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21 Mar 2003 : Column 1196—continued

10.12 am

Chris McCafferty (Calder Valley): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Cynon Valley (Ann Clwyd) on having the courage to promote the Bill and my hon. Friend the Member for Broxbourne (Mrs. Roe) on having had the foresight to promote the original Bill in 1985.

As a politician, I am not an expert on female genital mutilation, and as a woman I can only begin to imagine the personal trauma and suffering that the practice causes to women who have been subjected to it. I intend to base my remarks on the findings of the parliamentary hearings on FGM that I chaired in May 2000. It is important to set out a few main statistics. It is estimated that 130 million girls have undergone FGM and that every year 2 million girls worldwide are at risk of undergoing some form of the practice. The procedure is usually performed on girls between the ages of four and 13. The World Health Organisation has stated that FGM doubles the risk of the mother's death in childbirth and increases by up to three to four times the risk of the child being born dead. As we have heard, most of the women and girls affected live in Africa, but women and girls who have undergone, or are at risk of undergoing, FGM are increasingly found in western Europe and other developing countries, primarily among immigrant and refugee communities.

In the United Kingdom, no national FGM prevalence data are available, but it is estimated that 3,000 to 4,000 girls are subjected to FGM here in the UK every year. It

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was in that context that the all-party group on population, development and reproductive health decided to take on board the issue of FGM and to hold parliamentary hearings. At those hearings, we heard evidence from a wide range of experts from the UK and abroad. The witnesses gave evidence on issues such as training, the effectiveness of the law against FGM, support services and care and work with community-based organisations.

A law on female circumcision—the Prohibition of Female Circumcision Act 1985—already exists, but there have never been any prosecutions, despite evidence that FGM is taking place in this country. It is estimated that more than 7,000 girls in the UK are at risk every year.

Mr. Michael Jabez Foster (Hastings and Rye): My hon. Friend suggests that there have never been any prosecutions. There is presumably no time limit on prosecutions, so could not women who have come forward to welfare groups and so forth be encouraged to give evidence, albeit perhaps many years later?

Chris McCafferty: I am sure that that is the case. As my hon. Friend the Member for Cynon Valley said, such matters are more appropriately debated when the Bill reaches Committee, as I hope that it does. I know that it has support on both sides of the House, and I am sure that it will proceed.

There are probably many reasons why there have been no prosecutions, but the survey that we conducted prior to the parliamentary hearings suggested that the two main reasons are lack of awareness of the law and fear of cultural sensitivities. Our questionnaire was sent to all the organisations that we identified as working on FGM in the UK, Europe, Africa and the USA. In the UK, questionnaires were sent to every health authority and local authority and to all social services departments and refugee councils. Surprisingly, fewer than half the people surveyed—only 46 per cent.—mentioned awareness of the law. In the UK, there was a fear of being seen as racist, and the survey of the questionnaires also showed that 25 per cent. of the UK respondents expressed a fear of being perceived to be culturally insensitive.

FGM is a fundamental human rights issue with adverse health and social implications; it violates the rights of women and girls to bodily integrity. The issues raised by it are many and complex. It is a cultural practice that communities living in the UK may hold on to more strongly than communities back in their home countries, as it becomes an important part of their identity here in Britain or in other countries. As with other instances of abuse of women, many women who have had it done to themselves become strong advocates for its continuance. That is sad, but true. The right of one dominant culture to criticise or to try to stop a practice of another minority culture is rightly a subject for debate. Germaine Greer famously entered the debate when she compared FGM to cosmetic surgery carried out on American women and questioned our right to sit in judgment on other cultures. Our hearings, however, concluded very firmly that respect for other cultures should not include condoning or ignoring

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practices that abuse and deny human rights. Personally, I believe that cultures are sacrosanct only if they are consistent with human rights.

One of the witnesses at our hearings was Linda Weil-Curiel, an advocate from France who has been responsible for bringing several circumcisers to court in France. She said to us:

I think that that is very important to remember when dealing with this sensitive issue.

At the hearings, I asked why she thought that there had been no prosecutions in the UK. "Because you are chicken," she replied. She may have a point. We have had a law banning FGM for more than 15 years but we have had no prosecutions. Yet we know that thousands of girls are at risk here in the UK. Government and NGO workers who are responsible for FGM issues are unclear of the law.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Broxbourne has said, health and social care professionals have an important role to play in addressing FGM in the UK. Clinical staff are much more likely to see examples of FGM in their work, especially if they serve areas with high populations from, for example, east Africa. I am pleased that that British Medical Association has issued new guidance, helping doctors to educate families about the health and legal issues that surround this practice, and ultimately, I hope, preventing girls from being mutilated—even if that means initiating child protection proceedings. Inter-agency co-operation is the key to addressing FGM.

The NHS has very little data about FGM, largely because it has not set out to look for such data. Our report recommended that the Department of Health should undertake much more data collection and then make use of those data when developing policies. So far, that has not happened. I am aware that the specialist NGO, Forward, has applied to the Department of Health for project grants to collect data on FGM and to address linked practices. I believe that Forward and similar groups are especially well placed to do that work. I have written to the Secretary of State to reiterate the need to obtain accurate data on the prevalence of FGM in the UK as soon as possible. We have also called on the Government to make use of our report when they produce their national sexual health and HIV strategy. I was delighted to see that the strategy states that FGM is

It also states that there is a need to raise the awareness and skills of health, education and social services professionals, and acknowledges that local services need to support community initiatives that are aimed at stopping this practice.

As has already been said, the Prohibition of Female Circumcision Act entered into force on 16 July 1985, making FGM illegal in the UK. There have been no prosecutions under that law so far. It is vital that this new law is fully implemented and that our Government and agencies work together for the elimination of this practice. A number of recommendations from our hearings have already been acted on but we need to

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move things further forward in order to combat this harmful and unnecessary attack on women's sexuality and autonomy.

I am pleased to see that the proposed changes include many recommendations from the hearings—in particular, changing the name of the female circumcision Act 1985 to incorporate the term female genital mutilation; and, very importantly, changing the Act to ensure that UK residents who take girls abroad for FGM can be prosecuted under UK law on their return, regardless of the legal status of FGM in the country where it takes place. Sentences will also be lengthened. This is a serious and abhorrent offence and the length of sentences should reflect that.

As a matter of policy, I hope that the provisions will extend to all UK residents, including asylum seekers. I note that the Bill does not include anything to do with the monitoring of FGM and the roles of relevant agencies. Important though these issues are, I understand that they are not measures that can be included in this Bill. However, I hope that the Department of Health will look carefully at the need to monitor the incidence of FGM in this country. Legislation alone, as we all know, will not eradicate this practice. The aim of strengthening the law in this way is to send a strong message about the unacceptability of FGM and, we hope, to have a deterrent effect.

If this Bill does become law, I hope that it will provide a useful springboard for taking forward wider enforcement and education activities. The Agency for Culture and Change Management is, I understand, already organising an FGM conference as a follow-up to this Bill. The all-party group on population, development and reproductive health will certainly support that initiative.

Today I have focused on the situation and the education needs in the UK. However, our hearings also looked at FGM in the international context. I would like to conclude with a quote from one of our witnesses—a Senegalese village elder and imam called Pa Demba Diawara—who, at the age of 65, and after going on an education programme with a local NGO—Tostan project—to learn to read and write, has worked with his local community to abandon the practice of FGM. Demba gave evidence to our FGM hearings and told us:

I hope that this Bill will ensure that more people do ask and do know about FGM so that the practice is abandoned worldwide.

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