A taboo talking point – Female Genital Mutilation, a brutal practice still taking place in the UK, where it is illegal
BY Alison Bellamy
It is a taboo subject and not something people are not keen to talk or even think about.
But female genital mutilation – FGM – or ‘cutting’ of the female genitalia, is a practice that has affected 125 million women worldwide to date.
It is not always a religious procedure, as is commonly thought, but more of a cultural one. It is most common in African countries, such as Somalia, with parts of India and Pakistan, including people from the Bohra community, also still practising the historic tradition, often carried out when girls are as young as six.
Campaigners and petitioners around the world are calling on governments to make the practice illegal, like it is here in the UK, with those responsible facing up to 14 years in prison and huge fines.
The brutal and potentially fatal procedure is estimated to happen once every 96 minutes here in the UK with refugee children, fleeing war torn places, often suffering the consequences of such actions in later life.
In the UK charities and organisations offer support for people affected and traumatised by what they have been through, often as a young child. The NHS is also collecting data on the women who have had FGM.
Campaigners say the unnecessary and illegal practice causes significant physical, mental and emotional harm. An estimated 137,000 women in the UK are now affected by FGM, which is illegal. It is an offence for anyone to perform FGM in the UK or to arrange for a girl to be taken abroad for it.
Campaigners are now urging people to be aware that the school summer holiday is a time when many young girls are taken abroad, often to their family’s birth country, to have FGM performed.
Some 5,484 instances of FGM were reported from October 2014 to September 2015 in the UK, and experts say many other victims go unreported.
Tanya Barron, chief executive of global children’s charity Plan UK, which works to combat FGM worldwide, said: “It is shocking to see the extent of FGM here in the UK.
“We’ve seen hugely increased attention on this problem in the past few years and we are now waking up to the scale of this terrible practice. What we must always keep in mind though is that this is not specifically a British problem. FGM is a practice with an inherently global dimension.
“While it is vital that we do everything we can to stop FGM here in the UK, as well as to support the girls and women affected by it, the reality is that this practice won’t end in the UK until it is ended worldwide.”
According to the World Health Organisation, FGM is an ‘extreme form of discrimination’ against women’.
Babies born to women who have undergone FGM suffer a higher rate of death compared with those born to women who have not undergone the procedure. Women with FGM also have increased risk of stillbirth, infants that need resuscitation and low birth weight babies.
The practice of FGM in Pakistan and India is strongly connected to the Bohra community.
The Boras, a sect of Shia descent, consists of around 100,000 people in Pakistan, living in the southern province of Sindh. Traditionally, the cutting was performed at a very young age by midwifes using a nail clip or a razor. It is believed that even today 50-60% of Bohra girls and women will undergo FGM.
The most common explanation for the Dwoodi practicing FGM refers to the waves of migration of members of the sect through Africa. Bohra religious leaders regard FGM as a religious duty. A fact that led in 2011 to a widely debated online protest by Indian Bohra activists.
Another trace regarding FGM in Pakistan points to the ethnic community of the Sheedi. As descendants of Bantu people in Africa, they are believed to have brought the practice with them to Pakistan as slaves in the 19th century.
Defenders of the practice in Pakistan emphasize that it is mere ‘symbolic’ or of little impact and often carried out in hospitals or doctor’s offices.
Dr Zahra Ali, of the Bohra community, explains that certified doctors and health practitioners carry out the procedure. She states that it is merely a symbolic wound that has no further impact on women’s health. Studies from other countries show that a large number of so called ‘procedures’ are anything but symbolic, but are in fact excisions or incisions.
However, Muslim proponents of FGM also stress the religious necessity. Midwifes and mothers insist that it is ‘Sunnah’ – an opinion shared by some Islamic clerics. Yet, Sunnah can either mean that a practice is religiously recommended or simply that it was done that way in the times of the prophet Mohammed.
A world-wide petition by ‘End FGM’ is urging the Indian government to ban it.
A spokeswoman for the forum ‘Speak out on FGM’, said: “At the age of seven, I was subjected to FGM in Mumbai, in a most unhygienic and clandestine manner. The shock and trauma of that day are still with me.
“Like me, there are thousands of my Dawoodi Bohra sisters who have been subjected to genital cutting as children and even today thousands of Bohra girls are being subjected to this practice, since it has been ordained by the clergy of our community.
“The practice of FGM is done surreptitiously without any consent whatsoever. The alleged reason for this tradition is to curb the sexual drive of women and control them.
“The Dawoodi Bohras are amongst the most educated in India, yet we are also the only Muslim community in India to practice FGM. The practice has nothing to do with religion and is more cultural.
“Most of us are too scared to speak out. We fear being ostracised, socially boycotted and the exclusion of our families from the community by our religious clergy if we object.”
“FGM has no health benefits; in fact it harms girls and women. It involves removing and damaging healthy and normal female genital tissue, and interferes with the natural functions of girls’ and women’s bodies. FGM is often done without anaesthesia, without medical supervision and sometimes the procedure goes horribly wrong.
“It often leads to pain, shock, tetanus, genital sores and excessive bleeding etc. It also has long-lasting psychological impact on the victims, ranging from sexual disorders, and fear of sexual intimacy, nightmares and post-traumatic stress disorder.
“In December 2012, the UN General Assembly adopted a unanimous resolution on the elimination of FGM. Across the world FGM is being outlawed in many countries. Nigeria and Gambia recently made FGM illegal after women came together, campaigned and raised their voice. FGM is banned in over 20 countries in Africa itself.
“The World Health Organisation classifies FGM as a violation of the human rights of girls and women. According to WHO, FGM reflects deep-rooted inequality between the sexes, and constitutes an extreme form of discrimination against women. It is nearly always carried out on minors and is a violation of the rights of children.
“We urge the Government to pass a law banning this practice in India, such that anyone found involved in aiding, abetting and perpetrating this practice should be punished. Pressure of this law and fear of punishment will be the best way to put a stop to this cruel practice.”
The NHS is recording data on female genital mutilation (FGM) for the first time, including women attending hospitals, GP surgeries and mental health centres.
From April to June 2015 there were 1,036 newly-recorded cases of FGM in England, with a total of 1,159 attendances for FGM. Nine of the women or girls were aged under 18 when they were first seen.
The data, from the Health and Social Care Information Centre, found women and girls were most likely to self-report that they had suffered FGM.
FGM is illegal in the UK. It is also illegal to take a female abroad for the purposes of FGM. The maximum jail term for carrying out or enabling FGM is 14 years.