I am extremely pleased to have this opportunity to speak to you today. I should like to begin by congratulating the Agency for Culture and Change Management for organising this and other conferences to help promote the Female Genital Mutilation Act 2003 and raise awareness of a practice that is sadly, much more common than most people realise.
My department is responsible for the criminal law. But the law is only the starting point for tackling the continuing problem of female genital mutilation in this country.
We need to educate people and change their attitudes- sometimes long established attitudes. Conferences like this are a big step in that direction, which is why I am so glad to see this one taking place. A multi agency response is vital and it is good to see representatives of all the relevant agencies here today.
I should also like to take this opportunity to pay tribute to the excellent work done by the Agency for Culture and Change Management and all the other organisations that are active in seeking to eradicate the practice of female genital mutilation. There are no easy solutions, and I know that they work tirelessly with doctors, teachers and child protection agencies, at home and abroad, and with the practising communities themselves, to promote understanding of and encourage solutions to the problem.
You will be hearing from the Director of the Agency for Culture and Change Management later today so I will let their good work speak for itself.
Female genital mutilation is an extremely painful and harmful practice that cannot be justified on medical, cultural or any other grounds. In particular, it is worth underlining that it has no religious significance whatever: the leaders of all the world's major religions have spoken out against it. And we as a government are committed to eradicating it once and for all, both in this country and abroad.
The practice is an age-old one that is deeply steeped in the culture and tradition of some practising communities. Some people have said we should not seek to impose western culture and values on other communities. But respect for other cultures does not mean accepting the unacceptable.
We cannot condone a practice that can have such a devastating consequences for the health of a young girl. The physical and psychological effects can last throughout her life. The mutilation and impairment of young girls and women can have no place in modern society where equality is prized.
Female genital mutilation was probably never legal in this country; it would almost certainly constitute an offence against the person. Thanks to the pioneering efforts of Marion Roe MP- who successfully steered a Private Members Bill through Parliament at a time when the cause was much less popular than it is today- the Prohibition of female circumcision Act 1985 made the practice explicitly illegal. This is but one example of the significant contribution that Marion has made over many years to the campaign against female genital mutilation. She deserves great credit.
The 1985 Act- one of the first pieces of legislation on female genital mutilation in the world-was an important and necessary step in the fight to eradicate this abhorrent practice.
It made clear beyond doubt that female genital mutilation would not be tolerated in this country. But in the light of what we know- that parents in some communities were deliberately evading our law by taking girls abroad to have the procedure carried out- it did not go far enough. That is why the law has been strengthened to protect girls from mutilation even beyond these shores.
The female genital Mutilation Act 2003- makes it an offence for the first time for UK nationals or permanent UK residents to carry out female genital mutilation abroad, or to aid, abet, counsel or procure the carrying out of female genital mutilation abroad, even in countries where the practice is legal.
To reflect the serious harm that female genital mutilation causes, the Act also increases the maximum penalty from 5-14 years' imprisonment.
The 2003 Act is the result of a Private members Bill introduced by Ann Clwyd MP. It was supported unreservedly by the government during its passage through parliament.
I had the pleasure of responding for the Government when the Bill was debated in the House of Commons last year. Unfortunately, Ann cannot be with us today. But I would like to pay tribute to her for giving priority to this very worthwhile piece of legislation. I have long admired her dedication to upholding human rights in this country and else where.
I would also like to pay tribute to the work of the All Party parliamentary Group on population. Development and Reproductive Health chaired by Chris McCafferty MP. The group has done much to add to our knowledge about the reasons for and the consequences of female genital mutilation. Indeed, it is to some of their recommendations that the 2003 Act gives effect.
Some of those who debated the provisions of the Act in Parliament and elsewhere questioned the wisdom of strengthening legislation that has yet to result in a prosecution. Amongst those countries which have specific laws against FGM, the UK is not alone in having had no prosecutions. One of the reasons for this may be the fact that until now people could evade the law by going abroad.
The nature of the offence, the vulnerability if its young victims and the conspiracy of silence within the practising communities are also barriers to prosecution. In practice, a prosecution can only occur if an offence is reported to the police, a referral is made to the Crown Prosecution service and there is sufficient evidence to bring criminal proceedings. The willingness of victims and others to come forward and to give evidence in court is crucial. We need to create a climate in which victims will feel able to come forward and receive the help and support that they need to give their best evidence.
Above all, we need to change the way in which people think about female genital mutilation. It is a sad fact that older women who themselves are victims of female genital mutilation are often the strongest advocates for the continuance of the practice. Such attitudes are deeply ingrained and it will take more than legislation than to change them.
That is why legislation must be accompanied by raising awareness of the law and a continuous programme of education aimed at the grass roots level.
On the domestic front, the Home Office, the Department for Education and skills and the department of Health already help to fund FORWARD and the agency for Culture and Change Management to take forward their national strategy and campaigns against female genital mutilation.
Our stand against the practice is supported by the major bodies in the medical profession, all of whom have issued guidance or position statements on female genital mutilation.
Health professionals, as we will hear, have a particular role to play in dealing with female genital mutilation. Of all professionals, they are most likely to discover that a girl or woman has been mutilated. And they have to deal with the resulting physical and mental damage.
Women and girls from communities which practice female genital mutilation may have special health needs relating to their mutilation. It is important that they are treated sympathetically. We must make sure they are not frightened even more by the thought of legal sanctions so that they never even come forward and seek treatment.
This is a social, legal and health problem and agencies must work together to tackle it- I cannot stress that enough.
And Government Departments must work together too. Internationally, the Government is supporting work in a large number of countries, particularly Africa, aimed at eradicating female genital mutilation and providing adequate health care for girls and women affected by it.
The Department for International Development seeks to reduce the incidence and consequences of FGM by ensuring world wide awareness of the practice, funding research, and supporting activities and projects designed to change behaviour in the long term.
The Foreign and Commonwealth Office is also working through our bilateral programmes, and the UN and other international bodies, to encourage countries which have not done so to ratify the convention on the Rights of the Child and the Convention for the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women; and to implement the agreements made at the 1995 Bejing +5 women's conference.
In conclusion, the Government believes that educating the practising communities, both here and abroad, to abandon FGM is the best way forward to break the cycle of mutilation.
We do not underestimate the difficulties of ending centuries of a practice that is deeply ingrained in the social fabric of these communities. But we are determined to educate them about the dangers of female genital mutilation for their daughters and the unacceptability of such a harmful practice.
Each and every one of you here today has a vital part to play in the fight against FGM. It is my fervent hope that you will leave this conference today armed with the knowledge and determination to protect our young women and girls from this very harmful practice. Only by working together can we help to save them from a lifetime of pain and discomfort.
I am sorry that I cannot stay with you for the remainder of this conference. It promises to be both interesting and informative and I am sure you will find it worthwhile.