In my lifetime, the role of women and girls in British society has been transformed. There has been an emancipation revolution.
Many of these changes have been legal. It seems remarkable today to reflect that, until 1975, women were not allowed to buy a house without financial guarantees being provided by a man, typically their father or husband.Other changes have been cultural. It is extraordinary, for example, that until 1972 a female diplomat in the Foreign Office was required to resign if she got married.
As each of these barriers to female attainment has been removed, women have capitalised on the opportunities that equality has afforded them. In virtually every walk of life now it is wholly unremarkable to see women in positions of high responsibility. Indeed, in many informal respects, women have moved beyond parity and are succeeding in greater numbers than men. In a complete reversal from a generation ago, for example, girls now outperform boys at school.
This is the emancipation revolution. After thousands of years of female disadvantage, this virtuous upheaval in our society has happened in just a few decades. It is exhilarating for all true liberals who believe, as I do, that every person should have the freedom to be who they are, and the opportunity to be everything they could be. That is the liberal society.
But it is not, if we are honest and blunt, the reality for every woman and girl in Britain. The emancipation revolution should apply universally. It should benefit everyone. But it does not.
There are thousands – perhaps hundreds of thousands – of women and girls in Britain who do not enjoy the benefits of living in our liberal society.
That is not because of some accident or oversight. It is much worse than that. It is because of a deliberate rejection of the emancipation revolution and the equal opportunities now afforded to women and girls.
This situation is wrong.
It is unacceptable for the individual women and girls whose freedom and opportunities are stifled. And it is wrong for our society. There cannot be a pick-and-mix approach to living in a benign liberal country. The benefits must be universal, without exceptions or exemptions.
I do not believe that cultural relativism provides an excuse to opt-out of our shared liberal social settlement. Everyone should enjoy the freedom to make their own choices, without the fear of social coercion.
Let me spell out some examples of what I mean. Forced marriage has no place in our benign liberal society. The victims are overwhelmingly young women and girls. Like everyone else they should be free to marry who they wish. Or not to marry at all. That is their decision. And that is why we will be criminalising forced marriage. We should also make clear our collective repulsion about so called “honour crimes”. The victims are also nearly always vulnerable young women and girls. What possible honour can there be in murder, rape or kidnap? None, and it has no place in our society.
And today we mark the International Day of Zero Tolerance of female genital mutilation.
Female Genital Mutilation is abhorrent.
Sewing up a young girls’ vagina or cutting a five year-old’s clitoris is just plain barbaric.
Looked at in these simple, stark terms, I would hope and believe that when front-line professionals came across such a brutal process – particularly when such violence is practised against children – they would do everything in their power to first and foremost protect the victim and then help bring the perpetrator to justice.
And yet……according to a study based on census data, there are around 20,000 girls in Britain who are at risk of Female Genital Mutilation. One hospital in North London alone has recorded 450 cases of Female Genital Mutilation in the last three years. But despite Female Genital Mutilation being illegal for 25 years, there has still not been a single prosecution.
Something does not add up.
I can only conclude that there is nervousness amongst some professionals to confront the practice of Female Genital Mutilation head on. That it is viewed as an exotic or unusual custom practised by a culture they should not intrude upon. That there is a cultural relativism that leads them to excuse what is being done to other people’s daughters when they would never allow it to be done to their own.
That those professionals are somehow not seeing Female Genital Mutilation for what it really is. Because what it is, categorically and unequivocally, is child abuse.
It can never be excused or ignored and it should be treated in the same way as any other form of child abuse.
I want to urge anyone who has real concerns that a girl may be at risk of Female Genital Mutilation to report it – just as they would report their concerns about a child at risk of any other form of child abuse. To do so is not cultural persecution; it is not racial or religious intolerance; it is about promoting child protection.
That is my message to frontline professionals – in hospitals, in schools, in social services departments – report your concerns to the police. All the safeguarding guidelines and legal frameworks that exist to tackle child abuse apply to tackling Female Genital Mutilation. The law is on your side.
If we overcome misplaced cultural sensitivities; if guidelines are followed and if the law is enforced then we will finally see a prosecution of this heinous crime. A prosecution will send a vital and strong message to perpetrators that we will not tolerate this abuse, and if the law is ignored then there will be legal consequences.
But enforcing the law is only one way of protecting the health and well being of future generations. Fundamentally we also need to change values and beliefs. We need to ceaselessly work to encourage everyone to appreciate and embrace the basic principle that women and girls have an equal stake in our society to men and boys.
There is no opt-out clause when it comes to equality for women and girls in a liberal society. Customs and traditions can no longer be used as an excuse or a shield for people who are shunning the values that the rest of our society have embraced.
The emancipation revolution is universal, and women and girls, regardless of their background or culture, are entitled to exactly the same protections, freedoms and privileges as their fathers and brothers.
* Jeremy Browne is the MP for Taunton Deane, and was previously a minister in both the Home and Foreign offices.