Metropolitan Police under Project Azure?

My Lords, I thank the right reverend Prelate for his question, which allows me to mention that the Metropolitan Police child abuse investigation command is specifically targeting FGM under Project Azure. This is an enforcement campaign, but it also focuses on raising awareness within communities that this is an illegal practice. It involves working with partners and communities to raise awareness of this issue and to help to protect as many children as possible. The DVD and the £20,000 reward are parts of Project Azure, and the DVD specifically aims to raise awareness among communities and practitioners. As I said, there is a cultural dimension here, but that does not mean that the practice is not still barbarous. Some communities used to practise cannibalism, but that would not be accepted today. It is a difficult issue but we are doing as much as we can to stop this dreadful practice.

My Lords, in asking my question, I pay tribute to the noble Baroness, Lady Rendell of Babergh, for her ongoing campaign on this issue. The statistical study released on 9 October showed that provision of services and education was very patchy across the UK. The Minister has referred to the metropolitan area of London, but what action plan will the Government bring in to ensure that these services are provided throughout the UK?

My Lords, since the Act came into force, the Department of Health and the Department for Education and Skills have provided information about FGM to doctors and midwives throughout the country. Indeed, as part of my learning experience, I spoke to my younger sister, who is a midwife; it was quite a horrible phone call to find what they have to go through because of what has happened to these poor women. Local authorities, social services departments and the education sector have been spoken to, and information about FGM is contained in Working Together to Safeguard Children, the main multi-agency guidance on safeguarding and promoting the welfare of children. In 2006, the Department of Health produced a separate DVD on healthcare for professionals, as this involves some specialist and difficult procedures, which I do not want to go into. We are working extremely hard on this very important issue. As the noble Baroness mentioned, the numbers involved are quite staggering. Tens of thousands of women may have had this done to them.

My Lords, my noble friend the Minister has rightly referred to the barbaric mutilation of children. If, later in life when those children have grown up, they are prepared to bring evidence forward, does he feel that the services are such that prosecutions can successfully be brought about at that time in retrospect?

My Lords, my noble friend makes a good point. I would have to take advice on how retrospective that action could be. I imagine that action could be taken, but I will have to get back to my noble friend in writing.

My Lords, the Minister mentioned the 2003 Act, but that Act is comparatively recent and the offence in this country goes back long before that. I think that he has said that there have been no successful prosecutions. Some cases must result in a post-treatment infection. Those people would then present either to their doctor or to their local NHS treatment centre, which surely should be able to detect things at an early stage. What can be done to improve that process?

My Lords, the noble Baroness is right that such situations are where these cases are spotted. I mentioned that 20 to 30 cases are being investigated. It is extremely difficult to get people to make statements. There is a cultural issue here; indeed, when I was talking about this issue I found that some of the women involved fear that they will have no chance of marriage unless they go through the procedure because of what happens in their society. That is part of the difficulty. But noble Lords should have no illusions about this; we are intent on doing something about it. The police absolutely have to investigate every case; they are not allowed simply to say, “Oh, this is all a bit difficult”. But to end up with someone being prosecuted is very hard. This is a sensitive area, as I have said.

My Lords, will the Minister confirm that the majority of the tens of thousands of victims of FGM have already been subjected to the procedure in their countries of origin and that therefore the long-term answer, in addition to the measures being taken by the police in this country, is to build up the capacity of NGOs in countries of origin so that they can persuade those Governments not only to sign up to the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women but to report promptly on this and take practical measures to stop the practice?

My Lords, the noble Lord is right. Part of our package of measures is to go out to these countries in conjunction with the NGOs and try to educate and get this message across. We need to educate people and show that this practice is barbaric and an appalling thing to do to women. We hope that by education we can achieve a lot more. The numbers are quite staggering; the World Health Organisation estimates that globally around 100 million to 140 million women and girls have been subjected to this. It is a worldwide issue and that is how we are addressing it.

My Lords, is the Minister aware that in Ethiopia the incidence of FGM is decreasing and that the degree of it there is minor in comparison to other countries? However, there are places in Africa where the mutilation is appalling. I operated successfully on a little girl of three who had had five of these operations, which had left her completely obstructed and unable to pass urine. The amount of mutilation varies, and in some places the situation is improving.

My Lords, that is good news. I hope that our education will help to improve matters. It is a barbaric and appalling practice. There are many cases like the one mentioned by the noble Lord that make one go quite cold with anger and revulsion. It is wonderful to hear that in some countries the situation is getting better. I do not know the statistics for each country.

My Lords, the Minister will probably not be aware that many years ago I took the first female circumcision Bill through your Lordships’ House. Is he aware that, if a woman who has had this horrible procedure becomes pregnant, she has to be unstitched? Are all such procedures notifiable? If not, would it not be useful to make them so in order that data can be collected?

My Lords, the noble Baroness is to be congratulated on first raising this issue. It is something that I had not focused on until I found that I had to talk about it. She is absolutely right. I mentioned talking to my younger sister, who told me about having to cut women open to do these things. I did not want to go into too much detail, as I found it quite hard to listen to and it is difficult to talk about on the Floor of the House. I asked her whether there was a statutory obligation to report this to people and she told me that, although it was not a statutory obligation, it was normally reported. It is an area that we shall have to look at to make it a statutory-type obligation.

My Lords, my noble friend has given detailed answers to all the questions, especially on support given in various parts of the country. The Metropolitan Police has been offering a reward of £20,000 for information, but does he know of other constabularies that are giving similar rewards?

My Lords, I am afraid that I do not know the answer to that one. I shall get back to my noble friend in writing.

My Lords, is my noble friend aware that, in all the years that I have listened to questions and debates on FGM, his statement today is the most welcome? I congratulate him on it.