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Female Genital Mutilation

Volume 710: debated on Monday 18 May 2009


Asked By

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the decision by the National Health Service to advertise surgical reversal of female genital mutilations on Somali television in April.

My Lords, female genital mutilation is a cruel and brutal practice that the Government are determined to tackle. An advertisement from an NHS trust appeared on a Somali satellite TV station featuring a midwife giving advice about surgical reversal of female genital mutilation. Although a local initiative, the Department of Health is supportive of raising awareness in practising communities to improve access to health services. Since it was aired, 10 women have undergone surgical reversal at the well woman centre.

My Lords, I thank my noble friend for his Answer. Seeing that the group which produced this advertisement is receiving at least 15 phone calls per week applying for reversals, which incidentally would be done in doctors’ surgeries rather than hospitals, does he think it would be a good idea to put out this advertisement or a similar one in other languages, because female genital mutilation is carried out in many African countries, not just in the east of Africa?

My Lords, the noble Baroness is correct in relation to the carrying out of these procedures in the community. In fact, the example she gives applies to a GP practice, where a midwife does these procedures under local anaesthesia. The Department of Health is supportive of penetrating such communities with whatever tools are available, including advertising and the provision of advice in different languages. The NHS Choices website also provides support for such communities. Let us not forget that we also have 14 specialist clinics in the NHS to treat women and girls who have been mutilated. These clinics have well trained and culturally sensitive staff who offer a range of healthcare services, including reversal surgery.

My Lords, while I welcome the move taken by the Department of Health, is it not more important to catch the perpetrators of this violent act against young girls in the first place? I understand that around 500 girls were subjected to female genital mutilation in the past year and we do not know by whom, despite it being illegal in this country and illegal to take girls abroad for the operation. Surely it is not beyond the wit of the Government, the medical profession or the health service authorities to launch a sting operation to find out who is doing this violent act against these children and who is enabling them to go abroad to have it done.

My Lords, I agree. We need to approach this issue in a number of different ways, including identifying those culprits. Legislation has been through these Houses, including the Female Genital Mutilation Act, which makes it very clear that there can be imprisonment of up to 14 years. We also have a reward structure available. I stress that the evidence base suggests that communities that have employed a process of collective decision-making have been able to abandon this practice. It is most important to tackle some of the cultural issues to ensure that families and communities come to the police to report such incidents and that this change from the social norm is desired at a local level.

My Lords, given the danger of all surgical procedures and that prevention is better than cure, will the Minister encourage co-operation between his department and other government departments in imaginatively and creatively trying to design new rites of passage into adulthood for those cultures, not just the Somalis, which persist in this destructive practice?

My Lords, the right reverend Prelate is correct that a multi-agency approach is needed. The Department of Health is jointly funding an FGM co-ordinator to co-ordinate the work across the Home Office, the Department of Health and the DCSF to ensure cohesive joined-up interventions to address female genital mutilation. Last week, the Department of Health announced a health task force to look at violence against women, which has been established to investigate the scale of the problem and identify best practice to share within the NHS. This task force will comprise senior figures from the NHS, health professionals and the voluntary sector.

My Lords, I hear what the Minister says about the cultural implications and the knowledge we have of using communities to deal with such issues. I declare an interest as someone who works with families in ritual abuse. What is the department doing to work with and to support voluntary organisations, as they have the people who can get into the communities?

My Lords, the department is and has been working closely with the Foundation for Women’s Health, Research and Development first to identify the prevalence of this issue, and, secondly but more importantly, to work in partnership with the voluntary sector to penetrate these communities. I have no doubt that noble Lords will agree that in order to have an impact, we need to approach this issue in a multisectorial fashion, which needs to be sustained. More importantly, it needs to be community led.

My Lords, are there any public education programmes in this country targeted specifically at younger women—for example, in schools, youth clubs and further education?

My Lords, the Department of Health and others have been involved in a number of publications, to ensure that such information is available to those who work in the health service and in schools, ensuring that at a local level we are able to identify children at risk, and to allow professionals to raise concerns with the social services in relation to those children at risk.