Every month, at least 70 girls and women in the U.K. seek treatment for health problems related to female genital mutilation (FGM). Some 23,000 girls under the age of 15 in England are believed to be at risk of undergoing FGM. The procedure must be unbearably painful: it is often carried out without an anesthetic and involves the partial or total removal of the external female genital organs using a knife, scalpel, scissors, a razor or a piece of glass.
About 140 million girls and women around the world are living with the consequences of FGM, according to the World Health Organization.
On Monday, the U.K. charity NSPCC launched a national helpline to protects girls at risk of FGM. Anyone — a teacher to a medical professional — who is concerned that a child might be at risk of FGM can contact the 24-hour helpline, which is run by NSPCC protection staff who have had training and experience with girls and women who have been subjected to FGM.
A traditional practice in some African, Middle Eastern and Asian communities, FGM has been illegal in the U.K. since 1985. In communities that practice FGM, it is thought that it reduces a woman’s sex drive and can prevent her from having sex outside marriage.
According to the NSPCC, victims of FGM are usually between the ages of four and ten but some have had it done while they were babies. Indeed, Comfort Momoh, a midwife at Guys and St Thomas’s Hospital in London, tells the BBC that some women do not realize they had been subjected to FGM, as it was performed on them while they were babies. They often have urinary tract infections and abdominal pain and are only identified as having undergone FGM when they become pregnant and are seen by medical staff.
Hawa Sesay was mutilated when she was 13 years old in native Sierra Leone. As she says in the Telegraph, she knew many girls who bled to death and almost did so herself. She has little patience to hear about the traditional reasons — “preservation of a girl’s virginity, custom or tradition, or hygiene” — often used to support FGM.
The summer holidays can be the most perilous time for children, says Sesay, as parents “smuggle their daughters to Africa to have the procedure done on them.”
NSPCC staff are hopeful that relatives might come forward and use the helpline. Callers are anonymous; information about children at risk will be passed on to social services and law enforcement.
But the most important step is for change within communities. Girls and women who are victims of FGM are often “hidden behind a wall of silence” and of shame, Lisa Harker of the NSPCC says in the BBC. Observing that there has been “nervousness to tackle” the issue of FGM in the past, Cathy Newman says in the Telegraph that it is long past time to think that ending FGM might “be seen as patronising, an imperialistic attempt to put an end to centuries of African, Asian and Middle Eastern culture.”
Research by the WHO shows that “if practicing communities themselves decide to abandon FGM, the practice can be eliminated very rapidly.” Plain and simple, FGM is child abuse and a violation of the human rights of girls and women.
While it is impossible not to applaud the creation of the helpline, much more remains to be done. Government officials in the U.K. have signed a declaration against FGM and devoted £50,000 to agencies fighting the practice but “it’s not a lot,” as Newman writes in the Telegraph. The Department for International Development has provided £35 million in funding and called for ending FGM “in one generation.” It is such a sense of urgency that must direct all efforts to end FGM not simply soon, but as soon as possible.
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