Female Genital Mutilation

14 Oct 2015 newsspeechparliament

A motion on Female Genital Mutilation

The Hon. J.M.A. LENSINK  ( 17:21 :37 ):  I move:

That this council— 

1. Commends the work of No FGM Australia in raising the awareness of the health and other risks to Australian women and girls of the illegal practice of female genital mutilation and its concerns that— 

 (a) there is a lack of awareness among Australian health and child protection professionals about FGM; 

 (b) no data is collected about prevalence of FGM in South Australian residents; and 

 (c) girls most at risk of FGM are those who come from FGM - affected communities and that in Australia, three girls a day     

      are in    the high - risk category; 

2. Notes that the World Health Organisation has described FGM as a violation of the human rights of girls and women and constitutes an extreme form of discrimination against women; 

3. Notes that FGM has no health benefits and can cause severe urinary, fertility and childbirth complications; 

4. Notes the  review and  recommendations of the Australian government's 2013 Review of Australia's Female Genital Mutilation Legal Framework Final Report; and 

5. Notes that Australia's first FGM prosecution is taking place in New South Wales for alleged offences on two young girls who were at the time aged only seven years old . 

Just by way of some introductory remarks on this motion, which is in relation to female genital mutilation, I was invited by members of No FGM Australia to meet with them recently, which I did last week. I would like to thank Ms Khadija Gbla and Marijka Ryan for their time and for bringing this matter to my attention.

Prior to meeting with them I had been aware of the matter particularly through the work of the former federal member for Adelaide, the Hon. Trish Worth who, way back in the mid-nineties had been raising the issue of female genital mutilation and the fact that it was a reality for some women and girls living in Australia. I was certainly aware that we had amended our laws in Australia, so I spoke to the parliamentary library just to get a read on what the situation was, and I am grateful for their assistance. The detail they provided to me was that most of the jurisdictions amended their laws in the mid-nineties and have done that through their state laws.

In South Australia we have a couple of acts which cover this issue: the Criminal Law Consolidation Act, in particular at clauses 33, 33A and 33B, and also the Children's Protection Act 1993 at 26A and 26B. There certainly is legislation which not only prohibits the practice from taking place in South Australia but also has pretty severe prison penalties for people who take others overseas to have the practice done there.

Part of me was wondering what these particular ladies were going to say to me, given that we have laws which stand against the practice and have been on our statute books for quite some time. The matters that they raised with me are clearly that we do have laws—the first items there in the motion, paragraphs 1(a) to (c). Their advice to me is that there is a lack of awareness which leads to risk for women and girls in Australia having to undergo this practice for cultural reasons. I say cultural. I understand that it is cultural and not religious—indeed, it is not part of either Muslim or Christian practice—and yet it is much more prevalent in some communities than others.

Part (a) of the first part of the motion relates to the lack of awareness among Australian health and child protection professionals about FGM. No FGM Australia's advice to me is that Families SA lacks awareness about it as do health workers, that information is not on official forms or in official policies, either for child protection or in health.

Part (b) says that there is no data collected, and that has been confirmed in correspondence that No FGM have received. I would like to quote to back up part of their concerns. They received a letter via email on 1 May this year and the subject of the letter is 'Data on FGM'. I will quote a few sections of it from the SA Health department to No FGM Australia reps, as follows:

It is not possible to provide you with data about the number of women and children who have undergone FGM living in South Australia since there is no robust collection of data of this type. 

It goes on:

The issue of FGM data has been a concern across Australia  for some time. As part of the National Summit convened by the Australian  Government  in 2013 in which all States and Territories participated , research and data collection was proposed as an initiative to build the evidence needed to support women and girls affected by FGM in Australia. 

One of the projects funded was for the Australian Paediatric Surveillance Unit (APSU) together with the Division of Paediatrics and Child Health of The Royal Australasian College of Physicians, (RACP) to conduct a survey on FGM in children. This survey is current and relies on health service providers and others voluntarily participating. The project is led by Professor Elizabeth Elliot. The project will evaluate the prevalence of FGM in girls under 18 years of age seen by paediatricians or other health practitioners in the last 5 years, and includes information about the practitioners '  knowledge, attitudes and clinical practice regarding FGM in Australia. 

In relation to part (c) which refers to the demographic of girls who are most at risk of FGM, No FGM Australia says that they are from those communities who practised this barbaric practice in their countries of origin. In the documentation that they have provided to me, which is available on their website www.nofgmoz.com, they state that for women born outside Australia, Australia has over 83,000 women and girls who have migrated to the country (and I assume they mean Australia) who are likely to be survivors of FGM or be at risk of FGM. This includes 5,640 girls who are under the age of 15; this group is at high risk of FGM; and 36,236 women of child-bearing age, between the ages of 15 and 49. They also say that women born outside Australia who are likely to be survivors of FGM are estimated to give birth to about 1,100 girls every year. That is about three per day and these girls are also at high risk of FGM.

They have identified the countries of origin which include a number of African countries and there are some also from Asia. I say that with caution because I would not wish this to become seen as a racial issue. I note from the debate in the mid-1990s that there were concerns raised that particular communities were potentially seen as targets or that it might be seen as some stigmatisation. I think the ultimate concern in this matter is always the welfare of women and children, and I think it is probably just a matter of reality that the population at highest risk is from this particular community.

Point 2 of the motion is in relation to the World Health Organisation, and they have been pretty clear about their views on these matters. The national review that I have already mentioned, which was performed in 2013, has some comments that I think outline the case that the World Health Organisation has put. Page 6 of the Australian government's Review of Australia's Female Genital Mutilation legal framework, the final report, dated March 2013, states:

2.2 Background 

Female genital mutilation is an abhorrent practice. It intentionally alters and causes harm to female genital organs for no medical reason and can have serious and long-lasting consequences, including infertility, an increased risk of childbirth complications, and maternal and infant mortality during and shortly after childbirth. 

That particular statement is from the World Health Organisation, and the document is at www.who.int/mediacentre/factsheets/fs241/en/. The report goes on to state:

The World Health Organisation estimates that female genital mutilation affects about 100-140 million women and girls worldwide, and each year it is estimated that an additional three million girls are at risk of being subjected to the practice globally. 

In recognition of the seriousness of female genital mutilation, in December 2012 the United Nations General Assembly unanimously passed a resolution, co-sponsored by Australia, banning the practice of female genital mutilation and encouraging member states to intensify efforts to eliminate this harmful practice. The Prime Minister, the Hon Julia Gillard MP, has indicated that Australia will stand firm with the international community and support all necessary measures to stop female genital mutilation on a global scale. 

That really just refers to points 2 and 3 of the motion and that it is globally recognised that this is an appalling practice and that the WHO has condemned it.

Point 4 refers to the review and recommendations of the Australian government 2013 review. I understand that a summit was held and that interjurisdictional representatives were there. The consensus was that there was a lack of reporting between jurisdictions, and there were a number of recommendations that were aimed at improving these matters. I think they do echo the matters that are on No FGM's agenda of concerns.

They also suggested that there be legal harmonisation between the states and territories; which is the jurisdiction that contains the laws in relation to prohibiting female genital mutilation from taking place either in Australia or overseas. It talks about information sharing and other methods for detection. So, it has been recognised nationally that this is a problem and clearly the matter needs to continue to be advanced.

The final point of the motion is to note that there is actually a case. One of the other matters that was found by the summit in 2013, and the report, is that there is a very low number of prosecutions in relation to this matter, which is not to say that they do not take place. It may well be that they are going undetected because of this lack of awareness among our health and child protection authorities.

That case is proceeding through the courts in New South Wales. Anecdotally—and we are dealing with a lot of anecdotal advice on this matter at the moment until these cases are uncovered and taken to court—the person who performed the act was a retired health worker (which is reasonably common where these cases take place) and it took place between the years of 2010 and 2012. Honourable members can avail themselves of the media coverage of that matter, which is continuing to proceed through the courts.

No FGM Australia has been diligent in trying to get as much information in relation to South Australia as they could. They made a freedom of information request to SAPOL. The reply is dated 22 June 2015. They sought: 1. Reports of girls at risk of FGM; 2. Reports of girls who have already been subjected to FGM; information to include date of report, location of report, outcome of report. They say they would like to know how many reports have been made to SAPOL since the 1993 FGM legislation was introduced, so that covers 22 years. The reply states that a search has been undertaken and South Australia Police has not received any complaints relating to FGM since the legislation was introduced, which, I repeat, is no indication that it is not taking place. More than likely it is taking place but is undetected.

According to No FGM Australia in 2011 there was a total of 66,570 people in South Australia who potentially are affected by the practice. Girls most at risk of FGM are those who come from FGM affected communities. They do say that there is anecdotal evidence that girls have been taken from Australia for FGM and they say themselves that women in South Australia are exposed to a high degree of ignorance of FGM by healthcare professionals.

I understand that healthcare professionals and child protection workers are required to make mandatory notifications of the situation, but I understand that there is very little understanding among those workers of their obligations in relation to this particular issue. That in itself, I think, is cause for huge concern. I am grateful to Khadija and Marijka for raising this issue with me and coming to see me. I did want to raise this with the parliament in the hope that we could give some greater profile to the concern that this practice may be taking place in South Australia, so for that reason I have brought this motion to the Legislative Council and commend it to the house.

Debate adjourned on motion of  Hon. G.A. Kandelaars .