Posted on June 24, 2008

Female Circumcision: A Tradition Steeped in Blood

Independent (London), June 22, 2008

Police are to stage high-profile checks on flights to a number of African states in an attempt to stop young girls being taken abroad to be forcibly mutilated with the consent of their parents.

Research commissioned by the Department of Health suggests that more than 20,000 British girls are at risk of being forced into the agonising procedure, where all or part of their external genitals are cut off and stitched up. Officers will question all adults taking girls on certain flights, believing it is their best chance of saving thousands of children from female genital mutilation at the hands of tribal “elders” called in by their own families.

Moves to tackle the culturally sensitive issue will come as ministers from several government departments struggle to stamp out the ancient tribal tradition amid evidence that thousands of British girls are at risk from a ritual that is supposed to mark their transition into womanhood.

The campaign group the Foundation for Women’s Health and Development (Forward UK) estimates that around 11,000 British-based girls aged between nine and 15 have undergone the ritual—in the UK or in their parents’ home countries.

The study, the first to gauge the prevalence of the practice in Britain, concluded that at least 66,000 women already living in this country are victims of “female circumcision”. Hospitals and clinics across the country have reported an increasing number of women showing evidence of the mutilation, which often has a devastating impact on their health and ability to give birth naturally.

Children as young as five are held down and cut, sometimes with razor blades or broken glass, in a ritual driven by a range of cultural demands, including a desire to demonstrate a girl’s virginity on her wedding night. The practice, which survives mainly in 28 countries in East and West Africa, has been targeted as a fundamental human rights violation in recent years by the United Nations and individual states, including the UK.

The World Health Organisation estimates that up to 140 million girls and women around the world have suffered some type of genital mutilation, and around three million girls, most of them under 15, undergo the procedure every year. It is estimated that almost 175,000 women from countries that still practise the procedure now live in England and Wales.

Somalian supermodel Iman, who is married to David Bowie, avoided the mutilation thanks to her parents, who maintained that she had gone to a hospital to have the procedure done when, in fact, she was preparing to go to university. She has spoken out against the practice, like her cousin Waris Dirie. Ms Dirie, who suffered the procedure at the age of five, retired from modelling in 1997 to focus on her work against genital mutilation and was appointed Special Ambassador for the Elimination of Female Genital Mutilation by Kofi Annan, then UN Secretary-General.

She said of her ordeal: “I felt not complete with myself as a woman. Some days I felt so powerless.”

Since 1985, Britain has passed two laws banning the practice, and social workers, teachers, police and health officials have been given training in how to recognise and treat victims and children identified as being at risk. But pressure groups and opposition politicians last night warned that the Government was not doing enough to tackle the issue, or even to investigate the true extent of the problem.

Labour MP Ann Clwyd, who pushed through a bill making it illegal to perform the procedure on a British citizen anywhere in the world, complained that it was “an absolute disgrace” that no one had been prosecuted under the new regulations. And Theresa May, the shadow Minister for Women, said the Government did not have an overall national strategy for stamping out the practice.

She said: “It seems this is an area where the Government thinks it could just put down legislation and that would sort it out. But we have had no prosecutions and, in the meantime, ministers have admitted to us that they have not issued any guidance to professionals on what action to take if they find someone who has been a victim.”

Police and government officials admit that they are “disappointed” at the failure to prosecute anyone accused of carrying out or aiding and abetting genital mutilation. A £20,000 reward offered last year by the Metropolitan Police in partnership with the Waris Dirie Foundation failed to generate any prosecutions. Senior officers claim this demonstrates the ties of family and community loyalty that keep the practice underground.

However, Detective Sergeant Clare Chelsom, of Project Azure, an operation set up by Scotland Yard’s Child Abuse Investigation Command specifically to deal with the issue, said she believed that police had managed to prevent a number of new cases.

She said: “The project has three separate strands—educating the communities and making sure they understand what they are doing to their daughters, raising awareness of the problem and finally enforcing the law against it.

“There is a problem in victims coming forward because reporting it means reporting on their own families. But the reports we have received have gone up from three to 33 since we launched our campaign last summer and we feel the interventions we have made as a result of these have protected young girls.”

However, DS Chelsom admits that colleagues in some of Britain’s biggest police forces remain unaware of the problem—despite evidence that health centres are seeing growing numbers of women who have been mutilated. Maternity clinics in Liverpool have identified 237 women who have suffered the procedure in the past three years. The city’s Alder Hey children’s hospital has also reported seeing young girls suffering complications after the mutilation.

Campaigners have warned that some families have flown “excisors” into Britain from their home countries specially to carry out the practice on their daughters, while many more have taken their children out of the country for the procedure.

Police are now planning to mount spotchecks on flights to destinations including Somalia and Senegal, beginning with a high-profile swoop on Heathrow airport next month to try to prevent girls being taken out of Britain to face mutilation. A senior Met officer said the operation, along with new training for airline staff, was the last chance to safeguard children being taken out of the country to undergo the mutilation.

Ms Clwyd, whose act increased the penalty for genital mutilation from five to 14 years’ imprisonment, welcomed the attempt to protect girls from the “obscene practice” and she pledged: “I will be meeting with colleagues to discuss how to put more pressure on the authorities to bring these criminals to justice.”

‘I was five. It hurt so much that I thought I would die’

Brought up in a Muslim community in Senegal, Salimata Badji-Knight was circumcised when she was five. She now lives in London and works as an advocate for Forward in the UK.

“When it happened I was five, and I didn’t even know this practice existed. I was taken off with my cousins and other girls that I knew—we thought that we were going to a party. I was reassured because so many people I knew were there. Then the atmosphere changed, and the adult women became more aggressive. They took one of the girls away, and I heard her scream—I was the 20th girl to be taken, so I heard that scream over and over again. I heard them saying ‘No, don’t cut me’, but I didn’t know what they were cutting.

“Then it was my turn. I didn’t know what was happening, but it hurt so much I thought that I was going to die. They must have used a knife but I couldn’t see it. It felt like having all of your nails ripped off at the same moment. There was no anaesthetic. Physically, it took a long time for me to heal. Every day when I have a shower I am reminded of the fact that I have been mutilated.

“We need to stop this practice; it is terrorising people for life. I visited my father and explained what had been done to me. He cried and vowed that no other girls in the family would have this happen to them.

“For a long time, I didn’t want to talk about what happened to me, but if it will help one person to put down the knife, I’m happy to tell my story.”