24 June 2011

That only happens in Africa doesn't it? Not so! Prepare for the summer cutting season in the UK.

Accordingly to Mukami McCrum, 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”. Due to migration, FGM is not restricted to African geographical or political boundaries. Find out about its presence in the UK below.

When I met the FGM policy officers at the British Medical Association a few months a go, they agreed to again highlight to their General Practitioner members, that we were approaching the Cutting Season. In the past, refugee or asylum families residing in the UK from the 28 countries in Africa where it is still practised, would take their girls ‘home’ to be cut in the summer holidays. This would allow time for them to ‘recover’ before coming back through border control whose liaison officers keep an eye for families practising FGM – as its illegal (up to 12 years in prison) to ‘aid and abett’ a UK resident to have FGM – in UK or abroad. It’s still hard to control – as unlike in Sweden we don’t examine girls at airports (!) or as in France we don’t have girls examined by a school nurse.

Influenced by greater rigour from the Foreign & Commonwealth Office and the cost of travel in recession hit Britain, ‘cutting parties’ have filled a new need. These are where a lone circumciser comes to the UK and slips through passport control as a ‘tourist’ – yet cuts 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.

FORWARD, where I have been volunteering for the past two years, always puts on a community health day in the summer to support families, highlight the importance of safeguarding (even choosing not to go ‘home’ if FGM will happen there!) in their Annual Report (p16). I am also working with the FGM Faith Based Forum, uniting three faiths (Muslim, Jewish, Christian) to stand up against FGM as it has no place in any ‘Holy Book’.

Other UK communities have taken a stance against FGM. Since 2009, NHS Bristol has worked with FORWARD 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. Last summer 30 women marched through Bristol chanting ‘No FGM’ – with Somali, Arabic and English banners being featured on TV, radio and in newspapers! Men are now hoping to get involved, and the event is seen as ‘significant for addressing the physical and psychological impact of women’.

In Scotland, FGM has been unlawful since 1985, with extended legal protection since the 2005 Act. A survey in Glasgow and Edinburgh shows there is still much to be done – as 23% of affected women believe FGM is a ‘valid custom’ and 9% feel it is ‘good to do’. The men in Scotland surveyed (aged 16-70, from 15 African countries) believed FGM makes women more respectable (12%), aids penetration (13%) and is a good practice (25%). This implies it is still being practised in Glasgow and Edinburgh.

It continues because of support from older generations (22%); maintains tradition (30%); maintains cultural identity (15%); stops early death (!) (14%) and keeps girls pure (19%). Despite this, it leads to painful periods and sex; infections; loss of libido and self esteem; bleeding; cysts; problems urinating and complications in childbirth.

As you book your summer holiday, have a thought for the 24,000 girls at risk of FGM in the UK – who may have looked forward to ‘becoming a woman’ and gifts from family – but get a package of health implications of which they may have had no idea. Do promote the dangers of FGM in your neighbourhood, to your MP and friends who are doctors and teachers. Together we can protect these girls! Get in touch (info@28toomany.org) if you want to get involved!