Child support

Glenys ThorntonGlenys Thornton on the apparent incoherence in the Cabinet’s commitment to tackling FGM 

Every day, 8,000 girls in the world are subject to the practice of female genital mutilation (FGM). Entrenched in a number of African, Asian and Middle Eastern societies, this intimate act of controlling women’s and girls’ bodies is a human rights violation.

Illegal in Britain since 1985, FGM is still widely practiced. The report Tackling Female Genital Mutilation in the UK by the Royal College of Nursing asserts that 66,000 women in England and Wales have undergone FGM, with more than 24,000 girls under 15 at risk of it. In Europe, an estimated 500,000 girls and women have been subjected to FGM, with an additional 180,000 are at risk each year.

Despite now being classed as a serious criminal offence, there have been no prosecutions in Britain. This highlights a marked disparity with France where there have been 100. A recent NSPCC survey also revealed that one in six teachers weren't aware that FGM is illegal and didn't consider it to be child abuse.

A debate taking place later tonight in the Lords has attracted a large number of speakers – many of whom are serious campaigners against this practice, both here and across the world.

Watching a recent Channel 4 programme The Cruel Cut, you could only but weep with the young girl who aged 7 returned from being taken overseas during the school holidays to be cut. On her return, she confided in her teacher, who ignored her cry for help. Doubly betrayed by the adults who should be protecting her, and there was no action taken against her parents. We should be ashamed in the UK that thousands of girls in danger of genital mutilation are being failed by our education, health and justice systems.

I can only welcome the fact that there is an inter-ministerial group addressing this issue alongside other forms of violence against women, and that FGM is high on their agenda. But there are three related questions that the government must answer: Is it really necessary for Health Ministers to conduct yet another inquiry into FGM? What new information is there to be found after several recent reports? And how long do we need to wait for action to be taken? 

Since the Channel 4 programme, the 7 year old girl has met with Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt, and to his credit and that of Home Secretary, Theresa May, they have committed themselves to action. Indeed, only last month, the Lords Health Minister Earl Howe, in responding to a question said: “Female genital mutilation is child abuse and violence against girls and women. It is also a criminal offence, and cutters and perpetrators need to be brought to justice.”

Despite all of this, it would appear that Michael Gove is refusing to make FGM mandatory in child protection. I hope the government takes the opportunity tonight to deny this; and ahead of the One Billion Rising anti-violence campaign in February 2014, commit to tackling this tragic issue head on. And if they can’t deny Mr Gove’s approach, they should at least explain how we expect teachers to take the issue of FGM seriously.

Baroness Glenys Thornton is Shadow Equalities Minister in the House of Lords

Published 4th December 2013

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