National Summit on Female Genital Mutilation Speech

Date: 
Mon, 08/04/2013

The following is a speech given by Tanya Plibersek, Minister for Health at the National Summit on Female Genital Mutilation on the 7th April 2013.

For a copy of the new National Compact on Female Genital Mutilation, click here.

Acknowledgements:

  • Acknowledgement of Country
  • My ministerial colleagues
  • Senator Kate Lundy, Minister for Multicultural Affairs
  • Senator Jan McLucas, Minister for Human Services and
  • Andrew Leigh, Parliamentary Secretary to Prime Minister who will be joining us later today.
  • The Hon Dr Kim Hames, Western Australian Minister for Health
  • Andrew Laming, Federal Member for Bowman, who is representing the Coalition;
  • Dr Comfort Momoh – from the UK, who is an midwife specialising in FGM and who has worked as an advisor to the WHO on FGM;
  • Penny Williams, Australia’s Global Ambassador for Women and Girls;
  • Elizabeth Broderick, Federal Sex Discrimination Commissioner;
  • Professor Chris Baggoley, Chief Medical Officer;
  • Rosemary Bryant, Commonwealth Chief Nurse and Midwifery Officer;
  • Representatives of medical and health professions, migrant communities, religious communities, and interested groups.

I thank each of you for coming to this National Summit. 

Our task today is to agree on refocussing and redoubling our current efforts to protect and support women and girls who are affected by FGM, and to prevent this practice from occurring to a new generation. This is a difficult and confronting topic. It is distressing for many and touches on closely held cultural traditions for others. We are not here today to lay blame or make accusations. Far from it. We are here to promote healing and protection for girls and women now and in the future.

Last year the Prime Minister asked me to coordinate the Australian Government’s efforts to end the practice of FGM, and to make sure we are doing all we can to support girls and women affected by FGM.
Since then, I have met with a wide range of people - health workers, clinicians, advocates, peer support workers, educators and researchers.

Today’s summit brings many of you together. This is an impressive group of people - it has a powerful voice, it has reach into our communities, it has influence, expertise, drive and passion.

I want to acknowledge that most of the people here today have been working for many years to highlight the issues around FGM and advocate on behalf of girls and women affected by this practice. You inspire us, and your leadership will continue to be immensely important.

All mothers - all parents - want the best for their children.
In some communities the practice of FGM on girls and women has become established and accepted, and passed on from one generation to another. Even mothers and grandmothers have agreed or arranged FGM because they believed their daughters would not be marriageable without it. Now is the time to end that cycle.

The truth is that Female Genital Mutilation has no benefits, only detriments. It is an act of discrimination and physical abuse against girls and women, which cannot be condoned or ignored. Globally, FGM is mostly carried out on young girls sometime between infancy and
age 15.

The World Health Organization defines FGM as "all procedures involving partial or total removal of the female external genitalia or other injury to the female genital organs whether for cultural or other non-therapeutic reasons". WHO estimates 140 million women and girls are affected worldwide. There are currently no reliable statistics on how many women and girls are affected in Australia. However, anecdotal evidence suggests that the practice continues to occur in Australia. The number of cases might be small, but not one single girl in Australia should ever experience FGM. Not one.

The number of people migrating to Australia from countries which commonly practice FGM is increasing. As the prevalence of FGM in some of these countries is over 85 per cent this means the number of women with FGM-related health needs, and girls potentially at risk of FGM here in Australia is also likely to rise. We are not isolated from this issue, and cannot be complacent. We are compelled as a nation to take action.

I want to talk briefly about one aspect of our efforts to end FGM, and that is our work on the legal framework for responding to FGM.
The Federal Attorney General Mark Dreyfus has been working with his state and territory colleagues to complete a review Australia’s FGM laws. The aim of the review was to ensure that Australia’s legal framework comprehensively criminalises FGM. The review examined existing laws to identify areas for improvement and ensure individuals do not escape criminal liability. It also examined the practical operation of Australia’s laws to ensure that police and prosecutors are in the best possible position to detect, investigate and prosecute FGM whenever and wherever it occurs. 

What the review found was that State and Territory laws are effective in criminalising FGM, but that there are opportunities to strengthen Australia’s legal framework. In particular there is room to improve consistency of penalties - which range now from 7 years imprisonment up to 21 years imprisonment. The Australian Government’s model laws recommend a penalty of 15 years imprisonment for performing FGM; and 7 years imprisonment for removing, or making arrangements to remove a person from a jurisdiction for the purpose of having FGM performed. Reforms are also recommended to extend current laws which protect girls under the age of 18 years, so that they apply to all girls and women, regardless of age.

The review also recommends reforms so that consistent legislation is adopted in all Australian jurisdictions – so that regardless of location, there can be no confusion that performing FGM or removing, or making arrangements to remove a person or the purpose of having FGM performed is a crime.

While our laws effectively criminalise FGM, questions remain around enforcement. Despite being extensively criminalised very few (if any) FGM offences have been successfully prosecuted in Australian courts and there are opportunities to better enforce existing laws. 
This could include better cooperation between the health and legal systems. The Australian Government will continue working with states and territories to push ahead with reforms that are necessary to prosecute and penalise criminal behaviour.

I will also be discussing with Health Ministers opportunities to improve the detection, investigation and prosecution of offences.
Australia is standing strong with the international community in efforts to end FGM overseas. Last December, Australia co-sponsored an historic United Nations resolution on FGM, calling on all countries to act to eliminate the practice. UN Secretary Ban Ki Moon described the resolution as an important step towards a world free from violence against women. At least 8000 communities in African nations which have previously practised FGM have listened to the voices of their women and girls and abandoned it. Women, and men who once thought FGM was important for their girls, now see that it is not central to their beliefs or to their acceptance in the community. Communities in which FGM is still practiced will become stronger and healthier without it.

The Australian Government’s position is that there is and can be no justification for FGM and it will not be tolerated under any circumstances. There is no doubt that FGM is a preventable harm and a serious risk to their health. It has no medical benefits, but has immediate and long term health consequences. These can include obstetric, gynaecological and mental health problems.

At this Summit you will be reminded a little about the pain, suffering and trauma of some women. This suffering is entirely avoidable. Our responsibility is not only to ensure no girl in Australia suffers FGM but to provide support and care for women and girls who have experienced the procedure overseas. The actions that are being proposed today will build on and coordinate existing efforts being made around the nation. They will include awareness raising and education activities, prevention and law enforcement efforts, appropriate and culturally sensitive health services and developing the evidence base on FGM in Australia. Each of you will be asked to support action in areas which you can best influence. By working together, we can contribute to global efforts to end FGM and support those affected by the practice. 

I hope that goal will be at the top of your minds today. I am confident that we can take a united step forward today – a step that could make all the difference for young girls and women.