Legislative Assembly for the ACT: 1995 Week 9 Hansard (23 November) . . Page.. 2320..
MR HUMPHRIES (continuing):
The practice is a longstanding cultural one which is quite widespread. In 1994 it was estimated by the World Health Organisation that up to 114 million women worldwide may have been subjected to these practices. Most affected women are from a number of African countries, although it is not confined to those areas. Reasons for the practice vary in different communities. It may be associated, for example, with an initiation rite or matters of hygiene or appearance. Although the practice has often been associated with the Islamic religion, Islamic authorities have made clear statements in recent years that it is not a requirement of their religion. Rather, the practice is cultural.
The procedure is risky and has severe consequences. It is believed to be performed in most cases by an older woman or a traditional birth attendant. Most procedures take place before a child reaches puberty and usually happen at a very young age. Short-term risks include shock, haemorrhaging, infection, more severe mutilation than was intended and even death. Long-term complications include chronic recurrent infection, pain, sterility, childbirth complications and the build-up of menstrual fluid in the abdomen, as well as emotional and psychological distress and pain.
Mr Speaker, although I am not aware of any reports of female genital mutilation occurring in the Territory, I believe it is important that the Territory act to prohibit these practices. They are in contravention of various international covenants to which Australia is a party. These include the Convention on the Rights of the Child and the Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women. In addition, the Declaration on Violence Against Women specifically included female genital mutilation in its definition of violence. A number of countries around the world have already taken action. Legislation has been enacted in the United Kingdom and Sweden, and a Bill has been introduced in the Federal House of Representatives in the United States of America.
In Australia, the Family Law Council proposed in 1994 that the Commonwealth should legislate to ban the practice under its external affairs power. At the November 1994 meeting of the Standing Committee of Attorneys-General, all States and Territories, with the exception of Western Australia, supported enactment of specific State and Territory legislation to criminalise these practices. New South Wales and South Australia have already done so, and I understand that Western Australia now is also considering such legislation.
Mr Speaker, it is almost without doubt that in the Territory, as in other Australian jurisdictions, a person who performed such a procedure could be prosecuted under existing criminal laws on assault, although it would appear that the matter has never been tested in court. The practice on female children is also contrary to the Territory's child protection laws. However, there are a number of advantages in enacting this specific legislation. One important advantage is that it removes any doubt that a parent or guardian may be able to consent to such a procedure on a child. It also establishes that any person who intentionally arranges for a child to be taken outside the Territory for the purpose of having the operation performed is guilty of a criminal offence. Moreover, it has deterrent value in providing a clear legislative statement against the practice.