I congratulate my noble friend Lord Berkeley of Knighton on bringing to the House this extremely important Bill. I am delighted to be able to add my voice in support. As has been said, FGM is a truly horrific crime which is carried out in our country every day of the week and I, like others, am horrified that so many young girls are still being affected. The lack of successful prosecutions shows the complexity of this issue, and I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Kennedy, for illuminating just how problematic it is.
I was horrified to learn that this week, which is the start of the school summer holidays, is known as the “cutting season” because it is when the practice is traditionally carried out, certainly in the UK. I also learned that, as it is now expensive for people to travel to their country of origin with their daughters, they pool their resources to bring a cutter over from abroad so that girls can be mutilated in groups. Poorer families form a sort of co-operative to raise the funds that will pay for someone to come from overseas. If you are wealthy enough, you can use a doctor or a nurse at a private clinic. London, the city we live in, has been accused of being the FGM capital of Europe because so many people come here, using the Eurostar to bring their daughters over here to be mutilated.
Both here in the UK and elsewhere, Plan International—a charity that I have worked for that seeks the betterment of women and girls across the world—points out that there are certain warning signs we can look for: hearing girls talk about a planned summer trip to a country known to practise FGM; girls talking about visiting relatives for a ceremony or for an event; and holidays that include additional time either at the beginning or the end. I recently read about a scheme that one school has initiated to try to identify young girls in fear of being taken abroad for forced marriage. They suggested that any young woman who was scared in this way should come to school with a spoon hidden in her underwear. This would set off the metal detectors in the school, and in this way she could alert teachers to her plight without actually having to say anything. Is there any possibility of an idea like this being copied?
Finally, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, a great writer and campaigner who is now an ex-Muslim, was herself the victim of FGM at the age of five. She says that even today, many years on, she would never be able to prosecute her family for what they did, even though she knows intellectually that FGM is a crime. I shall quote her words:
“It is a psychological issue. The people who are doing this are fathers, mothers, grandmothers, aunts. No little girl is going to send them to prison. How do you live with that guilt?”.
I congratulate her, Nimco Ali and other fine and brave young women, who had this vile practice carried out on them in their younger years, on having the guts and the courage to come forward and talk about it. As others have said, ultimately it is only through education that we will change this practice.
However, in the meantime it is clear that the courts must have the right to defend a child who they think is in this kind of danger. These are vulnerable little girls who are being persecuted and mutilated by the very people they have placed all their trust in—in other words, their families. They are totally vulnerable. I hugely congratulate my noble friend on introducing this important Bill, and I thoroughly support it.