It's often thought that Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) is an atrocity that occurs far away from our own schools and our own children in the UK; in deepest, darkest Africa. But the reality could not be more different.
The practice is no longer restricted to geographical or political boundaries, potential factors being cheap travel or migration. In fact, according to a recent Sunday Times expose, a number of health practitioners were believed to be offering to perform FGM in the UK.
FGM is a "violation so intrusive and personal that many people adopt a culture of silence as it is humiliating and embarrassing to talk about", according to Mukami McCrum MBE, policy advisor to the Scottish government on issues of violence against women.
FGM is a traditional cultural practice involving the cutting or removal of the external female genitals. It is performed for a variety of reasons - preserving virginity, improving marriage prospects or promoting cultural identity - many of which are based on untrue myths which keep the practice going. On average, girls are cut between the ages of five and eight, with a trend moving towards cutting at an even younger age.
Predominantly practised by non-medically trained women, it can result in pain and health problems ranging from depression to a risk of infection as serious as HIV. In some cases, FGM can cause complications in childbirth later in life, putting both mother and baby at risk, due to the severe damage to genitalia.
The British Medical Association recently agreed to highlight to their General Practitioners that we are approaching the Cutting Season. In the past, refugee or asylum families residing in the UK from the 28 countries in Africa where FGM is still practised, would take their girls to their home countries to be cut in the long summer holidays.
This would allow time for them to 'recover' before coming back through border control where liaison officers keep an eye out for families from FGM practising communities, as it's illegal (up to 12 years in prison) to 'aid and abet' a UK resident to have FGM in the UK or abroad. It's still hard to control as, unlike in Sweden, the UK will not examine girls at airports or, as in France, pupils are not examined by a school nurse.
Due to the cost of travel in recession-hit Britain, and influenced by greater rigour from the Foreign & Commonwealth Office, 'cutting parties' have allegedly filled a new demand. Now a lone circumciser can come to the UK and slip through passport control, to cut a number of girls in the quiet of a UK home at a 'cutting party'. The travel costs of families travelling 'home' are saved and all share the minimal costs of travel, board and lodging for one circumciser. Six weeks later, unless anything medically awful has happened, teachers may not even know it's happened, putting changes in 'mood' down to family problems or adolescent hormones, so any psychological trauma goes undetected.
Some charities or local authorities put on community health days in the summer to educate and support families, highlighting the importance of safeguarding (even suggesting not to go 'home' if FGM will happen there) The FGM Faith Based Forum is uniting Muslim, Jewish and Christian faiths to stand up against FGM, reminding communities it has no place in any 'Holy Book'.
Some UK communities have taken a strong stance against FGM. Since 2009, NHS Bristol has worked on safeguarding girls by enabling families and communities to abandon FGM and improve sexual and reproductive rights. A Community Advisory Group has been formed and 18 community women have been trained as leaders and community advocates. The last two summers, women marched through Bristol chanting 'No FGM' - with Somali, Arabic and English banners. This past weekend the University of Bristol hosted the first Young People led conference on FGM to help educate local communities on the legal and health implications of FGM.
So as your children come to the end of another school term, have a thought for the 24,000 girls at risk of FGM in the UK - who may have looked forward to a summer without homework, and invites to parties with friends - but instead will get a goody bag of emotional and health implications which will stay with them for life.
Find out how you can help end this violence against young women at www.28toomany.org
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