I am grateful for the opportunity to raise this important issue again in the House. Female genital mutilation—FGM—affects millions of girls and women around the world, including here in the UK. My remarks this evening are focused on FGM in the UK, and what we can do to prevent it.
FGM is a gross violation of girls’ human rights, and is nearly always carried out on minors. In the UK, the girls most at risk are usually aged between eight and 12, but are often much younger. We should therefore be clear from the outset that FGM is a form of child abuse. FGM is defined by the World Health Organisation as the full or partial removal of, or injury to, the external female genitalia for non-medical reasons. Although it occurs in countries across the world, it is particularly prevalent in sub-Saharan Africa. There are no benefits to FGM. Indeed, quite the opposite is true. The girl’s health is damaged for ever.
There are various types of FGM, but the most extreme, which is the most common in larger FGM-practising communities settled in this country, is type 3. That is total removal of the victim’s external genitalia. The girl is then infibulated—effectively sewn up. I am sure that hon. Members can imagine the dreadful impact of that on the quality of life and the health of those girls in childhood, and the long-term damage to their sexual and mental well-being.
It is a source of great frustration to those who campaigned against FGM for many years that the UK has in place everything that might reasonably be expected to be needed to end FGM in this country, yet it continues and is apparently a growing problem. The necessary legislation is already on the statute book. FGM has been illegal in the UK for more than a quarter of a century under the Prohibition of Female Circumcision Act 1985, which was strengthened in the Female Genital Mutilation Act 2003 by making it illegal to take a girl abroad for cutting, as FGM is often referred to colloquially. Indeed, new guidelines for prosecuting the perpetrators of FGM were published here only this autumn.
As well as having the right legislation, the UK has a solid child protection framework in place which, on the whole, does a good job of protecting vulnerable children from other forms of abuse. The Government have recently published fresh multi-agency guidelines to aid professionals —for example, teachers, social workers and health workers—to identify children at risk and what steps must be taken to assist them. Despite that, all the anecdotal and medical evidence suggests that FGM is a growing, not a diminishing problem here. Why is it proving so difficult to right this wrong?
First, to meet the challenge, we need to know its scale. As part of the Mayor of London’s strategy to tackle all forms of violence against girls and women, the Greater London authority will shortly publish a policy document on addressing harmful practices in London. It will focus on, among other things, FGM. That report and others identify the fact that the lack of up-to-date figures is a significant stumbling block in efforts to tackle the problem.
Most of the FGM data for the UK that inform most parliamentary speeches, media articles and reports, including that from the Greater London authority, comes from a respected 2007 study by the charity FORWARD—the Foundation for Women’s Health, Research and Development. This report extrapolated data from the 2001 UK census, and its finding were startling, even then. Over 174,000 women residents in the UK had been born in an FGM-practising country. The estimated number of maternities in England and Wales in women with FGM stood at just over 6,000 in 2001 and had increased by 44% to just over 9,000 in 2004. FORWARD estimated that by 2009, that figure would be around 7,000 in London alone. Those are astonishing figures. That study is sound, but it is based on decade-old data.
As the Minister will know, with the trends in migration to this country over the last decade, especially from countries with a high prevalence of FGM, such as Somalia and Ethiopia, one can only conclude that those figures dramatically understate the extent of female genital mutilation in the UK today. We urgently need to update the evidence base.
Another reason the evidence base needs to be updated is that FGM is adding to existing health inequalities for these girls and women. How many women are not attending routine cervical smear testing because they do not want to alert the authorities to what has happened to them? How many parents do not take their children to the local GP when they are unwell because they fear that an examination will reveal that the girls have been cut? If, as the evidence suggests, FGM is a growing problem in the UK, the burden that it puts on the NHS in the long run will grow to match it.