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I am very pleased to open this stage 1 debate on the Female Genital Mutilation (Protection and Guidance) (Scotland) Bill, which is an important bill that will make a real difference to women and girls who are at risk of, or who have experienced, the abhorrent practice of FGM.
As members know, the Equalities and Human Rights Committee published its stage 1 report on the bill earlier this month. That report gave unanimous support for the principles of the bill. I thank the convener and members of the committee for their thoughtful and considered report. We responded to it quickly and positively on 11 December, and I am sure that members have now had the opportunity to read that response. Above all, I thank the organisations and experts who took the time to provide their invaluable perspective to the committee. It is incredibly valuable to have that lived experience.
Like other forms of gender-based violence, FGM is a manifestation of power and a means of controlling the sexuality of women and girls. It is a form of violence against women. As the minister responsible for the Scottish Government’s work in the area, I am committed to preventing FGM in Scotland and ensuring that girls and women who are at risk of FGM are protected from harm.
FGM has been illegal since 1985. The bill seeks to add to the existing protections and improve the system response for women and girls who are at risk of harm. It has been established that at least 200 million girls and women across 30 countries have been subject to FGM. Its prevalence in Scotland is difficult to estimate because of the hidden nature of the crime. A Scottish Refugee Council report in 2014 found that there are communities potentially affected by FGM in every local authority area in Scotland, with the largest communities being in Glasgow, Aberdeen, Edinburgh and Dundee.
This issue is not new, but this Government has been taking action. In 2016, we published the national action plan to prevent and eradicate FGM in Scotland. The purpose of the national action plan is to foster an environment of prevention in Scotland, and to improve the welfare and quality of life of FGM survivors. We are taking steps to engage with communities, raise awareness and improve the response of front-line services. Our work includes strengthening the existing legal protections for those who are at risk of FGM.
The Female Genital Mutilation (Protection and Guidance) (Scotland) Bill creates a new specific FGM measure—a protection order—which means that our public services and our courts will be able to focus on the need to protect those persons who are at risk or those who have already suffered from FGM being carried out on them. Building on the experience of other jurisdictions in the United Kingdom, and reflecting on the support for that in our consultation, it is an effective and proven approach to reducing the risk to potential victims.
Under the bill, FGM protection orders will be made by a court and will be unique to each case. The orders will contain conditions to protect girls and women from FGM. Further, and in addition to what the equivalent orders in the rest of the UK can do, law enforcement agencies will be able to use the orders against those who wish to perpetrate this terrible crime, restricting their activities even when no potential victim has been identified.
To support the new protection orders, the bill places a duty on ministers to issue statutory guidance on the protection orders, and gives them the power to issue guidance on FGM more generally.
I turn to the committee’s report, which made a number of points and recommendations. The committee asked us to be mindful of the risk of racialisation and stigma in developing guidance and training. I have been clear in rejecting the assertion that the bill racially profiles communities, although I acknowledge the importance of being careful with language and the reality of stigma. The public bodies that are tasked with responding in this area are working to embed equality and diversity within their workforce, and that will help to reduce risk. We will work to ensure that guidance and training are shaped by communities, and that they reflect the reality of FGM.
Community engagement was a strong focus of the committee, and it is absolutely critical for me. The phrase “nothing about us without us” is my watchword. Following royal assent, we will put in place a comprehensive programme of engagement with communities and stakeholders to shape guidance.
Ensuring that support is available for women and girls who are at risk of, or who have experienced, FGM was also identified as important. We will work closely with the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities to ensure that clear information on the support available is included in the guidance. The third sector also has a critical role here, and we will continue to fund work in that area.
The committee noted the importance of education and links with the wider child protection system. We are absolutely clear that FGM is a form of child abuse, and our national child protection guidance for Scotland is being updated now to reflect that. In schools, the Scottish Government believes that it is for teachers, schools and local authorities to determine how best to deliver learning and teaching on any topic and subject, in line with the curriculum for excellence. However, we support our schools and teachers to deliver relevant and engaging learning. Earlier this year, we supported publication of an online teaching resource for relationships, sexual health and parenthood education. I have seen that excellent piece of work at first hand, and I encourage all members to take a look at it. It is incredibly helpful. It includes content on FGM that can be targeted at the early secondary level. There is also material for the late primary level to create the building blocks so that our young people can better understand what constitutes abuse.
The committee considered additional provisions that are in place in the rest of the UK relating to anonymity for victims, a duty to notify and the creation of a specific offence of failing to protect someone from FGM. I am pleased that the committee agreed with our assessment that a duty to notify and a failure to protect offence should not go into the bill. The committee asked us to look at what more we could do to ensure that those who seek anonymity in court can be granted it, and I have undertaken to respond to that point before stage 2.
Underlying many of the issues that we will discuss today is the need to ensure that people and communities play a central role in shaping the services, policies and statutory guidance. That is key for me as minister. As I have said, I am committed to taking forward a comprehensive programme of engagement and involvement as we implement the legislation. In that way, we can make sure that what we do helps to prevent FGM, disrupt the activities of perpetrators, provide protection to those who are at risk, provide the support required and, through participation, give a voice to people and communities who are affected by the practice. Therefore, the bill, alongside our action plan, provides the right mix of prevention and protection.
“Mama tied a blindfold over my eyes. The next thing I felt my flesh was being cut away. I heard the blade sawing back and forth through my skin. The pain between my legs was so intense I wished I would die.”
If the bill prevents just one person from going through what Waris experienced, it will be well worth it.
I commend the general principles of the bill to Parliament.
That the Parliament agrees to the general principles of the Female Genital Mutilation (Protection and Guidance) (Scotland) Bill.
Over the past few months, the Equalities and Human Rights Committee has heard from women’s organisations, academics, midwives, educators, police and other professionals. We have heard how the UK Government and agencies handle FGM, and about the interaction between protection orders and asylum and immigration.
However, the most powerful evidence in our scrutiny of the Female Genital Mutilation (Protection and Guidance) (Scotland) Bill came from our engagement with organisations and through meeting survivors and front-line workers. They told us about the difference that protection orders might make, and how Scotland can better deal with and prevent FGM. I would like to share some of their experience with members.
As part of our engagement, we worked with the outreach and engagement teams in the Parliament on a digital storytelling project. Through a series of workshops, women who have been affected by FGM created short films of their experiences, which meant that they could tell their story their way, in a supported and safe environment. Those digital stories make powerful and difficult viewing, and I urge members who want to get a greater understanding of FGM and the impact that it has on women to view them.
When we are talking about FGM, I do not particularly like the word “story”, because it suggests fiction—it suggests a neat narrative and a happy ending—and, for many of the women we met and heard from, neither of those is true. The situations in which FGM is a threat can be complicated and complex. If FGM seems far removed from members in the chamber, the digital stories show us that it is a very real thing for some women in Scotland.
In our evidence, we heard concerns about racialisation. We recognise those concerns, and we asked the Scottish Government to be mindful of the issue as it develops the statutory guidance around FGM. We know from our evidence that there is no one culture or community that practises FGM. It is found around the world, and it is always a fundamental violation of human rights.
FGM contravenes articles in the European convention on human rights relating to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment, and it contravenes other human rights treaties, including the convention against torture, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, and the Convention on the Rights of the Child. We are all entitled to the same human rights, but we recognise that, when we try to realise them, we come from different starting points. For the women and girls who face the threat of FGM or who have to deal with its consequences, that starting point can seem a long way back.
Through our work on human rights, we have learned that the key to realising human rights is to take a person-centred approach. To put that simply, as lawmakers, we must understand that we all have different backgrounds and needs. For our laws to be good laws, we must put the individual at the centre and involve them in the process. The women who shared their digital stories want to be involved. They have lived experience and expertise, and they must be at the centre of work on the bill as we move forward.
What did women tell us that they needed? At the Women’s Support Project in Glasgow, Mary Fee and I heard from women about the struggles that they faced finding suitable healthcare. One of the women said that she felt as though she stood out in her hijab and was embarrassed to be in a sexual health clinic. Women wanted to speak to someone who understood their experiences in a supportive environment. They wanted help and support to be available, and not just through maternity services. We welcome the Scottish Government’s commitment to look at that further.
At the Multi-Cultural Family Base in Leith, Oliver Mundell and I heard about a woman who had come to Scotland with her children and husband on a temporary visa. During their time in Scotland, they had a daughter. The family were due to return to their home country, where the girl would face FGM. The mother did not want that to happen. Her options were to return to her home country, where her daughter would be cut, or to seek asylum in Scotland. The more we understand what her choice means, the more we can see that it is not much of a choice. As an asylum seeker, she would be in Scotland with her children but without her husband, and she feared that she would be disowned by her family. She would be relocated from Edinburgh to Glasgow, far from the community and connections that she had made, and she would face poverty and uncertainty in the name of protecting her child. We were asked how a protection order would help this woman. Would it assist her asylum case? Would it give her time and space to assess her options? Would it provide housing for her and her children? Answers to those questions will be key to the success of the bill.
As a committee, we agree with the general principles of the bill. We welcome anything that can provide additional protection to those facing the harm of FGM, and we heard from our witnesses that the bill’s protection orders would do that. However, we heard from women and communities about their need for support. Legislation in isolation will not stop FGM in Scotland. For the bill to work, we must look at the support that women need, and we should put them at the heart of developing that support. That is how we will ensure that the bill will make a meaningful change for women and girls.
I finish with a plea from one of the digital stories created by all the women together as they reflected on their thoughts and hopes for the bill. They told us:
“Do not doubt stories about FGM. They are real. We want our thoughts and our voices to be heard in our own words. We want change and we hope our experience can help bring this change about.”
On behalf of the committee, I offer my sincere thanks to all those who gave evidence, shared their experiences and helped us to form our conclusions. We believe that the bill is an opportunity to create a new chapter in the story, and we urge the Scottish Government to ensure that the legislation is truly person centred. As the minister told us, there must be “nothing about us without us”—make these women the leading roles and not the supporting actors.
The Equalities and Human Rights Committee supports the general principles of the Female Genital Mutilation (Protection and Guidance) (Scotland) Bill.
We welcome the publication of the
Female Genital Mutilation (Protection and Guidance) (Scotland) Bill, and the debate.
FGM is a form of violence against women and girls, and it is a violation of their human rights. FGM includes all procedures involving partial or total removal of the external female genitalia, or other injury to the female genital organs, for non-medical reasons. It is mostly carried out soon after birth or when the person is a young girl; occasionally, it is carried out on adult women. Because FGM is carried out at different ages, it can be difficult to identify when a girl is at imminent risk of FGM.
There are no health benefits of FGM: it is likely to cause short-term and long-term physical and psychological harm. The procedure can cause serious injuries, including severe bleeding, problems in urinating, cysts, infections and, potentially, complications in childbirth. As we have heard, more than 200 million girls and women who are alive today have suffered FGM. I am thankful that the practice is far from being a norm in Scotland and the UK, but we should still send a clear message about how wrong it is, and we should do whatever we can to prevent it.
Scotland has developed specific legislation and policy on FGM; we have a broad range of tools to support and protect women and girls who have been subjected to FGM. The practice has been a criminal offence in the UK for 34 years, since the Prohibition of Female Circumcision Act 1985. In the rest of the UK, excluding Scotland, the Female Genital Mutilation Act 2003 repealed and replaced the 1985 act. The Prohibition of Female Genital Mutilation (Scotland) Act 2005 carried out the same functions in Scotland. The 2005 act made it an offence to have FGM carried out abroad, and it increased the maximum penalty to 14 years imprisonment. It also changed the terminology from “female circumcision” to “FGM”.
To date, no criminal prosecutions have been brought in Scotland under either the 1985 act or the 2005 act. There could be many reasons for that. There is no doubt that, for some people, it is difficult to challenge family members. In some cases, there might not be enough evidence to prosecute and, sometimes, professionals might be reluctant to speak out on what they mistakenly believe is a cultural or religious practice.
We welcome the publication of the bill and today’s debate. We are firmly behind the principal aim of the bill, which is to strengthen legal protections for women and girls who could be at risk. The bill makes provision for FGM protection orders—a form of civil order that will be able to impose conditions or requirements on a person. The protection orders’ aim is to protect a person from FGM and to safeguard them from harm if FGM has already happened.
Although we firmly back the principles of the bill, we believe that a further look is needed at some areas. As the minister said, we believe that more work needs to be done on victim anonymity. In its evidence, Police Scotland highlighted that there might be a need for automatic anonymity for anyone who comes forward. It said that there can be a difficulty in dealing with instances of FGM in that victims have an inherent fear of repercussions. The police say that without the protection of automatic anonymity, there might be a barrier to people reporting the crime. I am pleased to have heard the minister committing to coming back to us on that before stage 2.
The police also suggested that that problem could be mitigated by the inclusion of FGM in the Vulnerable Witnesses (Criminal Evidence) (Scotland) Act 2019. That would mean that all victims of FGM would have access to non-standard special measures—for example, use of a prior statement or providing evidence on commission.
We also believe that more work needs to be done—for example, through the legal aid process—to remove barriers for those who seek help with FGM protection orders. As the Law Society of Scotland said in evidence, the bill has “significant implications”. For example, there are issues to consider in relation to raising awareness within communities in Scotland that FGM is an unacceptable practice. The Law Society fears
“that those at risk may well not have their first language as English so they may experience problems in communicating and understanding.”
I will be happy to write to the Secretary of State for Scotland to ask what the process will be, going forward. We received communication at the committee, but I will write as well for clarification of how we can make sure that we are looking after these vulnerable women.
Finally, Conservative members believe that there needs to be a further look at working with front-line health workers to understand how data on FGM can be recorded better. The General Medical Council supports the bill and recognises the role that doctors and other healthcare professionals can play, but has stated that statutory guidance should provide details of additional responsibilities on healthcare workers.
In summary, I say that although we feel that further work is needed in some areas, the Scottish Conservatives support the broad principles of the bill. Clearly, FGM is an abhorrent practice that must be rooted out. We will support proposals that support victims of the crime, and we hope the bill can prevent FGM from happening in the first place.
I am pleased to be opening for the Labour Party, especially as I have a history in Parliament of involvement in legislating on FGM. I thank the cabinet secretary for introducing this welcome addition to existing law to prevent and eradicate FGM. I thank the committee for its work, on which my committee colleague, Mary Fee, will expand when she speaks.
As FGM survivor Neneh Bojang, from Edinburgh, said of the bill:
“I was just nine years old when I was subjected to FGM. It was excruciating and has caused me pain throughout my life. If this Bill prevents even just one woman from going through the same, then in my eyes, it will be a success”.
I served on the Equal Opportunities Committee when the Labour-led Administration introduced the Prohibition of Female Genital Mutilation (Scotland) Bill. At that time, we heard harrowing testimony from women who had been subjected to this horrendous act of violence, and who carried the scars and health problems for the rest of their lives. I was the committee’s gender reporter, and I met Somali women out in the community. They were keen to share their experiences, their medical problems, their trauma and their suggestions—but not to do so publicly. That is something that we must really reflect on. In order to hear from them on the record at that time, the committee met in public, but the witnesses were protected by being given anonymity. That was quite a groundbreaking way to gather the invaluable evidence, experiences and opinions that were used to shape our legislation in Parliament.
There are really no words to describe how barbaric the procedure is. It is usually performed on small girls, without anaesthesia and with little or no hygiene, and it is often fatal.
During our evidence gathering, members of the Somali women’s action group in Glasgow could not believe that what we deemed to be a criminal offence against a UK national or permanent resident was not an offence against asylum-seeker women and children. My amendments to the Female Genital Mutilation (Scotland) Bill shaped the eventual legislation such that it became a criminal offence in Scotland for FGM to be carried out on all women and girls.
I turn to the situation in 2019. The World Health Organization estimates that more than 200 million girls and women who are alive today have undergone the practice, and that every year 3 million girls are at risk of undergoing FGM. Unfortunately, we do not have available data for Scotland on the incidence of FGM. However, the Scottish Refugee Council has estimated that about 24,000 men, women and children who are living in Scotland were born in a country where FGM is practiced to some extent.
Progress has been made in global efforts to eliminate FGM: a girl is one third less likely to be cut than she was 30 years ago, although that means that there are still far too many being cut. Before we become complacent, I note that UNICEF warns that population growth means that, by 2030, more than one in three girls worldwide will be born in the 30 countries where FGM is most prevalent. That will mean 68 million more girls will be at risk, which is quite alarming.
Another worrying change has been the medicalisation of FGM, which means that medical professionals normalise the practice by claiming that safer methods make it acceptable. They might argue that that is damage limitation, but it is still damage. It goes against the ethics of the medical profession, and I think that there is no justification for it.
It is also important to note that there is no religious requirement for FGM in any country or culture. However, it is a sensitive issue, and we must not stigmatise the communities in which we believe women and girls are at high risk of FGM.
The University of Bristol has worked with the Somali community this year, and the report that has been produced is instructive. Existing safeguarding services in England were found to be stigmatising and traumatising. The families who participated were already committed to eradicating FGM, but found that statutory approaches could be offensive and traumatic, especially considering that some of the mothers were also victims of FGM. School referrals had led to unannounced home visits by social services staff and uniformed police officers. We must not repeat those mistakes here.
Those issues must be considered, but others must be, too. For example, midwives—who, like most of the medical profession, are key in the fight to eradicate FGM and deal with the issues that it raises—are struggling because of funding cuts. The Royal College of Nursing has noted that it is of significant concern that 26.5 per cent of posts in midwifery and nursing are vacant posts. If we are to give extra responsibilities to teachers, medical practitioners, social workers and police officers, we cannot ignore vacant places, shrinking numbers and cuts to services in those professions.
A new strategy is definitely needed. In February 2019, we saw the first person in England to be found guilty of FGM. There have been no prosecutions in Scotland, but we know that that does not mean that FGM is not being practised here.
I welcome a strategy of prevention and detection that must always avoid stigmatising and persecuting vulnerable members of the community. I look forward to following the progress of the bill. On behalf of Scottish Labour, I say that we support the Government bill.
In an opening speech in a debate like this, it is the norm to thank the committee for its work. That is particularly important in my situation; when a political party does not have a member on the lead committee, it is an extra challenge to get to grips with the work that has been done. Usually, the challenges are around the complexity of the legislation. This bill is not complex legislation, but it raises highly complex issues. We all recognise that it is difficult to learn about the lived experience of the survivors of FGM, so I thank the committee for the work that it has done in producing the report.
Our purposes should be twofold. That is recognised in the legislation as well as in the wider work that the Government has undertaken on the issue. The bill is partly to protect women and girls from the risk that FGM will be perpetrated against them, but it is also to provide safeguarding and support for people who have already come through that experience—the survivors of FGM. In both those purposes, looking at people who are at risk and at people who are in need of support, complex issues arise in terms of identifying the individuals involved.
The issue of racialisation, which the minister touched on in her opening speech, is one of the first areas of complexity. It gives rise to an overwhelming need to emphasise support and training for people who are working in settings where they may have concerns. Many people may have concerns but feel uncertain about how exactly to express them without risking stigmatising people in terms of racial or religious groups. The committee’s evidence reflects the balance of views on that difficult point—the need to be conscious of the risk of racialisation in the approach to the issue and the need for that not to become a barrier to taking the necessary action. I am pleased that the committee has taken the time to consider that and has asked the Scottish Government to develop guidance and training. The need for guidance and training is a theme that comes through many aspects of the report.
Elaine Smith talked about asylum seekers and refugees and the report recognises the particular challenges in relation to those groups—the lack of protection available through the asylum system, the failure in the system to recognise that women may have been unable to relocate from one part of their country of origin to another in order to escape the risk of FGM, and the culture of disbelief. That is clear throughout the asylum system, where applicants for asylum are overwhelmingly treated with an assumption of guilt until innocence is proved, which is the opposite of the way in which it ought to work. When we are talking about an issue that is complex, sensitive and difficult to express, such as the risk of FGM or the experience of having gone through it or having family members who have gone through it, the culture of disbelief in the asylum system must be an insurmountable hurdle for a great many people even to begin to talk about the issues or to know whom they can trust in the system.
Undoubtedly. The language barrier is one of the biggest reasons why natural justice has so frequently failed in the asylum system, particularly given the issues that need to be talked about in relation to FGM. It is a whole other level of language barrier that many people would not have considered if they were not already closely familiar with the subject.
I was interested to note that a small section of the report mentions that the WHO definition of FGM includes genital piercings. That is a different professional setting, and the people who work in it may not consider that they need to understand or know about FGM as a wider issue, and the definitions in it will be very different. I am sure that we would not want to approach that issue by trying to forbid or ban body modification practices that are undertaken as a choice by empowered adult individuals. However, the ambiguity about the definition gives rise to another level of complexity that may be difficult to pin down in law—the distinction between people who take an empowered and informed decision as adults and people who are under cultural or coercive pressure or an expectation to undergo procedures that are not genuinely of their choice.
Finally, Presiding Officer, all those issues raise again the importance of support and training. I was interested that the committee was open to the idea of renaming the orders “protection and support orders”. I believe that the Government has considered whether it will be willing to look at that as the bill goes forward. The training and support services that we put around the legislation are at least as important as the bill itself. That said, the bill is greatly valued and I hope that it will pass stage 1 unanimously tonight.
I start by echoing the thanks that have already been offered to my fellow members of the Equalities and Human Rights Committee, to the clerks and, most important, to the witnesses, who gave us an education in a very important area. I thank the Scottish Government very much for bringing forward the bill.
On behalf of my parliamentary colleagues, I speak in full-throated support of the bill, which will become an essential piece of legislation. As deputy convener of the Equalities and Human Rights Committee, I know that it was a very important and sensitive topic. There were issues that challenged us and issues that surprised us.
I recognise that the tone of the debate has been one of consensus, and I hope that that will be the case for the entirety of the bill’s passage through Parliament, because it should indeed command our consensus at every stage. It is clearly a subject that unites us all.
It is not a bill that will affect many people, and that is to be welcomed—it is a welcome reality. Nevertheless, the fact that we need to have such a debate and such legislation at the end of the second decade of the 21st century is an indictment of how far we still have to go in our global efforts towards modernity and the empowerment of women. Female genital mutilation is a clear manifestation of a patriarchal attempt to control and possess women. It is about men’s power over women. The victims of FGM are likely to experience short and long-term physical and psychological harm. Every year, almost 3 million girls and young women are subject to acts of brutality and mutilation in the name of culture and tradition.
I pay tribute to my colleague and former leader, Jo Swinson, who strove throughout her parliamentary career towards the empowerment of women. During the week of the United Nations international day of zero tolerance for FGM this year, Jo revealed new statistics that showed that health boards in some of Scotland’s biggest cities, such as Glasgow and Edinburgh, continue to treat women who have experienced FGM.
FGM is not only a cruel and traumatic practice that should be eradicated; it is an indication of a deep-rooted gender inequality that still prevails. I welcome the bill’s aim of strengthening effectively the legal protection for women and girls who are at risk of FGM, which is a practice that is already illegal. Early interventions are key. However, they are not always possible, so I fully support the introduction of the new protection orders, which, in the words of Leethen Bartholomew, from the National FGM Centre, give a woman
“the agency and the power not only to take a stance and protect herself but also to protect her child”. [
Official Report, Equalities and Human Rights Committee
, 7 November 2019; c 7.]
Protection orders will enable a preventative approach to be taken to avoid harm to a child, or to avoid the child’s removal from the UK.
During stage 1 consideration, a parallel was drawn between the creation of risk of sexual harm orders in the Protection of Children and Prevention of Sexual Offences (Scotland) Act 2005, and the potential creation of FGM protection orders. That parallel relates to the application of the proposed law, and how often the orders might be used. Although the 2005 act came into force more than 10 years ago, the number of RSHOs that have been handed down or applied for through the courts can be counted on the fingers of one hand. That is a salutary lesson for the bill. For the legislation to be effective and preventative, we need to work together to develop effective guidance on and awareness around FGM protection orders, to ensure that the additional measures are in place for the police, the judiciary and all other stakeholders.
I also worry that, unlike the United Kingdom Parliament’s Serious Crime Act 2015, the bill does not include provisions for lifelong anonymity for victims of FGM. I am not persuaded that it is entirely justifiable to exclude such a provision from our bill, and I will perhaps work with others to test that at stage 2, because I do not believe that our justice system is materially different from the justice system in the rest of the UK.
Both Police Scotland and the Equality and Human Rights Commission advocate anonymity in legislation, and they reference the difficulty in evidencing incidents of FGM due to fear of repercussions. Police Scotland stated that anonymity would encourage women and girls to come forward and protect individuals, and that, without the protection of automatic anonymity, there will remain a barrier to such reporting.
I hear what Alex Cole-Hamilton is saying about anonymity, and we share some opinions on that. However, anonymity for all victims of all sexual crimes might persuade more women to come forward. Will he reflect on whether the issue is bigger than just this bill and needs to be dealt with elsewhere?
The convener of our committee makes a valid and very reasonable point. I am not wedded to amendment at stage 2. We perhaps need to have a wider discussion about the issue in the context of all sexual crime; I absolutely take Ruth Maguire’s intervention in the spirit in which it was offered.
I am glad that the bill is grounded in a rights-based approach, as all our bills should be, and that its policy is firmly rooted in article 24 of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, which calls for the prohibition of all traditional practices that are detrimental to the health and wellbeing of women. I am firmly of the belief that, when we fully incorporate the UNCRC into Scots law, as the Government is prepared to do, we will finally make rights real in that context. In striving to be a human rights leader, we must act now, as we cannot lead the world on children’s rights from the back of the pack.
Government, Parliament and community leaders in our society all have a central role to play in the matter, but it is also about public participation in challenging arcane and brutal traditions and abandoning certain attitudes towards the education of girls. As we have heard, there are challenges in respect of terminology, but embarrassment—for whatever reason—should not prevent us from discussing the issue. To make progress, we need to talk about these issues, bring them forward, encourage others to do so, and move forward in the atmosphere of consensus that we have displayed today. We support the bill.
I joined the Equalities and Human Rights Committee only in September, and it has been a pleasure to serve on it. Under the quiet, but nonetheless determined, stewardship of the convener, Ruth Maguire, all members come to committee with a deep commitment to a fairer Scotland and a genuine desire to work together. That has been evident in our scrutiny of the Female Genital Mutilation (Protection and Guidance) (Scotland) Bill, which led to the presentation of a unanimous stage 1 report to the Government. I am pleased that the minister’s response to the committee has been equally collaborative.
As we know, FGM is illegal, and the purpose of the bill is to update and strengthen protection for women and girls who are at risk of the practice by creating new protection orders and putting guidance on a statutory footing. FGM is a fundamental violation of human rights. It is a manifestation of deep-rooted gender inequality, it is a breach of international law, it causes short and long-term physical and psychological harm, and there are absolutely no health benefits from it.
The bill was widely supported by stakeholders. However, crucially, it was informed by the lived experience of survivors. Earlier, Elaine Smith powerfully quoted the personal testimony of Neneh Bojang. As the minister said in her opening remarks, if the bill prevents just one woman from going through the trauma of FGM, it will have been worth while. It is crucial that the voices of women and communities are at the very heart of engagement and—in particular—the development of statutory guidance. The experts are those with lived experience, and we need to make an enduring commitment to survivors that participation and engagement are on-going, and not a one-off event. That approach is absolutely essential to minimise the risk of stigmatisation and even racialisation, as expressed by some committee witnesses.
The minister in her evidence to the committee, and the convener in her opening remarks today, rightly stated that FGM has been practised across many countries, and many continents, communities and belief systems, for about 5,000 years, and that it is indeed a global issue.
One of the many complex issues that the committee wrestled with was lifelong automatic anonymity for survivors. There were mixed views about that, and at present in Scotland those matters are decided by the courts on a case-by-case basis. After much thought and deliberation the committee concluded that the views and wishes of individual survivors in individual cases should be paramount and central to court considerations. The minister made a commitment to reflect on that and on other matters and to respond before stage 2.
Based on the evidence that was heard and received by the committee and not on politics, there was an acceptance that the legislation should be different to what exists south of the border. There was cross-party concern about the lack of consistency in the treatment and consideration of FGM within the asylum system leading to a lack of protection for women. Those two points were made by Elaine Smith and Patrick Harvie.
The Equalities and Human Rights Committee has collectively worked very hard to test and tease out the added value of this bill given that FGM is currently illegal, there are existing child protection measures in place and there is a national action plan to prevent and eradicate FGM, along with a very honest reflection that legislation alone is rarely a silver bullet—particularly for crimes that are often hidden. However, when the need to protect women and girls of all ages is considered, the case for this legislation is very well made. It will allow better support to be given to those aged 16 and 17 who are not always captured by the children’s hearings system. It will also address the need to build bespoke measures for both protection and support.
I say well done to the minister on what I believe is the first bill that she has lodged in her current role. I thank her team and the committee clerks.
I welcome the introduction of the bill. It is my pleasure to speak in the debate.
Female genital mutilation is a pervasive form of gender-based violence that millions of women and girls in the world face. As we know, it is recognised internationally as a gross infringement of their human rights, and steps must be taken to prevent and eliminate the practice.
In 2011, it was found that around 24,000 individuals who were living in Scotland were born in countries that practise some form of FGM. From 2001 to 2012, 2,750 girls were born in Scotland to women from those communities. Even with that data, it is still not known how many people within those communities are directly affected. FGM is, by its nature, a matter of hidden complexities. That makes it difficult to create a solution that adequately addresses such harms in order to prevent them, and support those who are already impacted.
Current legislation provides a broad range of policy and tools to help support the victims and survivors of FGM. In 2005, the Prohibition of Female Genital Mutilation (Scotland) Act was introduced, which increased the maximum penalty to 14 years of imprisonment and changed the terminology from “mutilation” to “circumcision”. That removed any possible justification for the execution of such an act, and the aim was to ensure that the legal protection in Scotland was equal to that of the rest of the UK.
In addition, the national action plan to tackle FGM was implemented in 2016. It introduced measures to train the staff of statutory agencies about FGM, such as how to talk to survivors and how to identify those at imminent risk of FGM and those on which it had already been performed, and it strengthened information sharing about FGM. Those steps have opened up the conversation about FGM and how to tackle it effectively.
This new bill crucially builds upon that existing legislation as a step further in protecting the rights of women and girls by enabling individuals to obtain a female genital mutilation protection order, or FGMPO. Those who are at risk can be provided with a proactive means to protect themselves or their daughters from FGM.
I am totally supportive of the legislative steps forward that this bill makes, but there are areas that require further examination and discussion as the bill advances. The ability to obtain a specific FGMPO is a helpful approach, but we must consider the process behind acquiring the protective order. Because of the nature of the FGMPO within the legal system, access to legal advice and assistance would be advantageous to ensure an accurate and successful application.
In that regard, there are a number of concerns about barriers that might prevent the people who most need it from acquiring that integral protection. We need to consider how accessible the legal system will be for the women who are most at risk. Given that many such women come from different countries, it is understandable that our legal system might be overwhelming and confusing. Legal aid would provide such women with an invaluable guide to successfully negotiating a system that might be unfamiliar and daunting.
The ability to pay for necessary legal aid is also important. Not all FGMPO applicants will be eligible for legal aid and some women will be simply unable to afford it. No woman or girl should be put at such devastating risk because of a lack of financial resources.
We must take note of those barriers and consider how they can be removed, to ensure that individuals can navigate applications for and acquisition of FGMPOs in a timely manner. Enacting legislation does no good if the law is unable to help those who are most in need.
On that point, I intend to write to the UK Government about all those measures. Will Maurice Corry join me in doing so? Some of the issues that he raised relate to how the asylum system will work alongside protection orders. Will he support calls from this Parliament for the devolution of some of that, so that we can deal with it here? Will he also take on board the issue to do with people who have no recourse to public funds, which affects some women?
I thank the minister and understand what she is saying. We must look at individual cases; not every case is the same. As my colleague Annie Wells just said, we will take up issues that Elaine Smith brought up and we will write to the UK Government. I am sure that, in discussion with Annie, we will look at some of those issues; the minister has made an important point that we will certainly consider.
In addition to eliminating barriers to acquiring a protection order, the question about victims’ anonymity must be fully examined. Anonymity is not currently included in the bill, but the subject should be carefully considered and further explored, in relation to how we can most effectively provide support to FGM victims.
Given the hidden and private nature of FGM, the most effective way to identify victims and obtain evidence is through information from victims themselves. Every step must be taken to ensure that women and girls feel comfortable and confident about their ability to report their experiences and be protected from possible repercussions. Whether that means granting automatic anonymity or providing victims with a clear and assured path of gaining anonymity at their request—an issue that has been talked about—all options must be considered and victims’ concerns and wishes must be central to consideration and the decisions that are taken.
The new measures that the bill will introduce have the potential to bring about necessary change. For the change to be as effective as possible, we must consider and eliminate all potential barriers. The measures, when coupled with robust education and training, will do much to demonstrate Scotland’s on-going commitment to eliminate FGM practices.
I thank the Scottish Government for introducing the bill for consideration in the Parliament. I also thank the witnesses, including women and girls who are affected by FGM, who assisted the
Equalities and Human Rights Committee in its stage 1 inquiry. Without their input, it would be difficult to fully understand the effects of FGM and the harm that it causes. Their evidence was invaluable.
FGM is, rightly, illegal, and consideration must be given to how we can prevent it. That is what the bill aims to achieve. I fully support the aim of strengthening protections for women and girls who are at risk of female genital mutilation.
Female genital mutilation is not limited to a particular race, religion or country. It is believed to have occurred for more than 5,000 years across the world and across religions. During our evidence sessions, committee members were told that the practice has been performed as part of people’s adherence to religious or cultural traditions and as a rite of passage.
Female genital mutilation does not benefit women and girls in any way. It leads to lifelong physical and mental health problems. It is a form of abuse and control.
I understand the position of the Government and some witnesses on racial profiling. There must be clear guidance and training to ensure that no person feels stigmatised or criminalised. I welcome the minister’s comments, in her opening speech, on how that work will be taken forward.
During evidence sessions on medical services, the committee heard that NHS Lothian applies a policy of universal inquiry. Such an approach is not taken in other parts of the country. To prevent people from feeling targeted because of their race or religion, there must be a universal policy for all public services that deals with justice and with women’s sexual, mental and medical health.
In relation to guidance and training on reaching out to women and girls, there must also be wider training and education. That is backed up by the experts who provided evidence to the committee.
On the subject of education, which is crucially important, I back calls for FGM to be consistently taught in schools, to both boys and girls. Schools now include human rights education. As FGM is a human rights violation, that enables schools to better educate their pupils on the issue. The Scottish Government response to the committee’s report says that FGM is covered from S1 and that abuse and being protected from abuse is covered at P5. I wonder whether there is scope for the specific issue of FGM to be covered at an earlier stage, particularly if girls are a target for FGM prior to starting puberty and their teenage years. I accept that there may be concerns around the age and stage of children when discussing the issue of FGM, but I wonder whether the minister could consider that, either in her closing response tonight or at a later stage.
It is very important that men are also taught about the dangers and lifelong consequences of FGM. That is discussed in the stage 1 report, which says:
“The role of boys and men in FGM conversations was also raised by the men at Community InfoSource. Men said they were not aware of FGM happening in their own communities, or their own families, until they attended workshops with Community InfoSource.”
It is evident that such workshops are fundamental in the pursuit of eradicating FGM.
I fully support the introduction of the FGM protection orders. They will play an integral part in supporting women and girls and protecting them from FGM, and hopefully in eradicating the practice in Scotland and for those living in Scotland, including asylum seekers. That is a crucial issue for me.
Anne Spiers, the deputy chief executive officer of the Multi-Cultural Family Base, rightly suggested that the word “support” be added to the orders. Support is an integral aspect of tackling FGM and helping victims. It is right that the Scottish Government speaks with stakeholders while considering the recommendation. I hope that it does. However, with or without the term “support” included, the orders will serve the same purpose.
I wanted to touch on anonymity, but we are short of time. I am grateful for the comments that have been made by the minister about the intention to look at that issue and come back to the Equalities and Human Rights Committee prior to stage 2.
Once again, I thank the women and girls who so openly and honestly spoke to us and shared their experiences with us.
I have a members’ business debate tonight on a completely different type of abuse of women—financial coercive control—but female genital mutilation has always struck me as a particularly brutal and extremely harmful type of abuse.
Some religious sects call the practice “sunnah” and refer to FGM as a religious cleansing. However, the practice is strongly condemned in all religions, and in fact the ritual of FGM predates any particular religion.
As Annie Wells said, performing FGM has zero health benefits and is physically and psychologically damaging to women and young girls. Those who have been victims of FGM can suffer a multitude of consequences: infections, including urinary tract infections, menstruation problems, lack of sexual desire, pain during sex, complications in childbirth and, unfortunately on some occasions, even death.
There is no acceptable justification for FGM, and I commend the Equalities and Human Rights Committee, led by my colleague Ruth Maguire, for spearheading efforts to update Scottish action on this intolerable and senseless abuse towards women and girls.
The World Health Organization estimates that more than 200 million women and girls alive today have undergone FGM in one of its many forms. It also estimates that a further 3 million girls are at risk of undergoing female genital mutilation every year.
Although the rates of female genital mutilation in Scotland are unknown, the NHS records, where it can, patients who have undergone it. In 2017 and 2018, NHS Lothian identified women with FGM on at least 93 occasions. In the same period, NHS Greater Glasgow and Clyde identified 138. That is at least 231 women too many.
As FGM is illegal in Scotland, young Scottish girls are often taken abroad on summer holidays, without knowledge of the real reason for their travel. The procedures are usually performed using traditional methods, with no anaesthetics or antiseptics, and often by someone who has no professional medical expertise. Genital mutilation is traumatic. It is often carried out with knives, scissors, glass shards or razor blades. It is normally non-consensual, and I cannot begin to imagine the nightmare that those women and girls endure as they are physically restrained and subjected to tortuous procedures.
The Scottish Parliament has an admirable record in this area, as it has been fighting FGM for some time. Indeed, I am proud to say that Scots have been at the forefront of action against this barbaric practice for almost a century. Dr John Arthur, a missionary from Glasgow, campaigned in 1929 to stop the Kikuyu in Kenya from carrying out the practice. He recognised that the senseless suffering that women endured through clitoridectomy had no basis in Christianity and that it should not be tolerated. He encouraged the baptised Kikuyu to urge the Kikuyu Central Association to end the practice. He campaigned vigorously on this matter, to the point that he resigned from the Legislative Council of Kenya and saw his personal reputation being traduced by the British and church authorities because of his passion to protect those women and girls.
At the same time, his fellow missionary, Marion Stevenson from Forfar, introduced the term “sexual mutilation of women”. She also taught Raheli Warigia who, along with other Tumutumu women, formed an organisation called the Shield of Young Girls to protect girls from FGM. The group wrote:
“People are being caught like sheep. One should be allowed to follow her own way of either agreeing to be circumcised or not without being dictated on one’s own body.”
I think that we could all agree with that.
Stevenson saw FGM as part of a concerted attack on women’s rights and used it as a focal point for her campaign to expand women’s rights through measures such as establishing girl’s schools, which, among the basic subjects, also taught domestic science and hygiene. She also trained many teachers and worked in hospitals. Her experiences demonstrated to her that, in many cultures, FGM forms part of the fight to curtail women’s societal rights.
The bill strengthens the current legislation and delivers on the promises that were made in the Scottish Government’s national action plan to prevent and eradicate FGM. Although FGM is a hidden and deeply complicated problem, all of us—the Scottish Government and the rest of us—must be vigilant and play our part in the effort to eradicate it.
It is clear that there is no complacency in the Government’s approach to the fight to bring this abuse of women to an end. The bill is an important part of that fight, and that is why I support the general principles of the bill at stage 1.
There is no justification for female genital mutilation. No religion condones it, and there are no health benefits to it. Its practice is a violent and barbaric assault against women and girls.
During a debate in November 2017, I recounted my first encounter with FGM. I was a student nurse at the time, and the patient was a victim of FGM who had given birth to a daughter. She begged us not to discharge her. Her husband planned to take their child straight to the airport whereupon she would be taken out of the UK, and that perfect little girl would then undergo female genital mutilation. Back then, there was nothing that we could do. We delayed her discharge as long as we could but, eventually, we had to let her go. I had the job of carrying that baby down to the car alongside her distraught mother.
It is an experience that I have never forgotten.
In summing up for my party in that debate, I said that I hoped that the cabinet secretary had listened to the comments in the debate and that she would take forward some of the actions to ensure that Scotland followed the UK’s decision to enact FGM protection orders. It is, therefore, extremely welcome that this Parliament is now debating stage 1 of this bill, and I personally thank the minister and the cabinet secretary for making good on the promises that were made to take this forward.
The creation of FGM protection orders is an important milestone in the development of legislation to prevent this vile practice. In that respect, Scotland has lagged somewhat behind England, Wales and Northern Ireland, all of which introduced FGM protection orders as part of the Serious Crime Act 2015. That said, concerns have been raised about the need for specific protection orders. It was noted in some consultation responses that FGM protection orders were not the best instrument to counter the issue.
Although I agree with some of the views of the Law Society and the Scottish Children’s Reporter Administration that existing legislation covers FGM offences, I think that the right decision has been made to introduce a specific protection order. Such an order not only signals intent, but deals with a very complex and problematic area for society and criminal law and can provide an immediate intervention to prevent a crime.
However, given the impact that such protection orders could have on families, particularly when strong personal relationships and high levels of familial influence are at play, they are not enough on their own and should not be seen as the solution to every instance in which a potential FGM case is reported.
As Ruth Maguire described, the order may provide protection, but it will not address the cultural and family ties that accompany the practice of FGM. A stronger framework and an increased duty on professionals to report such crimes can only serve to tackle this hidden crime.
The evidence clearly shows that data collection is key. A spokesperson for NHS Greater Glasgow and Clyde admitted this year that it has
“no confirmation FGM is being practiced in Scotland”, and the Scottish Government said:
“There are no clear and robust figures for the prevalence of FGM in Scotland because of the hidden nature of the crime.”
However, we know that there are cases, because hospital records demonstrate that.
We can introduce all the legislation that we want, but unless we improve our methods of identifying and reporting suspected instances of the crime of FGM, we will have the same blind spot that was created by the Prohibition of Female Circumcision Act 1985, as a result of which young women came to hospitals with clear signs of mutilation without a single case being successfully prosecuted.
SCRA’s view to favour strong statutory guidance for professionals working with young people who are at risk is important. We have seen in England and Wales that although social care and healthcare professionals are obliged to report to the police incidents of FGM involving under-18s, many staff still do not fully understand the implications of the Serious Crime Act 2015 and the duty that it bestows upon them. Without staff taking the first steps, protection orders will do the victims little good.
Although I very much welcome the multi-agency guidance published by the Scottish Government, the onus is still on getting the guidance right as a key step in eradicating FGM in Scotland. Efforts must also be made to ensure that that guidance does not simply gather dust on local authorities’ shelves. It must be embedded in the minds of front-line workers who are best placed to identify girls who are at risk, understand the family dynamics and act quickly and effectively to avoid a potential offence.
The need to ensure that witnesses and potential victims will be given anonymity underpins all of those issues. I agree with some comments that such anonymity should be lifelong, because the fear and distress that women and girls experience must not be underestimated. The impact is often compounded when English may not be their first language and where cultural pressures are significant.
I welcome the consensus that I have heard in this chamber. In progressing this bill, we are sending the message that we are not divided on the issue of female genital mutilation. It is cruel and abhorrent and no society should ever allow it to be carried out.
I warmly welcome the principles of the Female Genital Mutilation (Protection and Guidance) (Scotland) Bill at stage 1, and I am pleased to have the chance to speak in this debate.
Female genital mutilation is physical and coercive abuse of women and girls. There is no other way to describe it. The word “mutilation” says it all. FGM violates the rights of women and girls and has lifelong physical, sexual and mental health implications. It has no health benefits—quite the reverse. It is, of course, illegal and abhorrent.
As we have heard, the aim of the bill is to strengthen legal protection of women and girls by enabling the court make an FGM protection order—a civil order—to protect a person at risk of being subjected to FGM, which will safeguard them from further harm if FGM has already happened, or reduce the likelihood that FGM offences will happen. A person at risk, a victim, a local authority, Police Scotland, the Lord Advocate or any other person with the permission of the court will be able to make an application for an FGM protection order. Anyone breaching an order would be committing a criminal offence, with a potential prison sentence of up to five years.
FGM has been illegal in Scotland since 1985 but, to date, no criminal prosecution has been brought in Scotland and only one has been brought in England. That says it all about the need for this bill.
The multi-agency guidance on FGM reinforces Scotland’s child protection guidance, but it is currently advisory. The proposed FGM protection orders and statutory guidance will complement that system. Although FGM is an international practice, we have a duty of care to those who live in Scotland, and this bill will give protection to the most vulnerable.
The Law Society of Scotland’s helpful briefing points out that this is not the first step taken by the Scottish Parliament on FGM. It builds on the Prohibition of Female Genital Mutilation (Scotland) Act 2005 and implements Scotland’s commitment in the national action plan to prevent and eradicate FGM, the aim of which is:
“to foster an environment of prevention in Scotland and to improve the welfare and quality of life of FGM survivors, with a focus on the linked areas of prevention, protecting girls at risk; and provision of appropriate support and sensitive services for survivors of FGM.”
There is no doubt that early intervention through communication and education is key to the success of the new bill. In addition, we need reliable data to determine the exact scale of the problem in Scotland. The Scottish Refugee Council published a report in 2014 that estimated that the number of people living in Scotland who have come from countries where FGM is practised is around 24,000, which provides some indication as to the scale of the issue. That number shocked me and it highlights the desperate need to raise awareness of the bill in the relevant cultures and communities. We must overcome language barriers and cultural differences in our public services such as the national health service and the police—who do a fantastic job of being inclusive—so that we can simply say, “No, this is not acceptable.”
I agree with Mary Fee that we must reach girls through the school curriculum as part of our getting it right for every child strategy, and we must regard this as a child protection issue. If we can protect girls at an early age by educating them against the dangers of the practice, issues surrounding older girls and women will be eradicated.
There also needs to be clear guidance on how to report issues with a protection order, and we must win the trust of potential victims in communities most at risk so that they know that they will be protected in Scotland. Anonymity is not specifically provided for in the bill, in contrast to the position for victims in England and Wales. I support the committee’s view in its stage 1 report that we should ensure that
“the views and wishes of victims and survivors are paramount and ... anonymity on request is a reasonable expectation for victims of FGM.”
Given the nature of the abuse, and the sensitivity surrounding it, I think that anonymity should be included.
Access to legal aid for victims is also extremely important, as without that, many vulnerable groups might not feel empowered or will be simply financially unable to proceed with legal action.
I want women and girls to live in a world where they feel safe; one where their rights will not be violated and their future ruined. I believe that the bill, when it passes stage 3, will give women and girls that protection and send out the message that Scotland is a country that values all its citizens and is striving to keep them safe with legal protection and support.
We have heard some harrowing stories of women who have been subjected to FGM. The minister opened with a powerful example, James Dornan gave an example and Ruth Maguire asked us not to doubt those stories, because they are real—that is a very important point. Annie Wells explained what FGM is, which is important to know but hard to listen to.
FGM is a global issue and, as I said earlier, we cannot be complacent about successes in eradicating the practice. As Maurice Corry said, it is clearly a form of sex-based violence against women and girls—a point also made by Rona Mackay.
Today, just as in 2005, there is much to be done to challenge the views that normalise the mutilation of mainly girls under the age of 15. Alex Cole-Hamilton made a point about patriarchal culture. I reiterate the point that other members have made, as it is an important one: there is no religion that actually agrees with, or requires, FGM.
In February this year, in response to a freedom of information request, NHS Greater Glasgow and Clyde and NHS Lothian disclosed that they had treated victims of FGM on more than 230 occasions in 2017-18. Those figures were also mentioned by James Dornan. FGM can be difficult to deal with. For example, when women have to be cut open to deliver babies and then ask to be resewn, because that is all that they have known, that presents a real challenge for people working in our health service and it is something that we have to bear in mind.
FGM is now illegal in all European Union member countries, but the number of successful prosecutions is still relatively low, with the exception of in France. The threat of imprisonment and large fines alone is not enough as a prevention strategy. The evidence from France also highlights how intrusive and stigmatising prevention strategies can sometimes be. We have to be very careful.
In Scotland, we must refocus our efforts to work with families, communities and community leaders to deliver the necessary information, including on the benefits of abandoning the barbaric practice of FGM. I think that the bill will very much help to do that.
I welcome the multi-agency approach of the new legislation and note Mary Fee’s pleas for education in schools and a consistent approach across services. The convener of the Equalities and Human Rights Committee, Ruth Maguire, made the important point that, when we identify communities in which the practice is still prevalent, we must not racialise the issue or victimise people who are already victims themselves. That is especially relevant when we look at how enablers of FGM or people who do not report it are treated. Often, they are women who do not have the power or the ability to prevent it, so they should not be criminalised.
We have to give people the confidence to discuss, challenge and report the practice, which can be deeply embedded in their traditions. That is what the Equal Opportunities Committee did in 2005. That raises the issue of anonymity, which Mary Fee and Rona Mackay spent some time talking about.
We have to give people support to use the law to protect themselves or someone else who is at risk of FGM. I was very pleased to hear Annie Wells say in response to my intervention on asylum seekers that she would write to the Westminster Government. Patrick Harvie, Mary Fee and Angela Constance also outlined issues relating to the asylum system that need to be dealt with and challenged, including the language barrier.
We must ensure that there are adequate funds to train professionals to apply for protection orders when they are needed. I note that support should also be included—many members have made that point. Michelle Ballantyne gave a powerful personal example of the need for that in her speech.
I welcome the more consistent multi-agency response, but I see service after service stretched to its limits. That can make it difficult for the health service to provide the services that are needed. Many services are underfunded and understaffed, and we can add to those burdens. Therefore, we have to add to their funding and their allocation to back up the strategy.
Sadly, we can expect only more austerity from Boris Johnson’s Government at Westminster. However, many of the services that will be involved in the prevention strategy are funded by local government. Therefore, I urge the Scottish Government to stop the underfunding of councils in Scotland.
I do not want to finish on a negative note. I think that this debate unites us all—other members have said that—and I know that the minister cares passionately about tackling violence against women and girls. The bill is a small but important piece of legislation that will enhance the previous good work. I congratulate Christina McKelvie on her first bill.
In 2005, our legislation in Scotland was better than the Westminster legislation—I simply throw that into the mix.
I thank the Equalities and Human Rights Committee for its work in scrutinising the bill at stage 1 and, like Mary Fee, I thank the women and girls who gave evidence. By working together and respecting and listening to the communities involved, I am sure that we will move forward towards the eradication of FGM in Scotland and abroad.
I am pleased to close the debate for the Scottish Conservatives. We have had a useful, constructive and positive debate, and l thank the organisations that provided briefings for members, including the Law Society of Scotland. I am also grateful to colleagues on the Parliament’s Equalities and Human Rights Committee, from whom we have heard, for producing such a thorough and thoughtful stage 1 report. We should also put on record our praise for the charities that work on the front line, including Shakti Women’s Aid and the Scottish Refugee Council.
As my colleague Annie Wells indicated, the Scottish Conservatives very much support the aims of the bill, and we will look to strengthen it as it moves through the parliamentary stages. We will back measures to put in place legal and criminal justice systems that are designed to support victims as effectively as possible and to punish and deter those who perpetrate these abhorrent practices. FGM protection orders are therefore a major and welcome step forward.
Last year, I met prominent women’s rights campaigner Nice Nailantei Leng’ete, who was presented with the People’s Postcode Lottery hero award in recognition of her work to end FGM in Kenya. The Amref Health Africa UK support charity oversaw work involving four years of dialogue with elders in Nice’s village to change hundreds of years of culture and abandon the cutting of girls in Africa. One of the things that Amref saw was a surge in the number of girls attending school after that happened.
Much of today’s debate has rightly focused on how we improve the bill and the committee’s constructive recommendations for that. As Maurice Corry said, we believe that further work on the bill is required. We have heard that from a number of members today.
We back calls for the Scottish Government to set out clearly how it will engage with and involve women and communities to develop further guidance on and awareness of the FGM protection orders. The committee specifically asks ministers to address difficulties around prosecutions in light of the fact that there has only ever been one prosecution for FGM in the UK. That is important.
Although reasons for the lack of prosecutions are varied—and include, not least, the difficulty of challenging family members and the mistaken beliefs of some professionals—we should look to move forward on prosecutions. It would be useful to look at that in more detail at stage 2.
I agree with Police Scotland that the Scottish Government should give thought to closing a potential gap in the legislation to cover what happens when someone is found to have items in their possession that suggest an intent to carry out FGM. We need to take that forward, and there might be merit in considering a preventative provision around intent and the possession of items for the purpose of FGM. I welcome what the minister had to say on that, and the fact that she will consider it at stage 2.
I welcome the provisions of the bill, especially those on the creation of FGM protection orders, which have the potential to be a useful tool for our agencies and individuals in implementing the FGM guidance at the statutory level. Communities and professionals must be closely involved in the creation of the guidance, and we hope that the legislation will play a part in helping to achieve the societal, cultural and attitudinal change necessary to eliminate FGM in Scotland, and to send a message on that across the world.
I will conclude with the words that Nice used at the People’s Postcode Lottery event. She said:
“The practice is devastating for the health, rights and chances of young girls, and we won’t stop until every girl in Africa can become the woman of her dreams.”
As members from across the chamber have said today, if the proposed legislation results in just one individual in Scotland not facing the barbaric practice of FGM, it will have been worth while. We support the general principles of the bill.
I am pleased to be closing this stage 1 debate on the Female Genital Mutilation (Protection and Guidance) (Scotland) Bill. It has been an excellent debate and some fantastic points have been raised. I will try to get through lots of those points, but if I do not get to them all today, they are all on my list so members should not worry.
Mary Fee talked about how we change the culture when we work with men and boys, which is an important point. I will send her some information on the change makers project that we fund, which involves men working with men and boys to combat FGM in communities.
James Dornan raised the issue of summer holidays. Part of the FGM protection order will involve the removal of travel documents such as passports so that that summer holiday does not happen.
Michelle Ballantyne suggested that the Scottish Government is lagging behind the rest of the UK. Perhaps that is right in relation to bringing legislation forward, but we know that there are challenges for the UK legislation, and we wanted to take our time to work with communities and consult people appropriately to get our legislation right the first time because unintended consequences could be incredibly harmful.
Ruth Maguire, Patrick Harvie, Mary Fee and many others raised the issue of racialisation, which came out at committee. I reassure all members that we will work closely with stakeholders and others to ensure that the training is cognisant of that issue. We will be guided by communities on the best way to reflect that in the development of the guidance and the subsequent training. Angela Constance asked that I commit to on-going participation, so that this is not just a one-off. I reassure her that my answer is a very clear yes.
On guidance and training, Alex Cole-Hamilton, Angela Constance and Ruth Maguire all talked about the need for a person-centred approach. I cannot emphasise enough that we will work with stakeholders to assist with the effective operation of future statutory guidance on FGM, and we will take into account the digital stories that Ruth Maguire spoke about to ensure that the core training adequately reflects the position on FGM for which the updated legislation provides.
Elaine Smith made comments about the health experience in Scotland and England. We have taken great interest in that issue, and we are progressing work on it. We will work closely with our health colleagues when we develop the guidance and the training to ensure that we get those absolutely right.
Patrick Harvie talked about the importance of lived experience. That is at the heart of everything that we do. I also hear Mary Fee’s calls for a universal approach.
Rona Mackay, Alex Cole-Hamilton and others talked about the need to raise awareness. In the national action plan, we are committed to raising awareness of FGM and the harms that it causes. Specifically, we want to ensure that statutory services work with partner agencies and community organisations to raise awareness of the rights of women and children to be free from FGM. Today, I commit to working intensively with community-based stakeholders to ensure that they are aware of protection orders and understand how to obtain them.
Annie Wells, Maurice Corry, Alex Cole-Hamilton and others raised the issue of anonymity. We have noted the committee’s view on that important subject, and we will respond more fully before stage 2. We note that the committee has not recommended automatic lifelong anonymity, as Angela Constance said. The justice system in Scotland is based on justice being open and accessible, and that includes the ability to provide anonymity if the circumstances justify it. If a child is involved, there are other statutory provisions that we can use.
Ruth Maguire, Patrick Harvie and Angela Constance raised the issue of asylum seekers and FGM protection orders, and Elaine Smith made several interventions on the subject. I will write to the UK Government on that important matter. Members will have heard what I said on that in my intervention on Maurice Corry, and I hope that that reassures them.
Legal aid is another big issue that many members, including Annie Wells and Rona Mackay, brought up. In the majority of cases in which an FGM protection order is sought, the order will be sought by a public authority, so there will not be a need for legal aid. However, if the individual who seeks an order is a child, legal aid will be available. Eligibility for legal aid would normally be subject to means testing of the parents’ income, but only when it would not be “unjust and inequitable” for that to happen. It is worth noting that the 2018 independent strategic review of legal aid, “Rethinking Legal Aid”, highlighted that Scotland’s current legal aid spend per head is the third highest in the European Union. Given that FGM protection orders would often, if not always, involve consideration of restrictions on parents, we think it highly likely that such means testing would always be unjust and inequitable. In those circumstances, legal aid would be granted. We will continue to engage with the Scottish Legal Aid Board and others to ensure that such issues are taken into account when the bill is implemented.
Another issue that was raised was that of data collection and recording. In July 2014, the chief medical officer and the chief nursing officer issued a letter to help healthcare professionals in the NHS to recognise FGM, to identify the services that are most likely to come across the condition and to record the diagnosis and types of FGM in clinical letters. We are working with the FGM national action plan implementation group to ensure greater consistency with regard to data collection policies on FGM across different NHS boards.
Miles Briggs mentioned an issue that Police Scotland raised in its evidence to the Equalities and Human Rights Committee. It might be helpful to note that the circumstances that were set out by Police Scotland would be covered by the bill. If a type 3 FGM protection order was granted, it could prohibit persons with an intention to cut from possessing items that could be used to perform FGM and would make possession of such items a criminal offence. I hope that that will reassure Police Scotland.
Michelle Ballantyne gave us a clear picture of what happens when a woman is subjected to FGM.
I want to conclude by paying tribute to a very special young activist, Neneh Bojang, who lives not that far from the Parliament. She underwent FGM at the age of nine and, like Waris Dirie, she is an activist against the practice. I was privileged to launch the bill with her. That is an example of us putting lived experience at the heart of what we are doing, which I mentioned earlier.
I congratulate Elaine Smith on her long-term commitment to addressing FGM. The first time I heard the subject being debated was when she spoke about it, probably in 2005.
Neneh Bojang said:
“If this Bill prevents even just one woman from going through the same, then in my eyes, it will be a success.”
If that is the case, it will be a success in our eyes, too.
Once again, I commend the general principles of the bill to Parliament.