Children Act 1989 (Amendment) (Female Genital Mutilation) Bill [Lords]

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 8:25 pm on 11th March 2019.

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Photo of Sarah Champion Sarah Champion Labour, Rotherham 8:25 pm, 11th March 2019

It is a great honour and privilege to be present in this debate because I really think that this House works best when we come together to protect the most vulnerable. I hugely congratulate Zac Goldsmith, who has done so much to secure the safe passage of the Bill. I add my support to the recommendations made by my hon. Friend Gloria De Piero on how we can better protect all children from female genital mutilation.

As has been mentioned, FGM is not a cultural practice and we should not be seeing it as such; this is child abuse and it must be dealt with harshly, as child abuse. FGM has been illegal in the UK since 1985, but the lack of prosecutions has enabled people to come up with the myth that it is a cultural practice, rather than a crime against a child. I am very pleased that last week the strong sentence of 11 years was given to someone who facilitated FGM. That is the sort of message that needs to go out—that we will act, prosecute and jail people for this crime against children.

FGM is a big issue in this country. NHS Digital statistics from April 2017 to March 2018 show that there were 4,495 newly recorded cases of women and girls where FGM had been identified, that 6,195 individual women and girls had an attendance where FGM was identified or a procedure relating to FGM was undertaken and that there were 9,490 attendances reported to NHS trusts and GP practices where FGM or a procedure relating to FGM was identified. These figures, though, will be a massive underestimate of the actual problem of FGM in this country because of the hidden nature of the practice. Research has shown that there is no local authority in England and Wales where there is not a woman living with FGM. It is estimated that 103,000 women between the ages of 15 and 49, and 10,000 girls between the ages of four and 14, have undergone FGM, and there are a further 60,000 girls at risk of FGM in the UK.

I would like to bust the myth that this is just about UK girls being taken abroad for this practice. It is not—it is happening in this country as well. In recent years, there has been a phenomenon of cutting parties where people have figured out that it is cheaper to bring the cutter into this country and invite girls round—well, invite their parents round—for them to be cut. This is a UK problem.

That is not to say that girls are not taken abroad. Yes, this happens to young girls, but the most horrific case that I heard of was of a woman from London, born and brought up here. When she was 15, her parents asked if she would like to go back to the country that they grew up in to see what it was like. Of course, she welcomed this opportunity, and, at 15, went back. Literally as she came off the plane, she was introduced to the lady who was going to take her back to the village. At 15, this Londoner was taken back to the village, pinned down and cut. How does someone get over something like that? To be honest, she has not got over it.

Since 2015, health professionals, teachers and social workers have had a mandatory duty to report known cases of FGM to the police, but that is when it happened to people under the age of 18. I would like there to be consideration of support for women over the age of 18 once the crime has been committed. I had a meeting with a dozen women. Between them, they had about 20 children, so they had been to at least 20 GPs, 20 midwives, 20 nurses, 20 consultants—20 health professionals. Almost all the women had been advised to have caesareans because they had been stitched so closely that the damage it would have caused to even try to give birth naturally meant that it was not going to happen. The health professionals recognised that, because of their FGM, they could not give birth naturally. Not one of those women had that raised with them, ever, by any of those health professionals. No one offered them support or the chance for a prosecution—and that is just a group of 12 women that I met.

We talk about what is happening in France. I have only recently discovered that in the French health system, someone who has been subjected to this crime gets reconstructive surgery as an adult. A friend of mine, Marie-Claire, said that after having her reconstructive surgery, she felt like a proper woman—a sexual woman. She felt able to have sexual relations with her partner for the first time. That literal rebuilding of someone’s self-esteem as well as their body is something we need to be doing in this country. If someone was in a car crash and needed facial rebuilding, we would see that as something that the NHS would do, so why do women not automatically get that right for this crime?

This is also about justice. We need these women to know that they can get justice. As I said, it is great that the prosecution has happened, but there are many historical cases where justice has not even been mentioned to these women because what they have been through has not been recognised.

Having undergone FGM is a real barrier for women in coming forward for things like cervical screening. Many women do not want to go to a GP to report gynaecological issues because they are concerned that it will be raised and there may be prosecutions against family members. We need to get the reality of what is going on out there so that people can access the proper health support they need. If a woman is repeatedly missing her smear, rather than just writing her off and seeing her as someone who is not engaging, we need to be asking questions: “Are there reasons why you don’t want to come for your smear, and is there a way we can help and support you to overcome that?”