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

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 8:59 pm on 11th March 2019.

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Photo of Helen Whately Helen Whately Vice-Chair, Conservative Party 8:59 pm, 11th March 2019

I congratulate my hon. Friend Zac Goldsmith on his work on this issue, particularly the progress of his Bill, and I pay tribute to Lord Berkeley, in the other place, who originally brought this measure forward, and to the vocal and courageous campaigners, such as Nimco Ali, who several Members have mentioned. It is the work of brave women such as her that is making a difference and turning the tide against FGM.

I am going to read out the story of a 14-year-old girl who now lives in the UK and who I will call Aminah, although I warn hon. Members that it might not make for very comfortable listening. She says:

“I was six years old when it happened to me. I knew what was going to happen, I knew they were going to cut me because a lot of my friends had had it done. My friends had told me that it was really painful, that it was horrible, so I was terrified. I was at school, when they told me it was ‘my time’. My uncle and aunt came to take me from the school. It was my sister’s time too - she was eight years old. The woman who cut us was my grandmother’s sister - and she was going to cut us in a tent near a huge tree. They used ropes to tie our legs apart and there were lots and lots of girls there. I could hear screaming, lots of horrible screaming and there was so much blood. Girls were crying. Then they said it was my turn. I ran away - I ran as fast as I could but they sent boys after me and they caught me. They took my legs and my arms and carried me back. One of them was my older brother - he helped carry me back to the cutter. They tied me down, I was fighting as hard as I could, but they were stronger. I was screaming. The old woman, my great aunt, used a razor blade - it was clean and new, but there was no anaesthetic when she cut me.”

Members can find out more about her story on the website of the sexual health charity, Brook. I read it because although we talk about FGM—we normally just use the acronym—it is the stories that really bring home how disgusting and completely abhorrent the practice is.

One of the most harrowing aspects of Aminah’s story is that it was done to her by people she trusted: her uncle, aunt and great aunt. FGM is carried out on girls by people who love them. It is done out of fear that uncut girls will not find husbands and will be ostracised or considered unclean by their communities. Some communities believe it can be used to control female sexuality and increase male pleasure, and it is done supposedly for these girls’ own good, but it can kill. For the majority who survive, the short and long-term health consequences are appalling: there is the immediate pain of being cut without anaesthetic, followed by a long, painful healing process; the risk of haemorrhage; the risk of infection from contaminated instruments; and, in the long-term, very serious health consequences from repeated urinary tract infections, difficulty menstruating and problems with childbirth, not to mention the trauma and psychological damage.

At least 200 million girls and women worldwide have undergone FGM. No religion endorses FGM, but myths and deeply ingrained traditions perpetuate it. In every society where it is practised, it is a sign of deeply entrenched gender inequality, and FGM is happening here in Britain too. According to the NHS, between April 2017 and March 2018, 6,195 women and girls were treated by the NHS for FGM, and in 85 of them, the FGM was known to have taken place in the UK, although the NHS is clear that this data is not complete, so the true figure could be substantially higher. The National FGM Centre estimates that 60,000 girls are at risk of FGM—either of being cut in the UK or being taken abroad to undergo the procedure—and that 137,000 girls and women in the UK are living with the consequences of FGM.

That is despite the fact that FGM has been illegal in Britain since 1985, that the Female Genital Mutilation Act 2003 created an offence of taking a girl abroad to undergo FGM and that the Serious Crime Act 2015 further extended the law by introducing an offence for failing to protect a girl from the risk of FGM and providing for the anonymity of FGM victims. Currently, anyone who commits FGM faces up to 14 years in prison and anyone found guilty of failing to protect a girl from the risk of FGM faces up to seven years in prison. As we know, last week, the mother of a three-year-old girl was sentenced to 11 years in prison. This was the first FGM conviction in the UK. It is awful, in some senses, that that can be considered a success—a success that a conviction was secured—but it has proved very difficult to secure convictions, and the fact that one has been secured sends, I hope, a strong message that FGM is not okay, and there will be consequences under UK law.

The 2015 Act also introduced FGM protection orders, which give courts powers including the power to remove children’s passports to prevent them from being taken abroad. The Bill will close a small gap in the law to make the process of issuing protection orders a little bit easier.

I will wrap up now, Mr Deputy Speaker, because I can see that you would like me to do so. Let me simply say that ending this barbaric practice, and overturning the misogyny that underpins it—as well as the cultural practices that have enabled it to continue—will not be easy, but the Bill brings us a small step closer to doing so, and every step that can save a child like Aminah from suffering as a result of FGM is a step worth taking.