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21 Mar 2003 : Column 1191—continued

Mr. Djanogly: If a mature woman were to go abroad of her own free will to have such an operation, for whatever reason, would that be permitted under the Bill?

Ann Clwyd: I would not expect so for one moment, although I do not know what the hon. Gentleman means by a mature woman.

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Mr. Djanogly: Not a child.

Ann Clwyd: Such matters can be further explored in Committee. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will become a member of the Committee, as he is obviously very interested in the subject.

Mr. Bill Wiggin (Leominster): This is an important Bill and I support it. However, for the sake of clarity and for the record, will the hon. Lady confirm that the terrible things that she has described in her speech are separate from the body piercing that takes place in the UK? Is that a completely separate issue, or is there any overlap?

Ann Clwyd: It is a completely separate issue.

It is unusual in international law for a state to take jurisdiction over acts committed abroad by its residents, permanent or otherwise, as well as its nationals, especially when there is no requirement for the act to be illegal in the country in which it is committed. However, it is important that we take that step in this case. We have a duty to protect all our residents. The new Bill will mean that people who have a close connection with the UK, in the form of permanent residence, cannot evade the scope of the Bill by temporarily leaving the UK.

Thirdly, the Bill will increase the maximum penalty for FGM from five to 14 years' imprisonment. Other than life imprisonment, that is the highest sentence that can be imposed and reflects how seriously we take the offence.

There is no quick fix to the problem of FGM in this country or abroad. It is, unfortunately, too deeply embedded in the culture of the practising communities. Legislation on its own cannot eradicate it, but the Bill will send a powerful message about the unacceptability of FGM to those who seek to perpetuate that abhorrent practice.

9.54 am

Mrs. Marion Roe (Broxbourne): I congratulate the hon. Member for Cynon Valley (Ann Clwyd) on being successful in the private Member's Bill ballot and on choosing the very important issue of female genital mutilation as the subject of her Bill. I also wish to thank her for her kind remarks. As one of the sponsors of the Bill, I give my full support to its principles and wish it every success during its course through the parliamentary process. I also congratulate the all-party parliamentary group on population, development and reproductive health on its report, which was published in November 2000, and on the work that it has done to raise the profile of the issue again in recent years.

I first heard about female genital mutilation, or female circumcision as it was known in those days, in the late 1970s, when I was a member of the Greater London council. As a local government representative in London, I became aware that female genital mutilation was being practised in the United Kingdom by certain immigrant communities. That horrified me. It is not only a violation of every child's rights, but is physically harmful and has serious consequences for a girl's health.

As soon as I became a Member of Parliament in 1983, I began to seek support from other parliamentarians of all parties, as well as the Conservative Government, for

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a private Member's Bill to prohibit female circumcision in the United Kingdom. Although there was much pressure from the immigrant communities affected—I was called a racist and I was accused of intervening in religious freedoms, cultural traditions and so on—my Bill became the Prohibition of Female Circumcision Act, 18 years ago. It was one of the first pieces of legislation on the issue in the world.

In formulating my Bill, for which I received full co-operation from both sides of the House, I was at great pains to block every avenue whereby those wishing to continue FGM in the UK could get around the law. I remind the House that I was breaking new ground and had no examples of similar legislation to call on from other countries. For example, much pressure was exerted on me not to include explicit wording on a surgical operation by a registered medical practitioner on a girl for her mental health. Obviously, the intent was to use the stress on a girl who is not conforming to a traditional practice as an excuse to find a gap in the legislation. Although the Bill would change the wording of my Act, I warn hon. Members of the importance of including in the Bill clarification of its intent, so that there is no question that those who wish to find loopholes to exploit will be able to do so.

I strongly believed that making FGM unlawful was only a first step. More needed to be done to persuade those parents and family members involved to change their behaviour. While my Bill was passing through Parliament, I persuaded the Conservative Government to guarantee funding for educational purposes, not only in the United Kingdom but internationally, to eliminate the practice. I am pleased to say that the present Labour Government have continued to honour that commitment, providing hundreds of thousands of pounds for educational programmes and research, including partly funding the all-party parliamentary group report on population, development and reproductive health, to which I alluded earlier and which produced many worthwhile recommendations to the Government on the issue.

I should also like to take this opportunity to pay tribute to the many excellent voluntary and charity groups, such as Rainbo and Forward, which do magnificent work at the grass-roots level among the communities. Their efforts are vital and I am sure that they and other non-governmental organisations will be able to give expert advice to members of the Committee on how to ensure that the principles of the Bill protect young girls effectively in the way that is needed. The Government continue to give grants to NGOs as a contribution to their core activities, including collecting data on FGM in the United Kingdom; addressing linked practices impinging on FGM, such as early marriage and childbirth; and mobilising men in the practising communities, something that is very important indeed.

Shona McIsaac (Cleethorpes): Does the hon. Lady acknowledge the role that many women's monthly magazines play in educating young women about the abhorrent practice of female genital mutilation?

Mrs. Roe: I certainly accept that. Awareness programmes, wherever they come from, are much appreciated and desperately needed.

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On the international scene, since 1997—these are the earliest figures that I have, but I know that international funding was given earlier—£226,000 has been given in aid to a project in Gambia, £200,000 has been allocated to a well women media project in the horn of Africa, £150,000 has been granted to Burkina Faso to assist in overcoming traditional practices harmful to women, and £140,000 has been used to support the World Health Organisation in training health care providers on the prevention of FGM and the management of complications in Ghana, Egypt, Kenya, Tanzania, Ethiopia and Cameroon. Many more countries have received the sort of aid that is vital to programmes that they are trying to initiate. The European Parliament has also considered the issue, making nine recommendations to all member states on 20 September 2001 to condemn FGM as a violation of human rights and as a crime.

Not only should FGM be made illegal and educational programmes be initiated, but social workers and the medical professions should be included in the fight to eliminate the practice. Their participation is crucial. The British Medical Association has published detailed guidelines on FGM that are of interest to many of those who must deal with women who suffer the after-effects of FGM. That demonstrates the influence that doctors, nurses, social workers and teachers can have when they work in communities that practise FGM. Their sensitive involvement can have a lasting effect, particularly among younger women.

My all-party friends and I, having taken my Bill through Parliament and seen it become an Act, believed that we had done something worth while and that FGM in the UK would, in time, become a thing of the past. We were therefore gravely disappointed to discover that no prosecutions were being brought under the 1985 Act. When I questioned why that was so, I was told that it was impossible to persuade children to testify against their parents and families. It seemed to me, however, that there was also a conspiracy of silence among certain members of the immigrant communities, which was very difficult to break. It became apparent that children from immigrant communities were being sent back to their country of origin for a so-called holiday so that FGM could be carried out.

My Prohibition of Female Circumcision Act makes FGM illegal if it takes place within the jurisdiction of the United Kingdom. A person may be guilty of conspiracy if he or she conspires in the UK to commit FGM in a country where it is also illegal. However, a person cannot be guilty of conspiracy if the FGM occurs in a country in which it is legal. It is not an offence to conspire in the UK to commit an act abroad that is not illegal in both the UK and the country in which it is planned to occur. The question of a prosecution being brought under UK law on a family's return from abroad has been a matter of great concern to me over recent years. I am delighted that it is being addressed in the new Bill.

We must not forget those young girls and women who have already suffered FGM. At no time should they be made to feel stigmatised. Seven specialist clinics deal with FGM, seeing women without specific referral from their doctors. They also undertake reversal surgery on mutilated women, which proves effective in some cases. The well-known clinic at Guy's hospital in London does magnificent work.

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A positive approach to FGM is evident in the UK. We must continue our commitment to women's rights with dedication and perseverance. I have also been pursuing my quest to eradicate FGM beyond our shores. With other Members of Parliament of all parties, I have represented the UK at Inter-Parliamentary Union conferences for more than five years and have raised matters of concern relating to children, including child labour, child health and female genital mutilation. The IPU organised a panel discussion on "Violence Against Women—FGM" during its 106th conference in Burkina Faso in September 2001. Its purpose was to make parliamentarians aware of the importance of eliminating this harmful traditional practice. The session was well attended by men and women Members of Parliament who wanted to take the matter further.

A further brainstorming session was organised at the next IPU conference in Marrakesh, Morroco in March 2002, and a parliamentary think-tank for the eradiction of FGM was created. The six members of the panel were Members of Parliament from Kenya, Nigeria, Norway, Uganda, Senegal and the United Kingdom. I am the UK member. The panel has been mandated to study the possibility of working towards an international convention on the eradication of FGM and organising, if need be, a parliamentary conference on parliamentary action to eradicate FGM. That conference should be convened jointly by the IPU and the African Parliamentary Union. It should bring together MPs, Inter-African Committee representatives, religious and traditional leaders, non-governmental organisations, and former practitioners of FGM, as well as many others involved in the issue.

A further meeting of the parliamentary think-tank will be held at the next IPU conference in Santiagio next month and discussions should result in the presentation of recommendations to the International Council of the IPU on FGM and on further work to be done in the field by the IPU, in co-operation with the APU, and by national Governments. The IPU has also set up sections on FGM on its website, including details of countries throughout the world in which FGM is practised and what action, if any, Governments have taken to eliminate it. The idea of the website is to disseminate information to anybody and everybody who has an interest in eradicating FGM so that the wheel need not be reinvented and good practice can be spread. Many African countries have found the website extremely helpful.

I also attended a conference—"Zero Tolerance to FGM"—in Addis Ababa in February, which was organised by an NGO, the Inter-African Committee on Traditional Practices Affecting the Health of Women and Children. I listened with great interest to presentations and comments made by young and old people representing NGOs and voluntary organisations from countries throughout Africa, as well as representatives of UNICEF and the World Health Organisation. They described plans to mobilise religious leaders, community leaders and youth with projects for entrepreneurial training for former circumcisers so that they can find new employment. There are, of course, also many awareness programmes.

I remind hon. Members that every year 2 million young girls are estimated to be at risk from this harmful practice. It was a heartening experience to hear religious

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leaders explaining that there is no religious base to FGM and also to hear young men condemning that abuse of human rights. At the conference there were former circumcisers who had abandoned their practice and were now preaching to their communities the error of their ways.

The conference adopted a common agenda for action and concluded that the fight against FGM called for a concerted and co-ordinated approach with periodic consultation and the exchange of information between all those involved in its eradication, including parliamentarians. It also endorsed the role of advocacy and lobbying to influence policy within Governments at regional, national and international levels, and declared 6 February to be an international day of zero tolerance towards FGM. The target is to eliminate FGM completely by 2010.

We parliamentarians, male and female, must work together if we are to eradicate FGM. We must give encouragement and assist our international colleagues in making FGM illegal wherever it is practised. I congratulate those who have already done so—for example, Burkina Faso, which passed a law declaring FGM illegal in November 1996 and set up a national committee to combat the practice. We must support educational programmes and ensure that adequate funding can be found for awareness projects. We must continue the fight until we have achieved our goal of preventing young girls and women from undergoing violation and suffering. Only our determination, our voices and our actions will establish their rights and remove health risks. We have that power, and I wish the Bill—an extension of my Bill—a safe passage through its procedures as a further step forward along the long road to halt the violation of the rights of children and women.

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