Female Genital Mutilation “” Debate – UK House of Lords
House of Lords debates, 30 June 2011, 1:28 pm
Baroness Rendell of Babergh (Labour)
To ask Her Majesty’s Government what steps they are taking to increase public awareness of female genital mutilation in the United Kingdom and to bring prosecutions under the Female Genital Mutilation Act 2003.
Lord de Mauley (Whip, House of Lords; Conservative)
My Lords, I respectfully remind noble Lords that Back-Bench contributions to the debate initiated by the noble Baroness, Lady Rendell, are limited to four minutes.
Baroness Rendell of Babergh (Labour)
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 Cí´te 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?