Children Act 1989 (Amendment) (Female Genital Mutilation) Bill [HL] - Second Reading

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 11:48 am on 20th July 2018.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Baroness Kennedy of The Shaws Baroness Kennedy of The Shaws Chair, EU Justice Sub-Committee 11:48 am, 20th July 2018

My Lords, I too congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Berkeley of Knighton, on introducing this Bill. It will make not a huge difference, but it will make some difference. As has been said by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Brown, it adds to the armoury of those who hear these cases, and that can only be to the good. In reality, in many of the cases in which FGM protection orders are sought, local authorities are involved. Disclosure usually takes place by a girl telling a friend, who tells a teacher, who in turn contacts the local authority. Usually in that way, matters come to the attention of the courts and therefore orders are sought, but not always. Therefore, if the police become involved, that is a clear mechanism for engaging the social workers in the local authority in this business because often it is not just one child in the family but several. Therefore, keeping an eye on the family could be a very useful part of the armoury, as has been said.

I have been involved in this issue for many years going back to when the law was changed back in the 1980s. Baroness Rendell was not in the House in the 1980s and neither was I, but it came about as a result of intelligence coming forward that there were practitioners in Harley Street and even in poorer communities who were prepared to be involved in this. The law was directed towards medical practitioners. We can fairly say that that does not happen now. Doctors know the consequences and are not involved, and neither are midwives or women involved in medical practice in any form. What is happening now is that these practices are carried out by elders in the community, usually older women, and we have to recognise that the women in the communities, acculturated to this, are often great supporters of the practice and encourage it in each new generation. So it is important to see the depth of the cultural shift that needs to take place to deal with this terrible issue.

While the Bill would add to the range of possibilities, we need to ask why the criminal law has been so unsuccessful. In recent years, there have been two prosecutions. One was of a young doctor and it became very obvious early on—my legal advice was sought at one stage by colleagues who knew the young doctor—that he was in no way involved in communities where FGM was practised and knew very little about it. He was clearly out of his depth at a moment where a birth had taken place and he had stitched a woman after there had been an episiotomy to allow for a natural birth. She was expecting to be restitched in the way that she had been. She was not returned to how she had been, however; there was an overstitching and then there was a question of whether an offence had been committed. The young doctor went through the traumatic experience of having a prosecution brought. We need to be careful that prosecutions should be brought only in the right circumstances.

More recently, a case in Bristol involved a man who was a taxi driver. Someone sitting in his taxi who had been active on this issue encouraged a disclosure—or so it seemed. The taxi driver was encouraged to talk about FGM and drawn into it by someone who, in a way, came close to being an agent provocateur. He was provoked into discussing FGM and spoke about his own daughters. It led to a prosecution but it was shown that his daughters had not been subjected to FGM. Again, that was an unsuccessful prosecution. We have to be very careful about the use of criminal prosecutions. Young people and family members do not come forward where there is coercion and pressure because of the consequence. The idea that a father or mother might be imprisoned or that an elderly grandmother or someone admired in the community and does this work will end up in prison because of a complaint rests heavily on the shoulders of people in the community.

On Tuesday night this week, I was present at a charity that I am a patron of, Safe Hands. A wonderful woman was there known to everyone as Hibo, her first name. She speaks very publicly about how she herself was subjected to FGM as a child—the pain and trauma of it—and how it has affected her life ever since. She is now a woman in middle age with grown-up children. Her daughter, a young woman in her 20s, was present at the meeting. What was clear from Hibo’s description was the way in which this practice is maintained. The silence around it is maintained through shame. Shame is something that we attach to many things concerning women. We have to break down the shame. The good thing that is happening is that the openness of discussion has led to more young Somalian and Ethiopian women who live in this country speaking out about their experiences and saying that they will not undergo the practice. They then become the advocates for change. It is far better in the end that the community itself reckons with and becomes well informed about the consequences of this practice.

The noble and learned Lord, Lord Brown, spoke about the judgment of the noble and learned Baroness, Lady Hale, in the Fornah case—a case that I have written about extensively and was very involved in at the time, when there was campaigning around the issue of whether this was a form of persecution. The Court of Appeal failed badly, but it is interesting. It is an argument for having women in our senior courts because a woman judge on the Court of Appeal dissented and said that it was persecution. A strong argument was made, which was shared by the men in the Supreme Court, that it was persecution. Even if women support the practice, it is because they have been acculturated into thinking that it is acceptable.

As the noble Lord, Lord Berkeley, said, it is not just about keeping women chaste and protecting virginity, but about taking away a woman’s sexuality and the possible enjoyment of sex. It is to do with the idea that you will stop a woman being promiscuous. I have travelled to Ethiopia on human rights projects when we discuss with senior people the ways change can be made, and we hear it said that the practice makes the girl gentler—a better wife and more passive. Those descriptions are made.

I want to make this clear and it is important that the noble Baroness, Lady Flather, hears me say this: this is not confined to the Muslim community. It is a cultural practice that has nothing to do with religion although many people in a religion are told that it has. In Ethiopia, I met young Christian girls who were experiencing FGM, too. It is not confined to any one religious group, but is a cultural practice about notions of how womanhood ought to be. It is important to have a public discussion about that and to challenge it.

The charity Safe Hands does wonderful work in Ethiopia, Somalia and other countries in Africa. Some 20 years ago, Ruth Rendell came into this House. She had written a crime novel about FGM. She told me about it and I told her that I knew a bit about the subject. I took her to the Africa clinic at the North Middlesex University Hospital where women go who are giving birth and where they have to have an episiotomy—to be cut open—to deliver their babies. The doctors explained that they would not be returned to the way that they were. But the doctors all told us that when those young women returned to have their second babies, their vaginas had been stitched up again. So the practice was happening in the communities. They were not having to return to Somalia or the places from whence they came. It was happening at the hands of older women. The men have also been told that it is the right thing to do. So it is wonderful to have men taking part in this debate and for it to be led by a man. It is important that this is not a women’s issue but an issue for all of us. It is an issue of health, humanity and law.

Criminal law is not the only way forward. Although we want to see prosecutions, we must not urge the Crown Prosecution Service to bring prosecutions and for them to be unsuccessful because they are not the right prosecutions. We want to have confidence that the communities will talk about this, and then people will point to who is at the heart of performing these operations. I greatly commend what the noble Lord, Lord Berkeley, seeks to do and I know that it will make a difference. I thank him for doing this.