John’s Speech on Female Genital Mutilation

Given in Parliament on 5th February 2015

“I am a fan of international days. They bring about a worldwide focus on issues, and what issue could be more important than the one that we are discussing? I warm to the word that Kenneth Macintosh used: “solidarity”, which is entirely appropriate in this instance.

I welcome the references in the motion to the Women’s Support Project and the short-term working group, and I welcome the funding. I thank all the organisations that were actively involved in that sensitive work and I especially thank those that gave us briefings.

The Scottish Refugee Council’s report says:

“Because of the limitations of global and Scottish data, we do not seek to definitively quantify the nature and extent of FGM in Scotland, referring throughout our report to ‘communities potentially affected by FGM in Scotland’.”

There have been many references to that dearth of hard facts. Of course, the condemnation that is implicit in the motion is not conditional on numbers. Indeed, the Equal Opportunities Committee heard last year from one survivor who said that the issue

“is not a matter of numbers but a matter of need”—[Official Report, Equal Opportunities Committee, 30 January 2014; c 1803.]

I think that we would all agree that one case is one case too many.

I commend the convener of the Equal Opportunities Committee, who has grasped the issue and has been diligently meeting groups and showing the support of the Scottish Parliament. I very much enjoyed her speech.

I do not intend to mention nationality, countries or religions, because I think that this is an issue for us all to address if we want to understand the challenges. One of the reports uses the term, “informant”, which indicates the level of secrecy and sensitivity around the issue.

Effective interventions are terribly important. One of the private briefings that we got said that women presenting are unlikely to identify themselves as survivors. They are likely only to understand community-specific terminology, which frequently means, for example, “purification” or “cutting”, and they are unlikely to be willing to talk about “female genital mutilation”. They are unlikely to understand that their health issues are a direct result of female genital mutilation, due to the normalisation in affected communities, which is to say that all the women whom they know have the same problems. Furthermore, mothers and carers rarely know that female genital mutilation is illegal or harmful, and may say that they are opposed to it, even though they are not. That shows the scale of one of the challenges that we face.

Clearly, prevention is the key, and education is the key to prevention. As we have heard from others, there are challenges in respect of terminology, but discomfort about discussing the issue, for whatever reason, is not going to help prevention. We must talk about the issue, because we need disclosure from individuals, communities and professions.

Protection is also vital, not only for those who are at imminent risk, but for survivors and their loved ones. An often-missed aspect is the psychological damage that has been visited on individuals and their families. There is a need to protect and support familial and community relationships, which are, we must acknowledge, inevitably going to be strained by the involvement of third parties, however well-meaning they may be.

We also need to protect the communities from backlash from groups or individuals who misunderstand the issue. We must understand what is needed to provide protection: I suggest that it is not always money and that provision of services and ways of ensuring participation are important, too. As ever, I make a plea in relation to the unique nature of issues around access to such services in rural areas. The NHS will have procedures in place, but studies have shown that issues around geographic isolation are often compounded for visible ethnic minority groups in rural areas. I am sure that that will be borne in mind by the supporting groups.

We were asked what is required and who can tell us, and one of the answers in the report is:

“Policy makers and service providers should ensure that policy and practice development across all areas of work is shaped and driven by the experiences, needs and views of communities affected by FGM”.

None of us would take issue with that. It is important that it is done by and for the communities that are affected by female genital mutilation, rather than being done to them.

There is a key role for the police. As a former police officer, I know that practices have changed drastically in relation to such things as domestic violence and sexual crimes. Likewise, it is important that the Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal Service and social work services can run joint investigations that are child centred, with outcomes for victims being at the forefront of everyone’s deliberations. Having said that, I do not want to suggest anything other than that I whole-heartedly believe that FGM is a violent act against women and must be stopped. It is a further expression of deeply entrenched gender inequalities, like forced marriage and honour-based violence.

I support the need for a national action plan. Many of the papers talk about behavioural change, but that takes time. I mentioned domestic violence and sexual crimes in our own communities and the different approach that is now being taken to that, so it is entirely possible to tackle FGM too. I noted the earlier comment about women’s support groups and the need to update materials that contain references to English laws and procedures, so I am happy to be reassured by the cabinet secretary that materials and videos will reflect that need. Although I note what Christian Allard said about Scottish solutions, I think that collaboration is hugely important. I know that that was not his suggestion.

The key with young folk is the application of getting it right for every child. We have heard about the brutality and the great pressure that women are placed under. We have heard about the secrecy, so it is important that we do not drive the problem underground. Women who spoke to us privately were adamant that they wanted action to be taken.

This has been a helpful debate and I hope that it will allow us to make progress.”