The problem of female genital mutilation in Britain

Campaigners are worried that cuts will mean organisations working with women and children will close down.

When Leyla Hussein began campaigning against female genital mutilation (FGM) a decade ago, it provoked a violent reaction from some of her fellow British Somalis. The threats against her grew so severe that she was forced to move home several times, and was issued with a panic alarm.

"I was one of the first people who started saying, 'stop painting FGM as a cultural practice, call it what it is: it's child abuse,' and that really painted me as a girl who'd betrayed her people," she says.

Today she works for Daughters of Eve, a charity she co-founded in 2010 to protect and support girls at risk of FGM, and says she has few regrets. "I know the horrors of FGM, and they are far worse than what I was experiencing."

Hussein's experience is an extreme example, but a fear of speaking out is one reason there's so much ignorance surrounding FGM. 6 February is the International Day of Zero Tolerance to FGM, and although genital cutting is commonly understood to take place abroad — across Africa, the Middle East, and Asia — few know it's a UK issue too.

An estimated 66,000 British women have undergone FGM, and 24,000 British girls under the age of 15 are deemed by the Home Office to be “at risk” from genital cutting.

There are four main types of FGM, ranging from the removal of all or part of the clitoris, to infibulation, or “type 3”, where the vaginal opening is narrowed by cutting and sewing together the outer labia, sometimes first removing the inner labia and clitoris.

FGM is rarely carried out by a medical professional, and as well as causing pain and psychological trauma, women face a permanent risk of infection, difficulties urinating and menstruating, and complications during child birth.

Alia was seven when she was sent from the UK to Djibouti to undergo type 3 FGM. The procedure was carried out by a traditional cutter and without anaesthetic.

From her mother — who today maintains she did Alia a "favour" and made her look "prettier" — to her teacher who dismissed her experience as a "cultural practice" similar to a Bar Mitzvah, to the doctor who reversed her infibulation five years later after Alia suffered repeated urinary infections, "nobody ever asked me if I was OK," she tells me.

Nor did the doctor report Alia's case to social services, although he operated on her in the mid-nineties and FGM has been illegal in the UK since 1985. In fact, no one has ever been convicted in the UK for carrying out FGM.

"People know the UK's a soft touch," says Alia. "There are a large number of Swedish, Dutch and other European girls who have moved to the UK, just so they can undergo FGM."

Hussein confirms that she too has spoken to families who say they moved to the UK for this reason. "Britain is one of the richest, safest countries in the world, but now it's becoming a place where girls' genitals are being removed," she says.

She's keen for FGM to be included in mandatory child protection training for medical professionals, social workers and teachers: the lack of awareness of FGM among these groups was raised by everyone I spoke to.

In November 2012 there were signs of increased government resolve to clamp down on FGM. Keir Starmer, director for public prosecutions, launched a plans he hopes will increase referrals and prosecutions for FGM, and the Home Office issued a health passport, a booklet relatives can take abroad, explaining that FGM (even when carried out abroad) carries a maximum 14-year prison sentence.

Sara, a Somali anti-FGM advocate, believes the health passport could prove a useful resource for her community (provided they can read English). "Often women coming home with their daughters are hearing from their grandmothers, 'you're becoming so Western, why are you not carrying on our traditions?' So this is a reminder to them to resist," she tells me.

Nevertheless Sara is concerned that in trying to clamp down on FGM, professionals overlook the need to care for victims. Having undergone FGM herself, it took three months for a doctor to convince her to have a smear test, because she feared his reaction. Some "women prefer to have a baby in Somalia, because they are so scared of the midwife ringing social services," she says.

"It's not seen as a priority, how to care for these women" says Kekeli Kpognon, head of UK programmes at anti-FGM charity Forward, "You talk about prosecution, punishment and prevention, fine, but you don't talk about everyday care and support."

Kpognon also believes the government hasn't thought through the implications of increasing prosecutions for FGM: "It's not clear what kind of support or legal aid is being offered. People also need to realise it will mean the end of family life as it was, and what will that mean for a young girl: will her parents end up in jail? Will she go into care?"

Forward fears that a renewed focus on prosecution could divert resources away from community outreach work. It says that following its training sessions with affected women, which cover the health risks of FGM and tackle common misconceptions, such as that the practice is religiously proscribed, most women change their views, and want to convince their peers to abandon the practice too.

The lack of resources being diverted to the issue is also Hussein’s biggest worry. "I'm so scared that with all of the cuts happening at the moment, that organisations working with women and children on this will close down. I feel so worried that in the next 5-10 years, FGM will get lost in the air again.

Some names have been changed to protect identities.


Intervention on FGM is complicated - for some women, it could be the end of family life. Photograph: Getty Images

Sophie McBain is a freelance writer based in Cairo. She was previously an assistant editor at the New Statesman.

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For the first time in my life I have a sworn enemy – and I don’t even know her name

The cyclist, though, was enraged. “THAT’S CLEVER, ISN’T IT?” she yelled. “WALKING IN THE ROAD!”

Last month, I made an enemy. I do not say this lightly, and I certainly don’t say it with pride, as a more aggressive male might. Throughout my life I have avoided confrontation with a scrupulousness that an unkind observer would call out-and-out cowardice. A waiter could bring the wrong order, cold and crawling with maggots, and in response to “How is everything?” I’d still manage a grin and a “lovely, thanks”.

On the Underground, I’m so wary of being a bad citizen that I often give up my seat to people who aren’t pregnant, aren’t significantly older than me, and in some cases are far better equipped to stand than I am. If there’s one thing I am not, it’s any sort of provocateur. And yet now this: a feud.

And I don’t even know my enemy’s name.

She was on a bike when I accidentally entered her life. I was pushing a buggy and I wandered – rashly, in her view – into her path. There’s little doubt that I was to blame: walking on the road while in charge of a minor is not something encouraged by the Highway Code. In my defence, it was a quiet, suburban street; the cyclist was the only vehicle of any kind; and I was half a street’s length away from physically colliding with her. It was the misjudgment of a sleep-deprived parent rather than an act of malice.

The cyclist, though, was enraged. “THAT’S CLEVER, ISN’T IT?” she yelled. “WALKING IN THE ROAD!”

I was stung by what someone on The Apprentice might refer to as her negative feedback, and walked on with a redoubled sense of the parental inadequacy that is my default state even at the best of times.

A sad little incident, but a one-off, you would think. Only a week later, though, I was walking in a different part of town, this time without the toddler and engrossed in my phone. Again, I accept my culpability in crossing the road without paying due attention; again, I have to point out that it was only a “close shave” in the sense that meteorites are sometimes reported to have “narrowly missed crashing into the Earth” by 50,000 miles. It might have merited, at worst, a reproving ting of the bell. Instead came a familiar voice. “IT’S YOU AGAIN!” she yelled, wrathfully.

This time the shock brought a retort out of me, probably the harshest thing I have ever shouted at a stranger: “WHY ARE YOU SO UNPLEASANT?”

None of this is X-rated stuff, but it adds up to what I can only call a vendetta – something I never expected to pick up on the way to Waitrose. So I am writing this, as much as anything, in the spirit of rapprochement. I really believe that our third meeting, whenever it comes, can be a much happier affair. People can change. Who knows: maybe I’ll even be walking on the pavement

Mark Watson is a stand-up comedian and novelist. His most recent book, Crap at the Environment, follows his own efforts to halve his carbon footprint over one year.

This article first appeared in the 20 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brothers in blood