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FGM in the UK

Anja Kueppers / cdApril 11, 2013

The UK has the highest levels of female genital mutilation in Europe. Around 66,000 women and girls there have had the procedure performed on them, and Britain would like to put a stop to it - both at home and abroad.

(Photo: PIERRE HOLTZ/dpa)
Image: picture alliance/dpa

The video, produced for The Guardian in the UK, shows a young African girl shrieking and crying, "Mama, Mama!" as two women operate below her waist in a makeshift facility. A younger girl, presumably her sister, watches with a look of horror.

Female genital mutilation (FGM) is typically carried out on girls sometime between infancy and puberty. It is usually performed without anesthesia, using a knife, razor or scissors. The procedure is centuries old, and it renders girls and young women unable to experience sexual pleasure. It is traditionally conducted in - and therefore associated with - African countries, the Middle East and areas of Southeast Asia.

A woman's hands indicate the implements used in genital mutilation. (c) dpa - Report+++
FGM can cause chronic pain, infertility, fatal hemorrhaging, and complications during childbirthImage: picture-alliance/dpa

Yet new figures show that girls in Britain are more at risk of FGM than anywhere else in Europe. Approximately 66,000 women living in the UK have already been through the procedure, said Lynne Featherstone, the UK's International Development Minister, in an interview with DW.

An additional 20,000 girls a year are at risk of being subjected to female genital mutilation, she said, whether within the UK or on trips abroad to countries where the procedure is performed.

Now the UK government has pledged 35 million pounds (41 million euros) to "support diaspora communities in the UK to help change practices in their countries of origin." The funds will pay for overseas programs and work in immigrant communities within the UK to end the practice within a generation.

A case of denial

Even though FGM has been illegal in the UK since 1985, no cases have ever made it to trial - a fact that doesn't surprise human rights worker Efua Dorkenoo, who runs the female genital mutilation program at Equality Now and has been distinguished as an Officer of the British Empire (OBE) by Queen Elizabeth II in recognition of her services to Britain.

Dorkenoo was recently asked for help by a 17-year-old teenager whose mother had taken her to have the procedure performed.

Prosecution is now unlikely, however, since the girl is terrified that testifying would send her mother to prison.

"She's even threatened that if we try to push it, she would change her story," Dorkenoo told DW. "She would deny it, and she even threatened to commit suicide if we pushed it further."

Eleana Longo, a midwife who will soon be working at Guy's and St Thomas' Hospital in central London, has seen the results of FGM firsthand.

"Of course, as a woman, it's shocking," she told DW. "You just think, 'How can people do that?' But first of all, you need to be professional and show respect, because you don't know what they've been through."

(Photo: Dan Kitwood/Getty Images)
Lynne Featherstone wants to protect girls in the UK from a painful procedure with lifelong consequencesImage: Getty Images

Changing attitudes

Longo's future supervisor at the hospital is also the founder of the UK's second African Well Women clinic. Dr. Comfort Momo, an FGM/public health specialist and distinguished Member of the British Empire (MBE), established the clinic in 1997 because of the lack of support services for the consequences of female genital mutilation. Since then, she believes, things have improved.

"We have to be realistic, to change attitudes and the mindset," she told DW. "We can't do it overnight, but I would say we've made significant progress. We now have the younger generation being empowered, being encouraged to talk about their experiences boldly."

As part of the awareness activities taking place in the UK, workshops and special assemblies are being organized for pupils. An awareness campaign will be carried out before the start of summer in some British schools, when many parents take their daughters abroad to be cut.

At Equality Now, Efua Dorkenoo is calling for a new, integrated approach, working together with educational, social and health professionals to increase knowledge about the practice. She says the burden of testifying needs to be taken from the victim, and prosecution made easier.

Before that can happen, though, the cases must be brought to trial. In a promising development, the Crown Prosecution Service recently announced plans to increase referrals so that cases of FGM can be prosecuted.

Those who carry out the procedure, or assist in its execution, face a maximum sentence of 14 years in jail in the UK.