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Wednesday, 6 February 2013
Page: 253

Ms PLIBERSEK (SydneyMinister for Health) (16:35): by leave—Today marks the United Nations sponsored International Day of Zero Tolerance to Female Genital Mutilation. Today, Australia joins with the international community to raise awareness about FGM. We also restate our commitment to protect the health, dignity and rights of girls and women and end the practice of FGM in Australia and overseas. The United Nations estimates that FGM affects around 140 million women worldwide. The UN Population Fund estimates that a further three million girls, the majority under 15 years of age, are at risk each year of having FGM performed. In December, the United Nations General Assembly adopted a landmark resolution banning female genital mutilation. One hundred and ninety-four member states, including Australia, have committed to intensifying global efforts to end FGM.

As a young woman I read the autobiography of Nawal El Saadawi, an Egyptian feminist writer, activist, physician and psychiatrist, now in her eighties. At the age of six, in 1937, Nawal El Saadawi was pinned down by four women in her home in Egypt. A midwife, holding a sharpened razor blade, pulled out her clitoris and cut it off. Of this event El Saadawi has said:

Since I was a child that deep wound left in my body has never healed.

Reading her words then affected me greatly, and remembering them now makes me determined that no girl in Australia should ever experience FGM, and that we must play our role too in helping other nations abandon FGM.

FGM is common in a number of countries in Western, Eastern and North-Eastern Africa, some countries in Asia and the Middle East. The number of new arrivals to Australia from countries with a high prevalence of FGM has increased in recent decades. The good news is that change is possible: the UN Population Fund estimates that some 8,000 communities across the world have abandoned the practice of FGM.

There is no clear evidence of the number of migrant women in Australia who have experienced FGM in their country of birth. Building this evidence will be critical to government work in this area. What we do know is that there are tens of thousands of women living in Australia who were born in countries where FGM is practised and many thousands who will need specialised obstetric and gynaecological care now and in the future.

There is also no clear evidence about the extent of FGM practised in Australia—however, the Australia government's position on this is clear. FGM is illegal. On 11 December 2012 the Prime Minister and I jointly announced the Australian government's strongest possible commitment to do all we can to stop this practice being performed in Australia. It has no place in Australia, it is a violation of the human rights of girls and women, it is a crime and it will not be excused by culture.

On this day of zero tolerance, and in line with our commitment, it is important for the uncomfortable truth to be told. We know that FGM is deeply entrenched in gender inequality. The prevalence of FGM in affected communities is reflected in the status of women in social, economic and political life. That is why our efforts to improve outcomes for women and girls through support for the Millennium Development Goals are so important.

FGM involves partial or total removal of the external female genitalia. It may involve removal of the clitoris, the total or partial excision of the labia, or the stitching or narrowing of the vaginal opening. The procedure, obviously, has no health benefit for girls and women. All forms of FGM have immediate harm and serious longer term health implications—pain, infection, urinary retention, chronic pain, sexual dysfunction, psychological trauma and, very significantly, complications in childbirth. The greater the extent of FGM the more common and severe the complications. Women who have undergone FGM are significantly more likely to have deliveries complicated by caesarean section, post-partum haemorrhage and episiotomy or which require resuscitation of the newborn child. There is also a higher incidence of perinatal death.

We know this because organisations like the World Health Organization are working in communities with a high prevalence of FGM. The World Health Organization is collaborating with researchers like Professor Emily Banks—whom I see here today—an Australian epidemiologist and NHMRC senior research fellow, to build evidence and drive home the messages about harm in communities where FGM is prevalent. The United Nations resolution also calls on countries to pay special attention to supporting women and girls who have been subjected to FGM and those at risk, including refugee women and women migrants.

There is much work that is already underway in Australia. States and territories, non-government organisations, community leaders and health services are already working to end FGM and support those who are already affected. For example, there are women like Juliana Nkrumah, recognised in the Australia Day honours for her significant service to the welfare of women and refugees. Juliana has been a trailblazer in raising awareness about female genital mutilation. She has worked in affected communities to bring about change from within. And there are people like Dr Adele Murdolo and her team at the Multicultural Centre for Women's Health for whom the fight against FGM is both professional and deeply personal.

Late last year I had the privilege of visiting the Royal Women's Hospital in Victoria to meet with Marie Jones, who is coordinating a deinfibulation clinic for women affected by FGM. The clinic has a team of Family and Reproductive Rights Education Program workers who support women considering surgical reversal of FGM. These surgical procedures are available to women free, through publicly funded hospital services.

Family Planning Victoria have also been working to improve health care for women and girls affected by FGM, and have developed care plans and advice for health professionals that have led to significant improvements in service delivery.

In Family Planning New South Wales clinics, women from African, Asian and Middle Eastern countries who have experienced FGM have access to services from healthcare providers providing specialised care in a safe and sympathetic environment. Some New South Wales hospitals have done a marvellous job adapting to the needs of the women they serve.

In Tasmania, the Red Cross is successfully operating an FGM education program.

In WA, the Women's Wellness and FGM clinic is providing important services from the King Edward hospital in Perth.

Family Planning Queensland and the Multicultural Women's Health project are mobilising Queensland community leaders and employing health educators to work within communities. Unfortunately, despite increased demand on services, their funding has remained static for the last five years.

Since 1996 the South Australian Refugee Women's Health and Safety program has been working with affected communities, health professionals, child protection workers, police and education authorities in an effort to address FGM.

I would like to acknowledge the important role of the professional colleges in supporting health professionals to assist women affected by FGM. I have held discussions with several colleges in recent months about redoubling our efforts to end FGM and support women who have had the procedure. The Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists, the College of Nursing, the College of Midwives and the Royal Australasian College of Physicians are absolutely committed on this issue. They bring to this issue enormous professional expertise and experience.

An enforceable legal framework is absolutely critical in combating FGM. While laws concerning FGM are primarily a matter for states and territories, the federal Attorney-General is working with states and territories to identify opportunities to strengthen Australia's legal framework in relation to the practice. All states and territories have enacted legislation making it a criminal offence to perform FGM on any person or to remove a child for the purpose of performing FGM. The maximum penalties for these offences range from seven years imprisonment to 21 years imprisonment.

But we know that there are limits to the capacity of our legal system to bring about change where cultural practices are deeply embedded in communities. Cultural and attitudinal change comes about through a far wider range of mechanisms and approaches. I am leading Australian government efforts on this front and working closely with other Commonwealth ministers, state and territory governments, non-government organisations, communities and individuals. Our efforts are focused on supporting communities to abandon the practice of FGM, while also preventing new cases, enforcing a legal framework consistent with zero tolerance and ensuring there is appropriate support available to women and girls who are affected by FGM.

In the near future the government will announce $500,000 in grants available to organisations for education and awareness activities. This will support change within communities, as we know public education and awareness are key to change.

Today I can also announce that the national summit on female genital mutilation foreshadowed by the Prime Minister in December will be held on 9 April 2013. The summit will bring together a range of health, community and legal experts to discuss ways to assist communities to abandon FGM both here and abroad.

I was speaking to Ajay Rane, a physician who is very experienced in this area. He said, and I think we all believe, that we owe it to every girl and every woman to ensure that they never experience FGM. To those who have, we owe them a responsibility to ensure that they receive appropriate care when they need it.

I ask leave of the House to move a motion to enable the member for Dickson to speak for 10 minutes.

Leave granted.


That so much of the standing and sessional orders be suspended as would prevent the member for Dickson speaking in reply to the minister's statement for a period not exceeding 10 minutes.

Question agreed to.