The NHS is to advertise free operations to reverse female circumcisions, with experts warning that each year more than 500 British girls have their genitals mutilated.
Despite having been outlawed in 1985, female circumcision is still practised in British African communities, in some cases on girls as young as 5. Police have been unable to bring a single prosecution even though they suspect that community elders are being flown from the Horn of Africa to carry out the procedures.
The advertisement will appear from next month on a Somali satellite TV station much viewed in Britain. It features Juliet Albert, a midwife who does the reverse operations, and promises, in English and Somali, confidentiality for victims of female genital mutilation.
The advertisement was expected to help to undermine demand for girls to be circumcised, and to popularise the reversal procedure, Ms Albert said. Thousands of such operations have been carried out at specialist clinics and hospitals around Britain and demand is growing slowly.
Female circumcision, which is done for various reasons, such as religious and cultural traditions, can cause severe health complications including infections and psychological problems. The procedure, predominantly carried out on girls aged between 5 and 12, can range from the removal of the clitoris to the removal of all the exterior parts of the vagina, which is then sewn up.
A study by the Foundation for Women’s Health, Research and Development (Forward), estimated that 66,000 women living in England and Wales had been circumcised, most before leaving their country of origin. The government-funded research also found that more than 7,000 girls were at a high risk of being subjected to genital mutilation in Britain.
Sarah McCulloch, of the Agency for Culture Change Management UK, said that every year more than 500 British girls were having circumcisions. “A lot of them are done in the UK, but some still travel overseas,” she said.
She said that a code of silence in Britain’s African communities had allowed circumcisions to continue and prevented arrests. The unqualified female elders, known as “house doctors” because they act in secret in a family home, are flown into the country.
“What the communities do is they gather together and collect money to pay for the ticket for a ‘doctor’ to come from Somalia, Sudan, or whatever,” she told The Times. “And when she arrives here, she goes to a house and has the girls brought to her.”
While Scotland Yard is understood to have made investigations into female circumcision in the UK, and offered a £20,000 reward for information, no one has been successfully prosecuted for carrying out the procedure.
Detective Constable Jason Morgan, from Scotland Yard’s Project Azure, denied that police were complacent. “We don’t bury our heads in the sand and say it’s not going on,” he said.
It is illegal to take a person abroad for the operation but no one has been prosecuted for this either.
Ms McCulloch said that girls were brainwashed into believing circumcision to be a cultural, and, in some cases, religious obligation that should be kept secret. “It is something they simply do not discuss–if they do they’d be seen as betraying their family and their community and culture,” she said. “I know many girls who want to accuse their parents but can’t. They don’t want to take their parents to court.”
Waris Dirie, a former UN envoy for the prevention of female genital mutilation, said that it had no justification. Ms Dirie is a victim of the procedure and it haunts her to this day. “Female genital mutilation has nothing to do with tradition, religion or culture. It is the most cynical form of child abuse and a crime that has to be punished,” she told The Times.
Ms McCulloch said that men were becoming more vocal in opposition to female circumcision. “I’ve talked to some fathers who’ve made clear to their wives that they don’t want this done to their daughters–only for them to go out and come back to find their girls circumcised,” she said.
Lynette Parvez, head teacher of Kelmscott School in Walthamstow, northeast London, said that several teachers there would soon be trained to detect victims of female circumcision, and pupils at risk. Experts believe that most of the procedures are done during summer holidays when the girls have enough time to recover without suspicion about their absence.
While Ms Parvez is unaware of any cases at her school, which serves many pupils of African origin, she said that she had been shocked and appalled to hear that female circumcisions were taking place in the UK.