Question for Short Debate
My Lords, I begin by declaring an interest as a patron of the National Clinical Group against female genital mutilation and as a participant and narrator in the DVD made by that group.
Female genital mutilation is an African practice, common to many of the countries of Africa since time immemorial—not Muslim or tied to any particular religious faith, but cultural and often tribal. It began to take place in this country when immigrants from Somalia and Sudan, as well as Kenya, Nigeria and Sierra Leone began coming to live in the United Kingdom. FGM was brought here but did not diminish in its countries of origin where, in Somalia, for instance, 100 per cent of the female population has suffered this procedure. In parts of that country death from loss of blood and infection is as high as 10 per cent. FORWARD, the Foundation for Women’s Health Research and Development, puts the figure of women at risk from FGM each year as 3 million in Africa alone. When we see on our televisions mothers and children in drought-stricken Somalia at starvation point, suffering the effects of famine, we should remember that these women will all have been mutilated, and some crippled by mutilation.
In some communities the practice is embedded in coming-of-age rituals, sometimes for entry into women’s secret societies. In spite of the intense pain caused by performing surgery by an untrained person without use of anaesthetic or sterile instruments, and in spite of this operation permanently denying them pleasure in sexual intercourse and making childbirth more painful and hazardous than it would otherwise be, girls themselves may desire to undergo it as a result of social pressure from peers and family. Those who have not undergone it may not be allowed to milk the cows or go to certain parts of the farm. Such women believe that they can never become a real wife, and parents are convinced that they are doing the best for their daughters in insisting on it, having a good marriage in view. In parts of northern Kenya young men will not marry an uncircumcised girl. FGM is thought to make a girl clean and beautiful and to preserve virginity. In fact, it is unhygienic and damaging to fertility, leading to infection, bladder disease and fistula.
As I have said, FGM was brought here 40 years ago and more; a practice which in African countries was, and is, so common that talking about it was no more necessary than discussing the age-old preparation of certain kinds of food or some system of making clothes. This was the way it was done, so women who came here saw no need to speak of a practice that was accepted and taken for granted. It became, and still is, a secret. It is this secrecy in families and communities, not to mention contact with the outside world, which has made changing the attitude of immigrants and the children and grandchildren of immigrants so difficult and near-impossible. People will not speak of it. They will not talk to their non-African neighbours about it, still less to doctors or the police. It is only when a woman becomes pregnant that her FGM is discovered and a doctor or midwife asks, “Where did you have this done?”.
They want to know because performing it is against the law in the United Kingdom. The Female Circumcision Act was passed in 1985 and superseded by the Female Genital Mutilation Act in 2003. This later Act makes taking a female person out of this country for FGM to be performed abroad punishable by a maximum of 14 years’ imprisonment. Yet FORWARD estimates that 24,000 women are at risk of FGM in the UK and over 66,000 live with its results in England and Wales, figures which may be grossly underestimated since the data were based on the 2001 census.
Although the police are intent upon bringing a prosecution—it is hoped for more its deterrent effect than as punishment—no prosecution has yet taken place, the secrecy factor being in great part responsible for this failure. Girls who can be heard in north London talking to their friends about being “cut” as initiation into a kind of community membership will say that FGM was performed on them as babies or before they came to the United Kingdom. Women presenting themselves at ante-natal clinics may well say the same and midwives are naturally wary of inquiring too closely into this highly sensitive and delicate cultural area.
The public at large know little about FGM and many of those who have heard it called female circumcision believe it to have some connection with male circumcision and be therapeutic or a mere formality. I have told those who have asked me what it really is and my explanation has been received with horror and in some cases, “I don't want to know”. But I believe that the more people who know the details of this practice the better; that they know that some victims—the word is not an exaggeration—are babies of three months or even newborns; many are infants and five year-olds.
Obviously, because of its nature, it cannot be the subject of a widely advertised and well illustrated campaign of the kind that alerts the public to the dangers of, say, heart disease, prostate disease and many forms of cancer. Does the Minister believe that such widespread advertising of what FGM is and what remedies are possible—I am thinking of reversals—could be achieved and might be effective?
Reversals are now being performed and they are of enormous benefit to mutilated women. Parts of the excised genitalia cannot, of course, be restored. No surgeon, however skilful, can do that, but reversal is of great benefit to women, restoring ease in urination and establishing straightforward menstrual periods. Most of all, perhaps, it ensures easier childbirth and less danger to mother and child.
I am constantly asked by those who know what FGM is, why, if it happens in the UK, there have been no prosecutions eight years after the passing of the Act. It is not for want of trying that the police have so far been able to bring no prosecutions, against either practitioners carrying out FGM here, or those taking a child abroad for mutilation to be performed in a country less aware of its dangers. The police are anxious to prosecute, as much to provide a deterrent as to punish the perpetrator. They would be much assisted by public awareness. It would be particularly valuable in the struggle against FGM if teachers, especially in primary schools, were to be on the watch for female children who tell them that they are being taken to the country of their parents' origin for a holiday or to visit family in Somalia, for instance, Nigeria or the Côte d'Ivoire.
The Metropolitan Police, in conjunction with the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and Kids' Taskforce, have made a film to raise awareness of the issue which will be launched next Monday at the Lilian Baylis Technology School in Kennington. The National Clinical Group against female genital mutilation has had worldwide success and benefited a large number of women with its DVD showing a surgical reversal being performed. I understand, too, that there are films being made, often by schoolchildren, all over this country. Do the Government support the making of such films showing the pain and suffering caused by FGM and exposing the superstitious beliefs which help it to remain an ongoing custom? There are 16 specialist FGM clinics in England, 10 of them in London. Unfortunately, many are at risk of closure due to funding and staff cuts. Does the Minister agree that it is essential these clinics remain open? Again, does she agree that encouraging teachers to be aware of what is a very real danger to young girls can be of help to the police in bringing perhaps the single prosecution which would be such a major deterrent and factor in putting an end to this practice in the United Kingdom?
My Lords, I am thankful to the noble Baroness, Lady Rendell of Babergh, for giving us this opportunity to discuss and raise the awareness of female genital mutilation. We all hear harrowing stories of unthinkable cruelty to women around the world, but female genital mutilation has to be one of the most disturbing and dangerous practices still very much ongoing. As we all know, it is not just confined to faraway lands, but sadly is extremely prevalent and commonly happening right here in the UK. Sadder still is that not only women but girls and baby girls even less than 12 months are also subjected to this most grave act of violence. I have heard many depressing estimations of the amount of women it is affecting worldwide, and just in the UK the numbers are in excess of 20,000. The World Health Organisation suggests that the figures worldwide are between 100 million and 140 million.
I was brought up in Africa and feel strongly about this awful practice. Noble Lords perhaps will be aware that the perpetrators of these barbaric acts often choose summer holidays to carry out this practice. The reason for subjecting young girls to female genital mutilation at this particular time is thought to be that the girls are given time to heal during the summer months. This avoids arousing suspicions from teachers and peers when they resume their studies in the autumn.
Female genital mutilation can be life-threatening; it is a traumatic experience and can cause a host of illnesses. It has come to my attention that communities in Bristol have come together since 2008 to raise awareness of female genital mutilation and to mark their zero tolerance of it. The campaign is highly commendable. However, does the Minister agree that the time has come to launch a nationwide campaign highlighting the dangers of this practice?
It is a sorry state of affairs that there have been no prosecutions under the Female Genital Mutilation Act 2003. The Act was intended to protect females from this practice, but unfortunately it has failed to do so. A barrier to prosecution appears to be a fear of reprisals from the perpetrators of this crime. There is also consternation on the part of the victims by their communities if they speak to the relevant authorities about their ordeal. I ask the Minister why there have been no prosecutions under the Act. Furthermore, will my noble friend explain what more can be done to investigate and undertake prosecutions under the legislation?
In July 2010, the United Nations General Assembly created UN Women. Will the Minister tell your Lordships’ House how we are involved with this group and whether we are currently working with it on any projects connected with the issues that we are discussing in this debate?
The perpetrators of this most harrowing and dangerous act are brainwashing their victims, and in many cases the girls may be subjected to compulsion. The activities are kept underground and the communities involved keep silent about them. We must meet this challenge with vigour and determination. An Act is in force and I am confident that the Government appreciate the seriousness of the problems and intend to protect vulnerable women and girls. I look forward to hearing the Minister's ideas and updates on progress.
I thank my noble friend for initiating this debate and for once again raising the issue of FGM. I start by declaring an interest as patron of FORWARD, the Foundation for Women’s Health, Research and Development. As my noble friend said, two pieces of legislation made FGM illegal, but the question has to be: why have there been no prosecutions? We need to examine the legislation again. Perhaps there have been no prosecutions because the law is applicable only to UK citizens and UK permanent residents; perhaps because the law makes it difficult to prosecute perpetrators as it does not protect temporary residents; or perhaps because, as a recent case review demonstrated, there is a lack of co-ordination, awareness and information-sharing among key professionals.
In February, the Government published practice guidelines aimed as a resource for front-line professionals, but they did not include a plan for disseminating the guidelines to key professionals such as police officers, teachers and social workers. To truly raise awareness we must create an environment of positive change, protective policies, the generation and sharing of knowledge, and the forging of strategic partnerships with policy-makers, statutory bodies and civil society organisations. That procedure was on its way in the form of the cross-government FGM co-ordinator, but the post was abolished by the Government in March this year, leaving individual departments to take on the responsibilities. This makes it even more essential for the Government to set out a clear, comprehensive and long-term strategy for tackling FGM. Will the Minister say whether such a strategy is being proposed, and how it will be financed and co-ordinated across government? The loss of this post is compounded by the fact that many organisations working to eliminate FGM are struggling to survive through lack of financial support, leading to closures—most notably that of the internationally recognised African Well Women's Service.
There are 66,000 women in the UK who live with the consequences of FGM, and 24,000 girls are at risk. The consequences can vary from short-term health implications to serious problems in pregnancy and childbirth and serious psychological damage. An important piece of peer research carried out earlier this year showed that type 4 FGM, known as sunna, which includes pricking, piercing or incision, is widely and erroneously accepted because it does not carry the same health risks as other forms of FGM. This is a significant barrier to elimination.
The research also identified that although the majority of cases happen to young children, there is a wider age range of girls being subject to FGM, including in their late teens and early 20s, and that FGM is not discussed even within practising communities so there are differing and contradictory views between the generations about its prevalence. These barriers clearly identify that projects and language must become more adept, dealing with FGM not only as a health issue but also as one of child protection, gender and human rights. To do that there must be greater awareness raising, greater participation and engagement of key communities, including diaspora communities, funding to support existing outreach programmes, the provision of sustainable specialist health and support services, long-term investment and an FGM action plan.
In conclusion, FGM is not only a dangerous and life-threatening practice but a gross violation of the human rights of girls and women. Everything possible should be done to eliminate the practice and ensure that the perpetrators face the consequences of the law.
My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Rendell, for this debate. Only this week we received a bulletin from the End Violence Against Women coalition, which estimates that 15,000 to 20,000 girls under 15 could be at high risk of FGM. No civilised country can find justification on any ground whatever for even a single woman to undergo this vile practice.
This subject causes revulsion. Women, and in particular young girls, deserve the support of all those who care about their rights and freedoms, which we cherish and yet are denied to some who are part of our community. I am afraid the FGM Act of 2003 seems not to have been effective. So if the law is ineffective, what else should we be doing? First, let us destroy the argument that this is a religious ritual or practice. I do not know of any religion that prescribes mutilation. There are perpetrators who advance the argument that FGM protects virginity, ensures marriageability and contains sexuality. It does nothing of the sort. We now have to make a clear statement that those who have chosen to be part of our multicultural society should be in no doubt that the law is designed to protect victims, and that perpetrators will have no place to hide.
We all strive hard to make a reality of children's rights. The Government support the 1990 Convention on the Rights of the Child. Let us examine what this entails. Article 2 provides the right to equality, irrespective of sex. Article 19.1 provides protection to children from all forms of mental and physical violence and maltreatment. Article 24.1 is designed to provide the highest standard of health. We can add to this the important provision under Article 24.3 to take effective and appropriate measures to abolish traditional practices prejudicial to the health of children, and Article 37(a) which specifies freedom from torture, cruel or inhuman or degrading treatment. I have cited this convention to remind the Government that we have an obligation to protect children. We need to know why the law has been ineffective and should look at international practices to see how other countries have handled this matter.
I ask my noble friend to inquire how the matter of FGM is addressed by our Children’s Commissioner, and what guidance the Minister is giving in respect of this problem. We need answers to the following questions. What guidance is given to social workers regarding registration and action in relation to this practice? What common code of conduct is there for all healthcare professionals regarding FGM? What programme of public education is undertaken for refugees who arrive here from certain countries where such practices are prevalent? Do we publish information in other languages so that refugees and others are aware of the law in the United Kingdom? What training and guidance is provided to teachers and students, making them aware of FGM and the law? What financial and other support is available for women’s groups and advocacy groups? These groups are vital as a catalyst for opening discussions and breaking the taboo around FGM. What impact will the police cuts have and are there plans to ring-fence some of the funds so the activities are not downgraded?
We need answers since the law has failed to provide and the problem will not go away until we build the confidence of women and children to come forward with the cases.
My Lords, I am participating in this debate for two reasons. First, I want to take the opportunity to thank the noble Baroness, Lady Rendell, both for instigating the debate and for her untiring work to develop awareness of FGM, to support the many groups working to get it stopped and to support the doctors who do the reversal surgery. Secondly, I want to take the opportunity to mention very briefly—and I must stress that I am no expert on the subject—what I learnt in Kenya during my stay as a volunteer, arranged by Voluntary Service Overseas, with the Coalition on Violence Against Women, an experience which I hope has some relevance in the UK. I participated in the programme the coalition is involved with in the rural areas to persuade whole communities that the time has come to stop this practice. Kenyan law makes it clear that FGM is unlawful. It is illegal under the Children Act 2001 and official figures show the numbers dropping considerably since 2001, although some commentators think all that has happened is that it is now being done in secret.
In Masai communities, with which I was involved, young girls are traditionally circumcised amid great ceremony in preparation for a hoped-for marriage. To avoid this, some girls, who dream of a different life for themselves, run away to safe houses where they are looked after. I visited a school in a rural area which a number of these girls attended. They were being clothed, fed and educated with money raised by various sources from the coalition as their parents would no longer support them. They seemed very determined to avoid the circumcision ceremony and early marriage and to stay on at school. However, the pressure on them to give up and go home was enormous, so I heard. Their parents were telling them, “You will never get married. What will become of you?”. Their peer group was saying, “I had it done. I got lots of presents. Now I am going to get married”. The girls I met were very brave and defiant—standing there in their hand-me-down clothes—and very admirable. Their lives were very difficult.
The Coalition on Violence Against Women also organised educational efforts in the villages, spearheaded by men, to spread the word that men would be better off with educated wives who had not been circumcised. While the law is essential and it is imperative that it is clear that this practice is outside the law, it is education of men and wider opportunities for girls that will in the end make it no longer culturally accepted. I was impressed with the Government’s multiagency practice guidelines and I thank the Library for providing me with these. Can I ask the Minister whether they are widely known and distributed? Since we are expecting people to resist a powerful traditional force, how far are the Government able to support civil society groups, which can support women and their mothers who want to resist this and to have a very different life?
My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Rendell of Babergh, for introducing this debate and for pursuing this issue for as long as I can remember—for as long as I have been in your Lordships’ House.
We all know that female genital mutilation is a horrendous practice. In this country I am told that at the moment there are 74,000 first-generation immigrant African women who have undergone it. A research paper published a few years ago tells us that in any given year between 3,000 and 4,000 girls are subjected to FGM. Obviously, it is a cultural practice and, like all cultural practices, it is sustained by a personal belief that it is right and by social pressure. How do you tackle a practice based on deeply held personal belief and constantly reinforced by the pressures of others? I want to emphasise this point because, although the law is important, we should bear in mind how deeply seated in the consciousness of this community this practice is.
Some years ago when I was writing about this, I spoke on the subject at a conference. A fairly distinguished academic from Nigeria came up to me and said, “Don’t sound off. I have undergone this practice recently, after the birth of my last child”. I asked why, at the age of 35, she had done it. She said, “To remind myself that from now onwards I am a mother and not a woman”. When I asked whether this was common, she said it was fairly common in certain circles. In certain parts of Africa it is not uncommon for widows to go through this voluntarily and it happens in many groups of immigrants in Europe and the United States as well.
It horrifies us to think that adult, highly intelligent, university professors and doctors want to go through this, but they do. I want us to recognise that ordinary men and women from these communities have got into the habit of pursuing this practice on their children. The question is how we put an end to it. I want to suggest some things based on my own research and experience in dealing with practices of this kind—although not exactly this—in India and other parts of the world.
Law is important because it sets the tone of society, but there have to be strong and rigorously pursued prosecutions. I am really disappointed that there have been no prosecutions of the same kind that we had in relation to honour killings or forced marriages. We need to take communities into confidence. There are many men and women in those communities who are appalled by this and they ought to be involved in suggesting ways for it to be tackled. It is also important that social pressure is exerted because everyone thinks other people are doing it. Communities should be collectively persuaded to pass resolutions and to say openly why they would not do this and why they would not allow this.
It is also important to bear in mind that we should not be concentrating only on women. This practice takes place because it is part of the patriarchal system and, more importantly, men want it. I do not have the time to go through all this but if you were to ask in whose interest this is being done—women obviously do not enjoy it—I am told that men enjoy it and it is their way of regulating women’s sexuality and behaviour. Therefore, unless we persuade men and boys to recognise that this does not deliver what they think it does, we will not be able to get very far.
It is also important to be able to identify girls at risk fairly well in advance. We know generally that nearly 70 per cent of the girls are between the ages of five and eight and we ought to be able to indentify them and make sure that they are well protected.
My Lords, I, too, thank the noble Baroness, Lady Rendell, for giving us the opportunity to debate this important issue today. As the noble Lord, Lord Sheikh, has said, it is estimated that between 100 million and 140 million African women and girls have undergone FGM, violating their human rights and compromising their health. Each year a further 3 million are at risk in Africa alone.
FGM is not only taking place in Africa, as many noble Lords have pointed out. International migration has increased the number of girls and women living in the African diaspora who have undergone FGM or who are at risk from the practice. It is difficult to confirm its prevalence in Europe but the European Parliament estimates that as many as half a million women in Europe are suffering the consequences of FGM.
FGM is increasingly becoming a European problem. Among many communities the practice is seen as an important tradition, often bound up with religion, which makes eradication more difficult. Nevertheless, it may well be possible to think in terms of eradication sooner than is thought. The examples given by the noble Baroness, Lady Stern, give us a signpost to the way forward.
Parliamentarians are the custodians of democracy and human rights. They have a responsibility through political will and commitment to support the elimination of violence against women in general and, in Africa, FGM in particular in the interests of society as a whole. The Association of European Parliamentarians for Africa, which is known as AWEPA, of which I am an advisory board member, UNICEF and UNFPA, the United Nations Population Fund, have pledged to co-operate in the implementation of a joint programme for ending FGM. This is recognised as the privileged instrument within the UN for human rights-based social change. The objective is to accelerate social change in favour of human rights, and to increase the rate of abandonment of FGM in the 17 African countries considered a priority.
Across Europe and Africa, AWEPA has agreed to organise parliamentary action to abandon the practice of FGM. Three target countries were identified—Burkina Faso, Mali and Senegal—out of the 17 where the practice is most widespread. An analysis of the relevant legal provisions in each country is being made, and the leeway afforded to parliamentarians as power brokers is being quantified and identified. An analysis is being made in relation to each Government's executive branches and their relevant parliamentary committees as well as to civil society organisations and, not least, women's rights groups. In parallel and in partnership with the Pan-African Parliament and with input from UNICEF and UNFPA, the joint programme is developing a parliamentary handbook in which the UN agencies’ policy expertise in the area of FGM combines with knowledge of the parliamentary processes in each country. The handbook is being promoted by parliamentary champions in all three countries through the networks of national bookshops. The issue of FGM is closely linked to the attainment of UN MDG3, promoting gender equality and empowerment for women, and MDG5, improving maternal health. The overall objective of AWEPA's programme is the abandonment of the practice of FGM in Africa and Europe by 2015.
FGM cannot and will not be abandoned in this country until it is first ended in Africa. Laws alone will not end the practice, but parliaments can lead the way in bringing about the societal change needed. At the very least, we should find room in DfID’s maternal health budget to support this UNICEF project. Norway, Italy, Ireland and Australia have already made generous contributions to the programme. A further £20 million is all that it will take to fund the five-year programme and see the first target country free from FGM. I look forward to my noble friend’s comments on whether DfID will come across and stump up.
My Lords, this is undoubtedly a human rights issue of a very serious kind. The practice continues despite the criminalising of the process both here and back in most of the countries where it is widespread. I want to reiterate what my noble friend Lord Parekh said: it is very clear what the purpose is. It is about preparing women for marriage. My experience is that it is not often performed on babies nowadays; it is performed on girls, usually prepubescent girls between the ages of eight and 12, and it is done because there is still, if not child marriage, the betrothal of girls when they are still that young.
The idea is to keep women chaste, to remove their opportunity for sexual pleasure and to remove concerns that women with a clitoris will somehow be more promiscuous. Not all circumcision involves the removal of the clitoris, but for most women, it involves the stitching of their vagina and labia. Sometimes it even involves the removal of the labia. In Africa, I have heard practitioners and older men and women claim that it makes girls less wild, more placid and therefore exactly marriageable material.
I have gone to Africa with the charity SafeHands for Mothers and, like the noble Baroness, Lady Stern, I have heard the testimony of women and men and seen how traumatised women are having gone through that experience, especially if you talk to girls who have escaped the possibility or who have just undergone female genital mutilation. I have visited hospitals in north London to see photographs taken of the damaged and mutilated vaginas of women who attend hospital because they are pregnant. Obstetricians have to give them guidance on what to expect in labour and tell them that they will have to have an episiotomy in order to give birth. After giving birth, the women beg those same doctors to stitch them up the way they were in order to please their husbands. Doctors have to explain to women that they will play no part in that practice, but they know that those women return to them with a second pregnancy, and their vagina has been restitched. We have to ask ourselves how that is coming about. Doctors in this country are satisfied that women in the communities here perform these practices.
In Africa, I have heard doctors saying that a practice current there is the performance of symbolic cutting where there is no removal of the clitoris and it is simply, they insist, a small nick that answers the community’s cultural demand for the continuation of the practice. I hope that those in authority, in the medical profession and in the police are making it clear that a medical practitioner performing even the small nick will not be endured in this country and that prosecution will ensue. It must contravene the belief that we should do no harm.
I want to hear from the Minister about what is being done about reaching general practitioners, doctors in private practice and cosmetic surgeons to find out whether things are being done to women who want their vaginas restitched after birth. I want to hear what efforts we are making to breach the silence on this issue and whether we are doing enough in our outreach to the communities.
Finally, an absence of prosecutions is usually an indicator that there is something not happening, so I thank my noble friend Lady Rendell for keeping this matter before the House, and I hope that we will see greater activity on this issue.
Lords, I, too, congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Rendell, on instigating this excellent debate. I hesitate to use the word “interesting”, but the horrific extent to which this practice still goes on is interesting. Most points have been made, so I have been slashing, cutting and pasting my speech furiously during the debate so that I do not repeat too many points.
The All-Party Group on Population, Development and Reproduction Health, which I now chair, has produced two reports that are extremely relevant. The first was way back in 2000. It was specifically on female genital mutilation and covered most of the points that have been made in this debate and, indeed, reiterated a lot of the experience that noble Lords have told us about today. The second was the 2009 report on maternal morbidity Better off Dead?—that was my title. Both reports highlighted the global human rights violations of FGM, which affects about 130 million women and girls worldwide, 500,000 in Europe and an estimated 66,000 in England and Wales. These women and girls are brutally mutilated and that has long-term physical and mental consequences. Their future reproductive health is violated in the most brutal and disgusting way.
If we had time, I would like to have a debate on the origins of this practice and a debate on the origins of male circumcision too, which is very interesting. It is being questioned in some circles nowadays. It is said that it started as a public health measure to stop irritation and infection when men did not wear Y-fronts. Women certainly did not have underwear. Is it conceivable that back in the mists of time, it was in some way seen as a healthy or hygienic practice? I do not know, but we all know how it is interpreted nowadays and we have heard from many noble Lords that it is, in a sense, to control women. Both practices are in my view violations of the rights of the child. They are against the human rights of children, who are unable to give their consent, and the practices should stop.
Some of us may have heard recently that a brave teacher in Bristol has encouraged a group of girls in her care from different cultural backgrounds who have experience of FGM to make a film called “Silent Scream”, to which I draw the attention of the House. It has its premiere at the Watershed Cinema in the centre of Bristol tonight; it will then go online. I am glad of the opportunity to publicise it. However, this teacher has received little support, with parents and colleagues condemning her for allowing the girls to make the film. I ask the Minister what the Government will be doing to encourage teachers to do this sort of activity and make these sorts of films with their pupils.
I have just a few more questions before I finish. Why has not a single prosecution taken place in this country, compared to the 50 prosecutions that have taken place in France? Where are the support services for girls who have undergone this procedure? Currently there are only 16 such facilities in the UK. What will happen under GP commissioning—who will be responsible for this? What training is being organised for teachers and the police? Where are the statistics on FGM and why are they not collected? Lastly, why has the cross-government FGM co-ordinator post been abolished? I hope that the Minister can answer these questions.
My Lords, I, too, welcome the initiative of my noble friend Lady Rendell in instituting this debate and for championing this issue for many years. We owe her a great debt. As in previous debates, the picture painted by noble Lords today is of the extensive nature of this dreadful practice in many countries, including our own. As noble Lords have commented, the Female Genital Mutilation Act was introduced in 2003, but there have been no prosecutions since it was brought in. As my noble friend Lady Rendell said, clearly there are police forces who would wish to prosecute but so far the evidence has not come forward.
I ask the Minister to respond to the point raised just now by the noble Baroness, Lady Tonge, as to the reason for there being no prosecutions at all, and whether we can learn anything from other countries such as France, if indeed they have been able to find ways to prosecute? It would be very interesting to know whether her department has been able to undertake some research into the experience of other countries.
My noble friend Lady Gould wondered if the law needed revisiting and made a number of suggestions for improving the law. Will the Minister very kindly consider those proposals?
My noble friend Lady Rendell suggested a public awareness campaign. Will the Government support this, including, as she said, films showing the pain and suffering caused by this dreadful practice? In her opening remarks, my noble friend mentioned a DVD that she supported. I have seen it—it is very telling. Will the Minister give support to such initiatives and to the initiative mentioned by the noble Baroness, Lady Tonge, by a schoolteacher in Bristol? It was very concerning to hear that, far from being supported, she had come in for criticism. This is extremely disappointing.
Fantastic work is being done in clinics. Can the Minister assure me that a way will be found within the new health service structure to ensure that those clinics continue to be funded and supported? The noble Lord, Lord Dholakia, raised the issue of police funding. We know that one of the consequences of cuts to police funding has been the closure of specialist units. There is a real problem with prosecutions—will the Minister consider whether there is a need for some kind of regional or national unit to gather expertise to advise police forces generally? The noble Lord, Lord Dholakia, also mentioned the role of the Children’s Commissioner. Will she consider that, as well as his suggestion about the need for education for refugees?
I also ask the Minister to respond to my noble friend Lady Kennedy about practitioners in this country because it is clear from what we said that there are some who are involved in these practices. My noble friend’s analysis of the causes was very helpful.
Picking up a point made by my noble friend Lord Parekh, what work are the Government doing in relation to UK communities, particularly men and boys in those communities? The noble Baroness, Lady Stern, mentioned the Kenyan experience. It would be helpful if we could establish whether the work being done there would be relevant to the UK. I also pick up the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Chidgey, about DfID programmes, which I thought was very important indeed.
Finally, my noble friend Lady Gould asked whether the Government would develop a long-term strategy. I ask the Minister to consider that very carefully indeed. The reinstatement of an FGM co-ordinator post in Whitehall would be an important signal of the Government’s concern and commitment in this area.
My Lords, I join all noble Lords in paying tribute to the dedication of the noble Baroness, Lady Rendell, to this cause and her widely respected work towards the elimination of female genital mutilation. The noble Baroness illustrated so vividly the horrors of this practice and I hope that I will have time to respond to the noble Baroness and other noble Lords’ questions. If time does not permit, I will write to noble Lords.
This debate is absolutely crucial for women and girls across the world. Female genital mutilation is a form of child abuse which this Government are committed to eradicating. Similarly, the UN Committee on the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women has clearly denounced the practice of FGM in its general recommendation No. 14 on female circumcision. The UN General Assembly’s resolution of January 2002 on traditional or customary practices affecting the health of women and girls called upon all states to ratify or accede to the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women and to adopt national measures to prohibit harmful traditional practices such as FGM.
We have to protect girls from this abuse and ensure that all those living with the consequences of FGM are given the care and support they deserve and so badly need. Front-line professionals who have responsibilities to safeguard children and protect adults from the abuses associated with FGM play a vital role in identifying children and young women who are at risk or who have been subjected to FGM. It is unlikely that any single agency will be able to meet the multiple needs of someone affected by FGM and therefore it demands a multiagency response.
Similarly, the coalition Government have recognised the need for a joined-up approach to tackle FGM and this method has been successful in drawing together, co-ordinating and driving work from a number of government departments. We are trying to raise awareness of this barbaric practice and have made progress. However, our key focus is prevention and we have undertaken considerable work in the past year across and between nine government departments to advance efforts to prevent and tackle FGM in the UK and around the world. In February, the Government launched multiagency practice guidelines on female genital mutilation for front-line professionals such as teachers, GPs and nurses. The guidelines aim to raise awareness of FGM, highlight the risks of the practice and set out clearly the steps that should be taken to safeguard children and women from this abuse. This is a key step towards ensuring that professionals are able and confident to intervene to protect girls at risk.
We know that FGM causes significant harm to the physical and mental health of girls in many ways, which many noble Lords have raised today, and increases the risk of life threatening complications during childbirth for both the mother and baby. There are 15 specialist clinics in the NHS which treat women and girls who have been subjected to FGM. These clinics all have trained and culturally sensitive staff who offer a range of healthcare services for women and girls, including the commonly called “reversal” surgery. A clinic based in the Guy’s and St. Thomas’ NHS Foundation Trust in London sees more than 300 clients per year and carries out between two and three reversals of FGM per week. It may surprise noble Lords—although I suspect it does not from listening to the contributions—that 30 to 40 per cent of those clients are British nationals.
The Royal College of Midwives has identified FGM as a key issue to its members and is conducting a survey of midwives to understand more about the numbers of women being seen by health services and the training needs of health staff. The results will be used by the Royal College of Midwives to input into national strategies and plans, and to provide better support to midwives by way of providing information and appropriate educational resources. We applaud this and other such initiatives.
Communications about FGM are key to bringing the issue to people’s attention. More than 40,000 leaflets and posters have been circulated to schools, health services, charities and community groups around the country. This is not the only method we are using to raise awareness and we know that it is not an end in itself but a foundation on which to build. Guidance has also been issued to British embassies and high commissions to protect British girls and women at risk of FGM overseas. We must be clear that the long-term and systematic eradication of FGM in the UK will require practising communities to abandon the practice themselves.
Through the regular government-chaired female genital mutilation forum, we will work with the well established network of FGM civil society organisations to co-ordinate activities and input into government policy-making as well as to examine how we can support and facilitate their engagement with practising communities in the UK. We have reached out to work with a range of charities and civil society partners active in this area. Their wealth of experience has been absolutely crucial in shaping our work and we thank them for their input and for sharing their expertise with us. It has been an excellent example of partnership working that we are keen to continue going forward.
Looking forward, we will continue to examine how FGM can best be included in existing statutory training for professionals, and to offer other areas of specific, tailored training to the relevant agencies, both of which are key to the prevention and tackling of female genital mutilation. There have also been some successful initiatives from the police. The Metropolitan Police’s Project Azure work at Heathrow, which speaks to families potentially taking the girls overseas for FGM, has strengthened our last line of defence for these girls.
The noble Baroness, Lady Rendell, referred to the interesting work being done with the Metropolitan Police at the Lilian Baylis Technology School in Vauxhall, which was approached to take part in a female genital mutilation film project. In further illustrating the project, it was decided to hand the film production over to a group of young people to decide how this sensitive subject should be presented to their peers. The school’s well-being group was thought to be the ideal place for the project. The group included girls from Eritrea and Somalia, two of whom had already been “cut” and who shared their experiences and knowledge with group members. One pupil revealed that her father had refused to allow her to be cut despite her mother being keen for her to have FGM. The film should be ready for delivery to schools in September. I think that it will be a very powerful tool in a crucially important area, for we know that the education and safeguarding sectors play a vital role in identifying and intervening when girls are suspected of being at risk of FGM. I think that the idea of directly involving children, including those who have already sadly experienced the horror of FGM, is a brave and innovative idea.
We need to tackle this issue at its root. By reaching out to children directly, we can hope to change the mindset of our future generations to ensure that when these girls become mothers they will abandon the practice for good. While FGM needs to be addressed in a comprehensive manner by all parts of society, change must come from the communities which carry out this practice, and we commend and applaud communities which have taken a strong stance on this issue. Internationally, we recognise that FGM is a serious problem and the Government’s aid programme is committed to empowering women and girls, including preventing violence against women and girls, including FGM where appropriate.
The Government will support sensitive measures to counter all forms of gender-based violence internationally and will support measures to eliminate FGM indirectly through their core funding of the key UN agencies that address FGM—namely, the United Nations Population Fund, the United Nations Children's Fund and the World Health Organisation—as well as supporting NGOs which focus on tackling FGM. Closer to home, we will also work with other EU member states and EU institutions to examine how and where the EU can add value to global efforts to tackle FGM.
The Government are frustrated by the lack of prosecutions in the 25 years that female genital mutilation has been illegal in the UK but the success of the legislation cannot be measured only by the number of prosecutions. We hear anecdotally that the legislation has been a deterrent, stopping families from proceeding with their plans to have FGM performed on their daughters.
Legislation alone cannot eliminate the practice altogether. Families and communities need to take ownership of the issue and must help to stop committing this terrible crime. Prosecution after the fact, although desirable, does not relieve the victim of a lifetime of pain and discomfort. We want to prevent FGM from happening in the first place. Despite the lack of prosecutions, the Act is intended to deter this unacceptable practice and anecdotal evidence suggests that it has had some deterrent effect. The Act has also provided an impetus for outreach work with the practising communities and has been widely used to raise awareness among the police, judiciary, health professionals, social services departments and education sector so that FGM is treated with the seriousness that it deserves.
Research suggests that the most likely barrier to prosecution is the pressure from the family or wider community that leads to cases going unreported. Victims may be too young and vulnerable or too afraid to report offences to the police or to give evidence in court. Family and community pressure can make it very difficult for girls to come forward to notify the police about what has happened to them. We recognise that more needs to be done.
The Crown Prosecution Service will shortly issue new guidelines for prosecutors on FGM to ensure that the CPS is able to prosecute cases of female genital mutilation that satisfy the evidential and public interest tests within the Code for Crown Prosecutors. Together with police training, we hope that every case of FGM can be investigated and, if it meets the relevant evidential and public interest tests, prosecuted to ensure that perpetrators are brought to justice. We hope that the publication of these guidelines will be the first step towards a successful prosecution in the UK really to press home the point that we will not tolerate the unacceptable abuse of girls and women in this way.
I can see from the clock that I will run out of time. I made a heap of notes and I now undertake to write to noble Lords. I conclude by thanking the noble Baroness, Lady Rendell, for initiating this debate. I hope that it is noted and goes some way to ensuring that this important issue remains on the agenda in order that girls and women are protected and this unacceptable form of abuse is eliminated for good. As always, this subject highlights the expertise and the passion for which this House is known and respected across the globe.