Lord Alton made this speech in the House of Lords on 20 July 2018 regarding the Female Genital Mutilation Private Members Bill
My Lords, it is a privilege to support my noble friend Lord Berkeley of Knighton, whose Private Member’s Bill provides another step in seeking to prevent the barbaric practice of female genital mutilation and ultimately to protect girls from being subjected to it.
I concur with the remarks of the preceding speakers. It is also a pleasure to follow my newly ennobled noble friend Lady Boycott, who has just addressed the House.
In preparing for today’s debate, I am indebted to the work of Ewelina Ochab, and to the noble Baroness, Lady Vere of Norbiton, who is to respond to the debate. I thank her and her officials for the time that she gave myself and my noble friend earlier this week to discuss the Bill before it was to be debated in your Lordships’ House.
I shall begin by referring to the World Health Organization, which has said:
“Female genital mutilation (FGM) is recognized internationally as a violation of the human rights of girls and women”.
The organisation describes four different kinds of FGM, all inflicted on young women who experience pain and suffering as a consequence. WHO research indicates that FGM can lead to several immediate complications and long-term consequences. It reports that the immediate complications include:
“severe pain … excessive bleeding … swelling … fever … infections … urinary problems … wound healing problems … shock”,
FGM also has an effect on childbirth. Women literally have to be cut open to allow the birth of the infant and then sewn up again. This adds unnecessary complications to an already risky situation.
However, FGM stands for more than the inflicting of pain and suffering. The WHO says:
“It reflects deep-rooted inequality between the sexes, and constitutes an extreme form of discrimination against women and girls”.
FGM violates a litany of human rights, including the right to security and physical integrity, the right to be free from torture and cruel, inhumane or degrading treatment, and potentially also the right to life.
As my noble friend has stressed, and as was emphasised by the noble Baroness, Lady Kennedy of The Shaws, FGM is not specified in the Koran and it is happening in non-Muslim communities too. However, religious leaders should be vociferous in speaking out against it and developing the kind of educational approach that my noble friend and others have said is enormously important in combating this cruelty.
Universal human rights are more important than treading carefully around the sensibilities of any community, especially in a country like our own that condemns FGM.
Even more so in countries that do not condemn it, it is striking, and perhaps even encouraging and hopeful, that in countries like Sudan the educated and more wealthy citizens do not subject their daughters to FGM.
They need to become more active in seeking to outlaw this practice altogether.
In this context, I recall the success of that remarkable Englishwoman, Gladys Aylward, who became one of the Chinese foot inspectors enforcing laws that finally ended the cruel practice of the foot-binding of young Chinese girls. The law was changed, but so were hearts, minds and attitudes.
It is greatly to be welcomed that the United Nations has vigorously condemned FGM as a violation of human rights. In Resolution A/RES/67/146 of 20 December 2012, the General Assembly urged all members to,
“prohibit female genital mutilations and to protect women and girls from this form of violence, and to end impunity”.
It went on—my noble friend and others should be heartened by this, because it emphasises the importance of education—to urge,
“States to complement punitive measures with awareness-raising and educational activities designed to promote a process of consensus towards the elimination of female genital mutilations”.
The subsequent UN General Assembly Resolution A/69/150 of 18 December 2014 reaffirmed the call to ban FGM worldwide. Significantly, that resolution was co-sponsored by the group of African states along with 71 member states. In 2015, FGM was also identified as one of the millennium sustainable development goals.
Let us look at the scale of the challenge.
According to the United Nations and despite international efforts to end the practice of FGM, it is estimated that at least 200 million girls and women alive today have undergone some form of FGM. That is a staggering figure. The countries with the highest prevalence of FGM among girls aged 14 and younger are Gambia with 56%, Mauritania with 54% and Indonesia where around half of girls aged 11 and younger have undergone the practice. The countries with the highest prevalence among girls and women aged 15 to 49 are Somalia with 98%, Guinea with 97% and Djibouti with 93%.
But as I have made clear, the issue of FGM is not only one for African countries or other parts of the world.
The occurrence of FGM in the UK is significantly lower than the countries I have cited, but as my noble friend Lady Boycott has just pointed out, it is also practised in the UK and there are women and girls in our midst who have been subjected to it. The National Health Service has reported:
“There were 5,391 newly recorded cases of Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) reported in England during 2016-17, according to the second publication of annual statistics from this data set. The FGM statistics, published … by NHS Digital, also showed that there were 9,179 total attendances in the same period where FGM was identified or a medical procedure for FGM was undertaken”.
For six in 10 attendances, medical treatment post FGM was required. According to the NHS,
“Women and girls born in Somalia account for … 35 per cent or 875 cases … of newly recorded cases of FGM with a known country of birth (2,504). Of the newly recorded cases, 112 involved women and girls who were born in the United Kingdom. In 57 cases, the FGM was known to have been undertaken in the UK”.
Providing assistance for post-FGM consequences is obviously crucial, but we must do more and act to prevent the practice of FGM in the first place, which is why my noble friend introduced the Bill.
Despite the clear legal provisions criminalising the use of the FGM, as set out in this House by my noble and learned friend Lord Brown of Eaton-under Heywood, prosecution does not necessarily follow.
That was confirmed by Her Majesty’s Government in a response to a Written Question tabled by Laura Smith, MP for Crewe and Nantwich, who asked about the number of prosecutions for FGM in the last 30 years. The government Minister replied:
“There has been one prosecution which was under the Female Genital Mutilation Act 2003”.
As my noble and learned friend pointed out, even that prosecution was unsuccessful, which is truly shocking.
My noble friend Lord Berkeley’s Bill is an opportunity to shine a light once again on the barbarism of FGM and the wholly inadequate policing of this crime, but it also introduces a new safeguard by equipping the courts with an extra power to protect children from the risks of FGM. This is about striking the right balance in the law. It is significant that the Council of Europe recently passed a resolution on,
“Striking a balance between the best interest of the child and the need to keep families together”.
The Bill seeks to achieve that idea of striking the right balance.
To conclude, notwithstanding the wider question of parental responsibility, we need to recognise that the case of FGM differs significantly from any other cases that the UK courts normally deal with—namely, we are discussing a procedure that inflicts pain and suffering on girls and women, is both unnecessary and harmful and may have lifelong consequences for the affected girls or women to deal with for the rest of their lives. For those reasons, I support my noble friend’s Bill and hope that it will achieve a Second Reading in your Lordships’ House today.