On behalf of the Scottish Government, I am pleased to open the debate on this important matter.
Today, ahead of the international day of zero tolerance for FGM on Monday 6 February, we collectively have the opportunity to add our voices to those around the world opposing female genital mutilation. That global day, which has been marked by our Parliament for a number of years, provides people all over the world with an opportunity to take a stand against a practice that has no place in society but which, unfortunately, still affects far too many communities across the globe.
Female genital mutilation, as with any form of so-called honour-based violence, is a specific form of gender-based violence and an abuse of human rights. World Health Organisation figures tell us that 200 million women and girls globally are affected by FGM, which is symptomatic of the inequality that women and girls all over the world experience because of their gender. Our equally safe strategy recognises that so-called honour-based violence, regardless of what form it might take, is purely and simply, like all forms of gender-based violence, about power and control. Our strategy embeds that understanding in the law of the land and gives the police and our prosecutors the power to tackle that violence.
Practices such as FGM and forced marriage are manifestations of the gender-based imbalance of power. I am glad that the United Kingdom Government has recognised that by finally supporting, at the end of last year, the private member’s bill brought forward by Dr Eilidh Whiteford MP, which calls for the UK Government to ratify the Istanbul convention. That is an issue that I support and which I highlighted in the chamber at the end of last year when we all marked the 16 days of activism against violence against women and girls. Although the UK Government signed the convention nearly five years ago, it has, as we all know, yet to ratify it.
The convention states that there is a need to address fully violence against women, in all its forms, and to take measures to prevent it, to protect its victims and to prosecute perpetrators. I hope that by supporting Dr Whiteford’s bill, the UK Government is now signalling a momentum for ratification of the convention and that it will work, with the Scottish Government and others, to overcome the last few obstacles and not kick this important issue into the long grass again. As the bill enters its committee stage, I hope that the UK Government seizes the opportunity to take forward this important issue. However, I compliment the UK Government on the good work that it has done with respect to FGM, and I am pleased to say that we will support the amendment in the name of Annie Wells.
Tackling FGM and indeed all other forms of violence against women under the guise of culture or religion—so-called honour-based violence—requires a response that extends protections to those who are at risk and holds those who choose to perpetrate this abuse to account.
Not that long ago, few people had even heard of female genital mutilation or forced marriage. Now we have legislation to protect people from honour-based violence and a national action plan to prevent and eradicate female genital mutilation. The plan, which runs until 2020, sets out an agreed range of actions and associated activities to be taken forward by the Scottish Government and its partners in communities, the third sector and the public sector to prevent and ultimately eradicate FGM. Actions from the plan are being taken forward under the guidance of a multi-agency national implementation group, which will monitor progress over the plan’s lifespan and give a sharp focus to the practical approach that we can take to realise our ambitions on this agenda.
There are no quick fixes to tackle FGM and honour-based violence. It is a complex and often hidden issue, and there is no single solution to end it. With that in mind, our approach to preventing and eradicating the practices has been informed by collaboration with faith leaders and community activists, who are uniquely placed to be at the very heart of work to effect significant social, cultural and attitudinal change. As such, I am also pleased to support Mary Fee’s amendment.
It is crucial that we collaborate with the organisations and agencies across the statutory and third sectors that are working to help us to understand the background to the practices. For example, we recently published “Understanding forced marriage in Scotland”. This research, which was commissioned by the Scottish Government, outlines nine recommendations and it forms part of our on-going work to bring together key agencies to protect those who are affected by forced marriage. I put on the record my thanks to the authors of this in-depth, insightful and very useful research.
Survivors identified the excellent support that they receive from third sector agencies, which provide first-class, trusted support. However, the research also helpfully identifies the barriers to accessing and receiving the right support and intervention at the right time, so we must seek to increase the confidence of those who need assistance and the confidence and capacity of those who need to provide it. We will be working in partnership with the multi-agency forced marriage network, which is facilitated by the Scottish Government, to look at how we take forward the recommendations from the research. That type of collaboration can support our aims, whether on forced marriage, FGM or the wider eradication of violence against women.
As part of a week of activity to mark the international day of zero tolerance for female genital mutilation, I am proud that I will be attending the Kenyan Women in Scotland Association’s national conference here in Edinburgh on Saturday, and I will also be meeting Waverley Care next week. Both organisations are respected for their work in tackling FGM and are key partners in our work to eradicate it. That joined-up approach will help to ensure that what we do—not only to protect those who are at risk of harm but to try to end the practice—is informed by co-operation, conversation and a collective will to bring about change.
I turn briefly to legislation. No doubt many members are aware that FGM has been unlawful in Scotland for over 30 years, with the Prohibition of Female Circumcision Act 1985. The Prohibition of Female Genital Mutilation (Scotland) Act 2005 re-enacted the 1985 act and extended protection by making it a criminal offence to have FGM carried out either in Scotland or abroad, by giving extra-territorial powers. The Scottish Government worked collaboratively with the UK Government to close a loophole in the 2005 act and extend the reach of the extra-territorial offences in that act to cover habitual as well as permanent UK residents.
That was achieved by means of a legislative consent motion on the Serious Crime Act 2015. The 2015 act contains a number of provisions relating to FGM that have come into force in England and Wales. We have closely examined each of them, and we have taken a thoughtful and considerate approach to determining the best way forward for Scotland. To ensure that what we choose to do is informed by the best information that we have, the Scottish Government consulted across the statutory and third sectors, as well as among a cross-section of potentially affected communities, to gather their views on the provisions. We are now considering the feedback from that engagement, and we will consider how to take the matter forward in Scotland.
I will briefly address the issue of prosecutions. Understandably, much continues to be made of the fact that, although FGM has been illegal for more than 30 years, there has not been a single prosecution in Scotland nor in any other part of the UK. FGM, by its very nature, is a hidden issue, it may be underreported, and those who are affected may not be able to come forward or indeed share their concerns. That is why our work with communities is so important, in giving people both the understanding and the confidence to discuss, challenge and report the practice.
At the launch of Scotland’s national action plan on 4 February 2016, speakers from the statutory sector and from potentially affected communities all made the point that the law needs to protect those at risk and ensure that those who perpetrate this abuse are held to account. However, they were equally clear that prosecution should be part of an overall response that includes protection for those at risk and the provision of services for those affected.
Let me be clear that, although there have been no prosecutions in Scotland, every referral or child welfare concern that is brought to the police relating to concerns that girls have been at risk of having FGM performed on them has been fully investigated by Police Scotland, and no criminality has been found. Of course, we must remain ever vigilant.
I reiterate the Government’s commitment to preventing and eradicating FGM, so-called honour-based violence and all other forms of violence against women and girls. Our approach has been and continues to be one of working closely with all our partners, to whom I pay tribute here today. It is the commitment of professionals across the third and statutory sectors, who protect those at risk and respond to the damage that FGM causes, that enables many women and girls to live their lives free from harm or to rebuild their lives when harm is identified; it is also the commitment of the many unrecognised individuals working within affected communities who give so freely of their time and talents to raise awareness and to challenge the practice.
The desire, drive and determination to rid our society of violence against women and girls, in whatever forms it may take, must unite the Parliament. Together with our stakeholders, we can all help to end it.
That the Parliament recognises 6 February as the International Day of Zero Tolerance for Female Genital Mutilation (FGM); is clear that FGM, along with all other forms of violence perpetrated against women under the guise of gender, culture or religion, so-called honour-based violence, is a violation of the human rights of women and girls; acknowledges that a preventative, supportive and legislative approach is crucial to tackling, preventing and eradicating FGM; recognises that communities and individuals affected by honour-based violence must be at the heart of work to effect significant social, cultural and attitudinal change over the long term, and welcomes the positive engagement and ongoing partnership approach across the police, NHS, education, social services, third sector and community-based organisations, in taking forward the actions from Scotland’s National Action Plan to Prevent and Eradicate FGM.