Female genital mutilation, FGM, and also referred to as female circumcision, has not ceased to baffle the British population, from medical professionals to religious leaders, since the explosion in its publicity throughout the noughties. Whether we're reading the paper with our morning coffee or settling down in the evenings to catch up with the news, the topic seems to have captured the attention of journalists across the UK, many of whom feel we have a moral obligation to expose the tradition, one which can be so destructive to a young girls life, in order to accelerate the movement which aims to eradicate it.
FGM was defined in 1997 by the World Health Organisation as the 'partial or total removal of the external female genitalia or other injury to the female genital organs for non-medical reasons.' The practice is now undergone all over the world, due to increased global mobility of populations, continuing to spread within countries and across continents from its origins in ancient Egypt, over 2000 years ago. Despite the fact that it violates a series of established Human Rights, including equality and non-discrimination on the basis of sex, the right to life (when the procedure results in death, as it often does), and the right to freedom from cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment, it is still practised in virtually every corner of the globe, from the USA, to Europe, to Asia and Australasia, with each culture having exclusive justifications for the practice. These include hygiene reasons - the foundations of which lie in the belief that female genitalia are unsightly and dirty - the view that the surgery is necessary in order for a girl to be considered a 'complete woman,' and the desire of particular groups to segregate themselves by undertaking the practice as a mark of cultural identity.
The problem lies in the fact that it is all too easy to raise our upper lip and wrinkle our nose whilst dismissing the tradition as one that is, whilst inhumane and torturous, practiced only in foreign countries, leaving little hope for us to get actively involved in its eradication. But the shocking and devastating reality is that there are thousands of young women and girls who have been subjected to, or are at risk of this oppressive and life-shattering procedure living in and amongst us here in the UK.
Possibly the biggest threat to these girls is their own silence.
Unbeknown to many, the first clitoridectomy in the West was performed in Berlin, 1822 by Karl Ferdinand Von Graefe, whose misguided belief was that it could be used as a cure for excessive masturbation. In more recent years, the practice has become increasingly prevalent in the UK, almost entirely due to the increase in immigration of families who have come from practicing countries and cultures. Many parents carry the traditional views of their homeland with them to the UK, determined to uphold the ancient practice despite the alarming risks and trauma it poses to their own children.
Immigrant groups with a particularly high rate of FGM include those from Somalia, with approximately 42,000 out of 44,000 women in England and Wales having FGM, and Sierra Leone, with approximately 8,000 out of 9,000 women having FGM, along with other countries such as Egypt, Sudan and The Gambia. In total, around 103,000 women in England and Wales are living with FGM, nearly half of whom (53,000) were born in countries constituting the Horn of Africa, where, according to a report on the prevalence of FGM conducted by the City University London, FGM is 'virtually universal.'
This gives rise to concerns about the health of many women living with FGM in the UK, and has consequently put increased pressure on the government to clamp down on practising individuals and communities who put young girls at risk. FGM has in fact been illegal in the UK since 1985 and the law was strengthened in 2003 under the Female Genital Mutilation Act, which, as stated by the Serious Crime Act FGM Factsheet, declared it a criminal offence for a 'UK national or permanent UK resident to: perform FGM abroad; assist a girl to perform FGM on herself outside the UK; and assist a non-UK national or resident to carry out FGM outside the UK on a UK national or permanent UK resident.' This legislation was introduced to prevent children from the UK travelling abroad to undergo FGM, but much to the disappointment of campaigners, such as Fatuous Baldeh from the Dignity Alert and Research Forum, there is yet to be any prosecutions. Baldeh, like many others, is eager to tackle the problem directly, saying 'I think if we had a prosecution, even if it's one, everybody would be aware of it... I think that would send the message.'
However this extension of extra-territorial jurisdiction for FGM has led many to question whether the priorities of the government lie in the correct field, as there is a growing concern surrounding the undertaking of the practice here in the UK, where there is undeniably an underground movement that threatens an alarming number of young girls in the UK every year.
Most of us will, understandably, be ignorant of the silent threat posed to these young women, traditionally designed to curb sexuality, but it continues to play a central part in certain communities and cultures. In big cities, such as Bristol, where it's estimated that 14.8 women per 1000 have been mutilated, communities organise 'FGM Parties' in which many girls will be cut together, since 'it is cheaper and quicker that way,' explains seventeen year old schoolgirl, Amina.
When asked if those participating in the tradition are aware that FGM is illegal in this country, Nicola Loughran, a lawyer specialising in asylum, told the BBC that she thought many of the immigrants she works with are not aware of the law forbidding the practice, adding that 'We cannot assume that it suddenly stops when a family crosses a border.'
However there remains a suspicious amount of secrecy surrounding this practice. Those that carry out the surgery are specifically community members, regardless of whether or not they have medical backgrounds, such as elder women or Imams who have inherited the right to be a "cutter". The implements used to cut the girls are those most readily available, including knives, scissors and razor blades, in an environment that, in the vast majority, is makeshift and unsterile. Such conditions are alien to anyone living in a first world country such as the UK, but are all too real to the young women subject to this abuse.
It is what's described in the 'Multi-Agency Practice Guidelines: Female Genital Mutilation' as the 'hidden nature of the crime,' that seems to hint at the reality behind the supposed ignorance of practicing communities. The woman herself rarely comes forward to report the crime, as Sarah McCulloch, director of charity ACCM UK explains: 'Many in the communities we work with say they are not going to use the services because they do not want to get themselves or their parents into trouble- they are very fearful of being arrested.'
However one cannot help but question the reason for the silence of others involved in the process as, without the awareness of the fourteen year prison sentence such actions can result in, there is no explanation for the furtive behaviour adopted by the people associated with the planning and undertaking of the procedures. For many, this sort of conduct suggests that those who participate in the organisation of the tradition in the UK are, in fact, entirely aware of the potential consequences of their actions.
As a result of the assumption that many immigrants are simply ignoring UK laws, there is increasing tension building between segregated communities and those who actively oppose FGM, especially in cities such as London, where the prevalence rate of FGM is the highest in the UK, with 21 women affected per 1,000; a tension that is worsened by the fact that there has not yet been a single prosecution for the practice of FGM in the UK.
But all hope is not lost. In 2014 the government agreed to commit a further £330,000 towards the battle against FGM, which Nicky Morgan, the minister for women and equalities, said 'will offer much needed support and guidance to those at risk or surviving, while reinforcing the message to communities that this practice will not be tolerated.' This funding came after complaints by campaigners highlighting the disparity in funding distribution to eradicate the problem, with the British government pledging £35 million to tackle it abroad, but a mere £1 million towards its eradication here in the UK.
Other improvements include the £250,000 of EU money awarded by The Home Office for online training of teachers, nurses and GP's; awareness raising among social workers; and promotion of the NSPCC's national FGM helpline.
Furthermore, there has been an increase in the number of specialist FGM clinics now open in the UK to help sufferers. Such clinics include the one based in London's St Mary's Hospital, which draws on children's services, maternity services, and the Midaya Somali community organisation in order to help women from practicing communities access therapy and psychological support.
However, the sense of unrest amongst campaigners continues to linger, as there remains a need to increase the impetus for the elimination of this practice, firstly in our own cities and communities, but then to extend the campaign across the world. The pain inflicted by FGM, one which, in the words of Manfred Nowak, UN Special Rapporteur on Torture 'continues as ongoing torture throughout a woman's life,' is one that no woman or girl should be subjected to. The movement towards its abolition is one which is unlikely to disappear until the practice is totally eradicated and young girls can live freely, without the inescapable fear that they too will one day be subjected to the most brutal, torturous act carried out on women today.