Stephen O’ Brien speaking at Orchid Project’s Parliamentary Reception on February 6th
“It should be our mission to take the neglected out of Female Genital Cutting”
DFID Minister Stephen O’Brien spoke at our House of Commons reception to mark International Day against Female Genital Cutting. Here is a transcript of the Minister’s speech.
Julia, Orchid CEO: “I am delighted to introduce Stephen O’Brien who is Parliamentary Under Secretary of State for the Department for International Development, and I was equally delighted at the end of last year we were in Dakar together, and spoke with some of the community members who had chosen to abandon FGC. I choose that word ‘chosen’ very carefully because that is an absolutely key element behind this. We are so impressed that DFID are really, really concentrating some effort into how this issue can be taken on board, and without further ado, the Minister.”
Stephen O’Brien: “Good afternoon Ladies and Gentlemen. It’s a great pleasure to be with you [...] I wanted to be here because I wanted to show, not least following the visit I made to Dakar my personal, my Government’s genuine support for the tremendous work that all of you represented here today are engaged in doing, which is to end the practice of female genital cutting […] I think it’s therefore fair to say that within Her Majesty’s Government we hold the very strong view that FGC is a critical issue that goes to the heart of girls’ and women’s empowerment.
As you know the Government has placed girls and women at the front and centre of international development effort, and we’ve a strong focus of women’s and girls’ choices and rights through our focus on family planning in 2012 and it’s that focus on women’s health and choice [… that] puts [FGC] where it belongs. It’s the choice and health rights of girls and women.
FGC is a neglected issue that is fundamentally about women’s choice and rights and deserves proper attention from us all. Some of you may have seen one of my rare forays on to the Saturday morning TV couch when I was announcing a very serious uplift on our programme on neglected tropical diseases. And if you’d like a summary of that, for those of us in the know, these are very detailed, they’ve got long names, but we know the blight it gives to people’s lives. The truth is we’d like to take the neglected out of neglected tropical diseases. Equally, I think it should be our mission to take the neglected out of Female Genital Cutting because it has been a neglected issue. Partly because people find it uncomfortable to talk about and partly because it goes so much into the social sciences of culture, context and behaviour change, so I’m convinced we have an opportunity right now to support the efforts, and we should have no other aim, than to see the complete abandonment of the practice.
And so as was mentioned, back in December I had the great good fortune to visit Tostan in Dakar, Senegal. I was there as part of what was called Family Planning, but what I’m insisting is called Women and Girls, Health, Choice and Child Spacing. I was very, very moved, inspired by the testimonies by the women who were themselves cut as girls, women whose daughters died as a result of the practice, but most of all I was hugely encouraged by the positive stories. So there is a future: there is a way forward. There are thousands of communities who have chosen, picking up precisely what you were saying, to abandon the practice, spreading the word, that there is an alternative: girls do not have to be cut.
And I have been impressed by the work done by diaspora communities across the UK and I know many of you are involved in leading that work. I’m very aware of the close links between these communities and the countries where DFID is working; the strong family and community links that keep people in touch with the country of their origin. In relation to FGC these links aren’t always so positive. And, together we know we need to work with communities globally for that reason. I mean, half the problem is that we just don’t know the extent of it either there or here. Part of what we need to do is to break down the barriers to even having the information, as it’s only with the information that we are going to be able to address the issues, and above all, to present women with choice. And it’s that, that is so important.
The efforts to abandon cutting do I believe have to be Africa led, but the UK Government of course stands ready to back those efforts to place women and girls […] at the fore and centre of our aid programme, and we won’t ignore the issue because it is sensitive and it is of course very difficult. But, I have been very encouraged to learn that FGC is no longer such a taboo, it’s no longer such a silent issue as it used to be, and that’s across Africa from communities to parliaments; it’s discussed and debated.
It was for example encouraging that the African Union last year passed a bill to ask the UN General Assembly Resolution to ban the practice. I would add that I was very struck in Dakar that a key element in becoming a great and successful campaign is that we have to front up and be clear that the best champions for this are the First Ladies, and that we should actually talk to the First Ladies because so often they become the role models for people who are looking up to them. If they say it, they can be believed. And if that can sometimes get into all sorts of proximity to Governments and power, I think it is very important because of the way so much is done by example.
Of course resolutions and new laws, while important, are not by themselves going to end the practice. As I learnt in Dakar, a wave of change led by communities is gaining momentum across the continent. It’s at grassroots level where sustainable change is going to make the great big difference. It was very interesting, it was not just talking at Tostan hearing Marietou Diarra’s experience that her first daughter had died from FGM/C, it was the fact that it was Mr Demba Diawara who was a leader in the community and it was that male leadership as well as the women and the girls because he was traditionally in charge of the community. He had completely come on board and was helping [abandonment] to happen, so he de-normalised [FGC] in the community and this gave confidence to women and girls who then said, ‘no’, we don’t have to do this in order not to be stigmatised, and not have a daughter who won’t get married. So he was able to reverse all those irrational negatives that we know lead to the practice.
So that’s why we will play in the UK our full supporting part to end Female Genital Cutting. And we want to do that globally; we already provide some support to NGO programmes to end the practice through our funding of civil society and through our country’s bilateral programmes, but we do need to do more. And that’s why I’ve asked my officials […] to look at what more we as DFID can do to support the efforts towards global abandonment of the practice. And I know [DFID] are already discussing some of the ideas with you as well as with our other partners so we can be sure we can maximise the impact of our efforts. No doubt in due course, various submissions will come up to me as a minister and as long as they are well argued and good value for money and based on best practice, then they’re likely to succeed and let me tell you that you’ve got a fair wind.
So finally I’d like to thank the Orchid Project for organising the event and for each and every one of you for your tremendous efforts. Be in no doubt, this is work of the utmost importance. It affects half the population of any population you can think of. It’s particularly focused on countries in Africa but they are not by any means the only ones. There are many in the diaspora communities and elsewhere. We have to tackle it, it’s something we have to give a voice to, to be loud about, and to be completely unworried about some of the reactions we may get because like all issues that have been taboo, the only enemy is that they remain taboo. So I believe we can get on with it and together we shall. Thank you.”