Numbers of reported FGM cases has dramatically increased

Newly released figures for the number of Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) cases, in England and Wales, reveal that over 1,000 women have been treated for FGM in just three months by the NHS.

The figures, recorded from April-June this year, found that 1,026 victims were treated, nine of which were girls under the age of 18. The statistics also revealed that 75% of the cases were self-reported.

The figures are likely to increase further because as of 1 June this year reporting suspected cases became mandatory for GP’s, and other stakeholders and healthcare providers.

While a lot of work has been undertaken to raise the profile of this abhorrent crime, particularly within the Home Office and the Department of Education, it is truly shocking that so many cases are still emerging. Nevertheless the work done by these departments’ means that more and more victims are starting to feel confident to seek help.

Despite the emergence of greater numbers of victims, campaigners remain concerned that they still don’t receive enough support, both physically and psychologically.

Mary Wandia, FGM programme manager at the NGO Equality Now, said: “Our figures with City University show that nearly 10,000 girls under 14 living in England or Wales are likely to have undergone FGM. Cases are likely to exist in every single local authority,” she said.

If Equality Now is right then we really are only scratching the surface of this terrible crime. As reporting becomes mandatory I fear the next figures will start to reveal an even greater number of victims.

Although FGM has been illegal in the UK since 1985 it remains prevalent in other parts of the world. For example, it is estimated in Africa some three million girls annually undergo FGM.

It is a global problem which we must continue to fight to eradicate. An enormous amount of work is required to achieve this and these figures tell only part of the story.

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Book signing at Labour Women’s Conference

I’m now back in Brussels following this year’s Labour Conference.

I also attended Women’s Conference on Saturday where there was a great atmosphere. Delegates made powerful statements about the direction of future policy and the debates in breakout sessions were inspirational. In addition, the Conference gave a moving tribute to Harriet Harman who has done so much for women over more than 30 years.

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I had a stand at Women’s Conference where I signed and sold copies of my book, Parliamentary Pioneers. I was also invited to do a book signing at conference on Tuesday at City Books book shop, the official book seller at this year’s Labour conference.

It was another great opportunity to meet many women from a variety of backgrounds, including research fellows, CLP delegates and trade unionists all searching of ways to improve pay, conditions and other rights for women.

My book, Parliamentary Pioneers, is available to buy on Amazon or on my website.

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Education is a tool for change: we need gender equality in schools

Education is a driver in our economy, a tool for challenging gender stereotypes and a prerequisite for empowering women and girls.

I was therefore very pleased when the European Parliament recently voted in favour of a report to promote gender equality in education. This was a non-legislative report covering a wide range of important issues relating to gender equality in education systems.

Unfortunately, not all MEPs seem to agree. The Tories and UKIP teamed up once again to vote against a progressive agenda on gender equality, with many arguing that this is not an area for the EU to be taking action.

Article 165 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union (TFEU) states:

The Union shall contribute to the development of quality education by encouraging cooperation between Member States and, if necessary, by supporting and supplementing their action, while fully respecting the responsibility of the Member States for the content of teaching and the organisation of education systems and their cultural and linguistic diversity.

This means the EU has supporting competence in the area of education. Whilst it is rightly up to member states to determine their own education policy, the Union has a responsibility to support them.

Research demonstrates the strong influence of gender stereotypes in education which constrain the choices students make throughout their lives. For this reason, it is vital that we widen access and participation for women in science and technology subjects. We face a projected skills shortfall in these fields and so it is necessary to encourage the full participation of all children. If we do not act now to make sure all children have the same opportunities to pursue their talents, we risk missing out on that talent and falling behind in an increasingly competitive global arena.

The report addressed a number of other issues including the importance of promoting equal representation in education leadership and management. Women are still underrepresented in senior leadership and decision making positions whilst being overrepresented in early years and primary education.

One other very important issue raised in this report was the need to tackle all forms of discrimination, bullying and gender-based violence in schools. It is estimated that as many as 10% of bullied teenagers have attempted suicide. This is clearly an area of deep concern and we should be doing all that we can to help member states to work together at all levels.

Finally, we asked member states to consider adopting age-appropriate sex and relationships education. I believe children have a right to be informed and that age-appropriate education will help keep them safe, happy and healthy.

The final report includes many of my own amendments, including measures to support children with special educational needs and increase efforts to tackle gender-based violence in schools.

I hope the adoption of this report will be followed with concrete action from the Commission and member states. All children – girls and boys – have the right to a learning environment in which they can thrive and fulfil their potential

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ECJ Judgment on EU migrants’ eligibility for benefits

This week, the European Court of Justice issued a ruling directly tackling the thorny issue of so-called ‘benefit tourism’, according to the Times.

In the case at hand, a Swedish family living in Germany were unable to prove that all working age members of the family had actually been active in the search for employment, prompting the German authorities to deny them social benefits, challenged by the Swedish family.

EU citizens are of course entitled to remain in another Member State for an unlimited duration, provided that they can show they will not become a burden on that state, and that they have comprehensive health insurance. This judgment instead aims to clarify the nature of those who move to another country searching for work.

It is worth stressing that those who find themselves involuntarily without work may still remain in the Member State to which they moved, however they must prove their search for work, identical to the situation of citizens of that Member State. Clearly therefore, the protections in place already on benefit tourism function well, as proved by the judgment.

This will feed into the wider discussions on renegotiation of the terms of the UK’s membership of the EU, but we should also remind ourselves that migration, in particular from the EU, contributes a vast amount to our economy and society, and we should not simply ignore or denigrate that contribution.

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‘Women on boards of banks ensures they’re more financially stable’, says IMF

The IMF has found that including women on the boards of banks ensures they are more financially stable. Its report, which you can read here, provides further compelling evidence why having women in senior positions and on company boards is good for business.

I find I defend my position regarding women on boards too frequently. The IMF- an institution which obviously musters high regard and respect- found in its report that: “the higher proportion of senior positions occupied by women, the greater the institutions ‘distance to distress’.” It went on to explain that a larger distance means the bank is more protected against shocks to earnings.

The report also found that the vast majority of banks (across the world) don’t have any senior women or women on their boards at all. It revealed less than 20% of directors on the boards of banks are women.

The lack of women in senior positions is not exclusive to the banking sector, indeed last month the Chartered Management Institute revealed respondents to its survey told of a 22% pay gap at management level. It equated the gap to women working an extra 57 days for free compared to their male counterparts.

Plans to force the top FTSE companies to be more transparent about their pay does help because it forces employers to consider how they remunerate staff and if they do so fairly.

Furthermore, an environment must be created so that capable women feel empowered enough to recognise the skills and expertise they bring to the table and feel able to robustly negotiate their pay.

Women remain an asset to business. Not least for the reasons identified in the IMF report. Yet some business leaders remain concerned that any period of time taken away from employment, for childrearing for example, in some way de-skills women. Yet the majority of women who take maternity leave are only away for a few months, during which period most organisations won’t go through a significant transformation. And even where they do, women are able to stay in touch with Keep in Touch days.

So I repeat the wise findings of the IMF report which indicate women are an asset to business: “Including women in senior positions ensures banks are more financially stable.”

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European Court of Justice rules in favour of workers

In the past few days, the European Court of Justice ruled that the Working Time Directive extends to time taken for travel to work, once again interpreting EU legislation to give effect to the rights of workers.

It is important that we recognise that the European Union can be a strong ally in our fight to ensure effective protection of workers’ rights. The Court has outlined that where workers have no fixed place of work, which affects many categories of workers including salespeople, care workers, energy company workers and repairmen and women, their travel time must be taken into account as work. This is essential in guaranteeing that workers are not taken advantage of purely because of the nature of their work.

The Court itself stated that to consider travel time as falling outside of working time would distort the very concept of working time and “jeopardise the objective of protecting the safety and health of workers”. This approach looks at a much wider picture than the simple letter of the law, including referring to the Treaty itself, which sets out the rights of working people.

Once again, the institutions of the European Union have proven that they are not blind to the needs of workers. While there has been controversy over the issues of free movement of workers, undercutting prices and tax issues, the institutions have taken steps to mitigate these problems, including efforts towards collective rights across borders, increased competition in the market allowing for better quality and prices, the ability to access the labour market in other countries without fear of discrimination, to name just a few. None of these could have been achieved without European level intervention.

The TUC has hit the headlines this week over its stance on the EU. I can well understand the fears of those who wish to limit European integration, however we should understand that in an increasingly globalised world, we need to pull together. It is cases like the Working Time Directive which prove the importance of continued membership of the EU.

The best way for us to ensure that we continue our fight for workers across Europe is not to blame individual institutions and opt-out, but instead play a full and supportive role in the European Union.

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Europe needs a holistic approach to migration with women’s rights firmly embedded within it

We are all aware of the situation unfolding in the Mediterranean. The influx of migrants at the EU’s southern borders has been unprecedented; the heavy death toll has been shocking. At Lampedusa, at the Spanish enclave of Ceuta, in the Aegean Sea, the reality of this humanitarian crisis has been brought home to us.

The situation has been brought about largely by prolonged conflict in the Middle East and we are now witnessing the largest wave of refugees since World War II.

Over the past few months it has become clear that, alongside an immediate response to prevent further loss of life, we need a long-term, holistic response. The European Agenda on Migration, presented by the European Commission in May, has set out both the immediate action to be taken as well as the measures to manage migration in the coming years.

The European Parliament is currently working on a report on the situation in the Mediterranean and the wider European agenda on migration. I have been appointed the rapporteur for the contribution of the committee on women’s rights and gender equality to this report.

The EU strategy must span a number of policy areas – internal and external – and present a unified and coherent response from the EU and its member states. It is imperative that the strategy includes innovative measures to ensure not just human rights standards generally but that the specific needs of women and girls are met.

It is my aim, along with my colleagues, to help shape the European Agenda on Migration and to ensure that women’s rights and a gender perspective are embedded within it.

Currently, there are huge disparities across member states in how we treat women seeking asylum. Any holistic approach to asylum and immigration must guarantee that processes and standards are consistent across all member states. At the moment, our asylum and immigration systems are not sufficiently gender-sensitive.

The increased flow of people has resulted in pressure points and when this happens, it only makes it harder to meet the needs of vulnerable individuals, including women and girls. These are some of the most vulnerable people in the world and Europe has so far been failing them.

Sexual violence

One of the key points which I am addressing in my work is the issue of violence, in particular sexual violence. We know that women asylum seekers and undocumented migrants are vulnerable throughout their journeys. They are often alone and separated from their families.

I have read harrowing accounts of women and young girls who have fled persecution and war only to experience extreme violence. This is a particular problem in transit countries like Morocco and Libya.

This is why we need to ensure that all staff involved, including the International Organisation for Migration, are trained to deal with women who have experienced this kind of trauma.

Having spoken to representatives from NGOs and IGOs, I know that many women are pregnant as a result of sexual violence experienced since leaving their homes. We need to look at access to maternal healthcare with this in mind.

Reception facilitates

A recent report by a UK charity, Women for Refugee Women, revealed that as many as half of female rape and torture survivors detained in the UK after seeking asylum have considered suicide.

This starkly demonstrates why decisions to detain women asylum seekers and undocumented migrants should take account of past trauma and I have highlighted this in my own work.

Detention is just one option and for many of these vulnerable people, it is simply not appropriate. Other tailored facilities would more appropriately meet the needs of, for example, pregnant women and young women.

I also intend to address the importance of allowing competent authorities to have access to reception facilities in order to inspect standards and ensure that women’s human rights are being upheld in full.

Trafficking and smuggling

We know that the situation in the Mediterranean is very closely connected to the problem of people smuggling and that many of those who risk their lives at sea are doing so at the hands of criminal gangs.

Although there is also evidence to suggest that human traffickers may be exploiting the situation too, we must distinguish human trafficking from smuggling. The two are quite different phenomena – legally and in practice.

Trafficking in human beings is, primarily, a crime against the person and a gross violation of a person’s basic human rights. People smuggling is, on the other hand, a crime against the state.

It is important that these two categories are not conflated and that staff tasked with identifying victims of trafficking are adequately trained and resourced to carry out their work effectively and sensitively.

These are just some of the issues I have been working on. Such an important topic can hardly be covered in detail here but I am confident that the final report will present comprehensive and timely recommendations to improve the situation across Europe.

The final report on the situation in the Mediterranean and the EU response is due to go before the European Parliament in December.

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