Scottish FGM expert says families pool resources to bring in a ‘cutter’ from abroad to mutilate girls in groups
“I didn’t know exactly what was going to happen to me, but after I saw the blade I knew they would definitely hurt me, because that blade is not something to play with,” says 25-year-old Manika, who had her genitals severed with a razor, without an anaesthetic, when she was only eight years old in Gambia. “It’s a pain you can’t even … it’s taking a knife and cutting someone’s flesh.”
She looks nervously out of the window over the rooftops of Edinburgh, where she has sought sanctuary, explaining that if she returns she will face a further procedure to “finish” the cutting. However, she may have come to the wrong place. Organisations working directly with communities affected by female genital mutilation (FGM), have told the Guardian that, despite legislation against the practice dating back three decades, UK-born girls are not only being taken abroad for the “cutting season” of the summer holidays, but they are being cut here as well.
“It’s a custom that is very much alive, not just in home countries but in Scotland,” says Anela Anwar, from the Glasgow-based charity Roshni. “People have given us information saying girls are being cut in Scotland or we hear that girls are taken back home to be cut over the summer holidays.”
Reports that “cutters” are at work, some working in expensive private clinics, have come out of major cities including London, Birmingham and Bristol, says Sarah McCulloch, from the Agency for Culture and Change Management. “Wherever [ethnic minority] communities [that practise FGM] are residing, it is a problem,” she says. “Because why would they stop? Why should they stop? What will make them stop?
“No one is giving them information. If they arrive in this country, they do not know the laws of the land – they come with their cultures and hold on to them.”
FGM has been illegal in the UK since 1985, and since 2003 anyone taking a child out of the UK to be cut faces 14 years in prison. However, there has yet to be a single conviction. Two people were arrested in November accused of carrying out FGM on a five-week-old baby but, according to the Metropolitan police, there was “insufficient evidence to proceed”.
Hard facts about how many girls are being cut, where and by whom, are scarce because, according to campaigners, the issue has been neglected by successive governments scared of confronting so-called cultural practices.
After pressure from campaigners the government announced on Wednesday night that hospitals would now start gathering data on women they treat who have undergone FGM. Currently midwives and doctors receive no routine training on how to help affected mothers, who can suffer life-threatening consequences during childbirth.
A report last year on FGM by a coalition of medical groups, trade unions and human rights organisations estimates that there are 66,000 victims of FGM in England and Wales and warns that more than 24,000 girls under 15 are at risk. More than 2,000 victims of FGM sought treatment in London hospitals alone in the past three years.
The doubling of Scotland’s African population since 2001 (from 22,049 to 46,742) and the rising cost of air travel have played a part in the increase in numbers in Scotland, says Anwar.
“It’s becoming a lot more expensive to go home, so we have heard now that people are pooling together resources to bring a cutter over from abroad to mutilate their girls over here in a group. I think people will use whatever means they can if they are determined for this to happen.”
McCulloch agrees: “[Families] are forming a sort of co-operative to raise the funding to pay for someone to come from overseas. The family will bring all the girls together and it is done. Those who are wealthy are using nurses or doctors or private clinics That is why London especially has been accused of being the FGM city of Europe because many people are coming from Europe on Eurostar and having their daughters [mutilated].”
The evidence is there, if the resources were made available to uncover it, says Fatou Baldeh, herself an FGM survivor and now working for the Dignity Alert and Research Forum (Darf) in Edinburgh. “People think it’s an outside issue, it’s not happening here. It is very common, but people don’t think it is,” she says. “It [is] difficult to get women to speak to you about their experience.”
Female genital mutilation involves cutting all or part of the outer labia, inner labia and clitoris. It is estimated to affect more than 140 million girls and women worldwide. In the worst cases girls are “sewn up”, leaving only a tiny hole through which to urinate and menstruate. Traditionally considered vital for preparing a girl for adulthood – in some parts of the world girls who have not been cut are seen as unsuitable for marriage – it has also been attacked as a means of controlling female sexuality and autonomy.
In countries such as Sudan, Somalia and Egypt up to 98% of females have been mutilated, but the practice happens in 28 countries in Africa and some countries in Asia and the Middle East. Baldeh was seven when she was mutilated. “Some women held my legs, other women held my hands,” she says. “I was blindfolded and I felt the sharp cut, I felt everything.” The only “medication” she received was being told to sit in warm salty water. “I can never forget that. If you want to pass urine that’s the worst because you are sore and you’ve got no medication, not even a Band-Aid. It’s just an open wound […] It was the most horrible thing I can remember.”
The consequences can be devastating: girls can bleed to death or pick up infections, and in the longer term can suffer from recurrent bladder infections, cysts, infertility, childbirth complications, mental trauma and lack of sexual desire.
Manika, who looks much younger than her years, explains that FGM has left her battling physical and psychological complications. She says she was “blocked up” when she was cut and, after coming to the UK to study, she had sex for the first time. It proved so difficult and painful that she had to be rushed to hospital to stop the bleeding that followed. She has suffered from recurrent infections, intermittent periods, and is terrified of being sexually active again.
“It makes me scared. Since then I feel like I don’t want to have sex. I have it in my mind that I’m still going to have that same pain,” she says.
“I will never forgive my parents for doing this to me. This is just like you are taking somebody’s life. It is just like you are taking a gun and shooting someone to death. That is how it feels for me.”
There are signs that – finally – the issue is being taken seriously at a national level. The Home Office recently awarded £250,000 of EU money for online training of teachers, nurses and GPs, awareness raising among social workers, and promotion of the NSPCC’s national FGM helpline [0800 028 3550].
In Scotland, after recent hospital figures revealed that more than 2,500 FGM victims had given birth in Scottish hospitals, politicians commissioned a Scotland-wide study into its prevalence. Sir Bernard Hogan-Howe, the Metropolitan police commissioner, has called for an overhaul of the “whole system” for combating FGM.
There are challenges. Hogan-Howe warned that a lack of tip-offs from health professionals and teachers was hindering police efforts, a frustration echoed by Detective Chief Superintendent Gill Imery, Police Scotland’s officer in charge of combating FGM. “We are doing a lot of information-raising in communities and among our own people. We are absolutely clear that this is a crime – it’s child abuse.
“Our goal is always to intervene, because if there is a prosecution we have failed to stop it happening,” she says. The force has worked with a local charity that works on the ground in Edinburgh and Glasgow but did not want to risk disrupting their work by being named. In some cases they have given the parents of at-risk girls a “health passport” -a letter that tells other family members in the family’s home country of the harsh punishments for FGM in the UK.
“On more than one occasion I have had a phone call from a mother desperate to stop the procedure asking me to confirm with the matriarch of the family in Somalia that if they go ahead and cut the child then it is possible that the whole family would not get back into the UK. That has worked,” said one outreach worker.
But not enough is yet being done, says Leyla Hussein, a survivor and campaigner who presented The Cruel Cut on Channel 4. Guidelines are not statutory, implementation is disjointed, funding is minimal, education is patchy, and nobody is holding anyone to account, she says. “Until we have a better system in place, I guarantee in 10 years’ time we’ll be having the same conversation,” she says.
Yet, despite her frustration, she remains hopeful about the future. “I feel like I’m not alone in this battle any more,” she says. “Attitudes are changing at last, but now we have to see a change right from the top, and we can finally put an end to FGM.”