Britain’s reputation for turning a blind eye on the illegal practice of female genital mutilation may be about to change after British doctors, nurses and midwifes decided to take a stand and demand it be treated as child abuse.
Earlier this month, leading British medical groups delivered an extensive report to Parliament, recommending aggressive steps to eradicate the practice, which is still being carried out on young girls from certain African, Middle Eastern and Asian cultures.
The report revealed tens of thousands of cases of FGM in Britain (as many as 66,000 by some estimates). And while the practice was outlawed in 1985 and carries a maximum penalty of 14 years imprisonment, the country has never seen a single prosecution.
‘’It’s a huge problem in Britain,’’ says Dr. Deborah Hodes, a London community paediatrician and chair of child protection with the Royal College of Paediatrics, outlining that more than 24,000 girls are at risk of FGM and more than 66,000 women are living with the consequences. Hodes regularly gets referrals for young girls who underwent cutting — a common term for the practice in the U.K.— or who are at high risk of being cut.
Britain's medical community now wants all front-line health professionals to be better trained in detecting FGM and responding to it, and to report female patients who have had their sexual organs mutilated to police and other services.
FGM, sometimes called female circumcision, involves removing all or part of the clitoris as well as, often, the labia, the "lips" that surround the vagina, to make young girls more virginal and therefore attractive to future mates.
An estimated 140 million girls and women are living with the consequences of the practice, according to the World Health Organization, and in countries like Britain it is often done on young girls who are sent back to their ancestral homelands to have the procedure done.
Leyla Hussein, a British woman, was once one of these girls. She was taken away to Somalia to be cut when she was seven. She’s now campaigning to end the practice.
During her own pregnancy, she recalls, "I was shaking, having panic attacks, my body remembered the trauma. That’s when I decided there was no way my daughter was going through that. But I needed the right information to defend my decision to my community.’’
In Britain, anti-FGM campaigners are saying that an overzealous cultural sensitivity has led to authorities being slow to react on the FGM front, with some even questioning whether FGM is actually a British problem.
‘’It’s not so much that I’ve encountered resistance, but there’s a lot of silence," says Hussein. "For me when you’re silent, you’re consenting.’’
In contrast, neighbouring France has adopted a much less tolerant approach to tackling FGM. Its systematic examination of young girls has led to some hundred prosecutions.
‘’I think England is very tolerant because they put cultural relativism first," says Isabelle Gillette-Faye, a French sociologist. "So if in your country of origin, you cut your girl, then it’s possible in England as well.’’
Gillette-Faye suspects many French girls are sent to "easier" Britain to have the procedure done.
‘It’s easier to take the Eurostar to go to London, to a private clinic, and have someone cut the girl. It’s just easier, it’s less money than to go to another country,’’ she says.
For her part, Hussein likes France’s attitude towards FGM, but allows that an approach like that of the Netherlands’ might be more effective.
"What the Netherlands have done really well," she says, "is implement that work in sexual education classes. It’s compulsory. Front-line staff working with women and children, every new nurse, every new doctor, every new teacher, has to be trained on FGM.’’
In Britain, the ministry of education has so far refused to make FGM training mandatory for teachers, though in a statement it said that "schools can choose to teach about FGM as part of their curriculum.’’
That is not enough for some. ‘’We’re talking about girls who are British citizens, and this is against their right to be safe," says Dr. Hodes. "So I don’t really think it’s a debate.’’
As a result of the report, parliament's home affairs committee is considering an inquiry into why there hasn’t been a prosecution yet in Britain. The Crown Prosecution Service is reportedly looking into a handful of cases that it may bring to trial.
To date, there are not definitive studies of the number of girls at risk of FGM in Canada, but immigration patterns and human rights groups in Canada indicate that the figures could be substantial.
‘The biggest Somali community in the diaspora is in North America, that’s a big alarm for me,’’ says Hussein.
‘’A lot of Canadian women contact us. They suffer in silence, they don’t know where to go.’’