Immigration forcing British lawmakers to confront female genital mutilation


Leyla Hussein, a British survivor of FGM featured in "The Cruel Cut," a documentary that has helped trigger a debate in Britain over how to tackle FGM. (Love Productions)

Sitting before a roomful of British lawmakers, Leyla Hussein described the day that four members of her family pinned her down and sliced her genitals with a blade.

“I felt everything. I felt the injection. I felt being cut. I felt being sewn,” she said of the procedure that took place in Somalia when she was 7. “I remember just blacking out.”

Hussein recently told her story to Parliament’s influential Home Affairs Committee as part of its first inquiry into how to end ­female genital mutilation, or FGM, in Britain. By speaking out so vividly, she and many other women here are forcing politicians to confront the practice.

For most people in Europe, genital cutting is an unimaginable act that happens far away. Of the 125 million girls and women worldwide estimated to have undergone the procedure, most are in Africa and the Middle East.

But the increased diversity that has come with immigration means that more European countries are becoming aware of the problem, and the discussion is particularly loud in Britain, where survivors are speaking out.

“I think people really struggle with someone like me, with a London accent, to be a survivor of FGM,” said Hussein, 33, a psychotherapist who was featured in the documentary“The Cruel Cut,” which helped spark concern over what Britain is doing to eliminate the practice.

Female genital mutilation involves the partial or total removal of the external female genitalia, usually with a knife or razor blade and often without anaesthetic. In its most severe form — Type 3 — the vaginal opening is sewn almost entirely shut. In addition to the psychological trauma, women can experience urinary infections, menstrual problems, infertility and even death.

There is no indication that the procedure is being carried out on a widespread basis in Britain, where the practice has been illegal for nearly 30 years. Rather, activists say, most cases occur when immigrant families take their daughters to their country of origin for “the cutting season” and then return to Britain.

But authorities believe the practice happens here, too. Last week, British prosecutors announced the country’s first charges for genital cutting. The case involves two men, including a doctor accused of performing FGM in 2012 on a woman after she gave birth.

‘Do something about it’

In Britain and most other countries, people consider the centuries-old cultural practice to be a form of violence against girls. But the issue has taken on new urgency as young women from high-risk communities demand change.

“They are making us raise our game,” said Jane Ellison, Britain’s public health minister, who has done much to increase awareness of the issue in recent years. “Politicians can’t say, ‘Well, this is too difficult; no one wants to talk about it,’ when women themselves are saying, ‘We want you to do something about it.’ ”

Those young women include Fahma Mohamed, a 17-year-old British Somali who recently led a campaign with the charity Integrate Bristol to raise awareness in schools before the summer vacation, which is also the cutting season.

Hours after meeting the high school student, Education Secretary Michael Gove agreed to write to principals across the country within the next few weeks to offer guidance on how to safeguard children.

“People so high up in power are now willing to listen to us. It just feels amazing,” Mohamed said.

She wants the education secretary to go further: to have the issue taught in schools, in a sensitive, age-appropriate way — an idea championed last week by the mayor of London.

Some commentators bristle at the thought.

“How would you feel if your innocent 9-year-old trotted off to school one morning and came home wide-eyed at the horrors of female genital mutilation? I’d be furious,” wrote columnist Sarah Vine in the Daily Mail.

Government attention

British campaigners praise countries such as the Netherlands, where various government departments are charged with ­addressing the problem, and France, which has jailed more than 100 parents and cutters.

But in Britain the issue has momentum, and campaigners in the United States are watching closely.

“It’s been under development for a long time, but it’s tremendous to see the attention it’s getting in the U.K. right now,” said Shelby Quast, senior policy adviser in the Washington office of the charity Equality Now.

The British government is spending $58 million to help eliminate the practice. This summer, Prime Minister David Cameron will host a summit on the issue. The government will soon announce new estimates on the scale of the problem in Britain. The figures most commonly cited — 66,000 women and girls have suffered genital mutilation and 24,000 are at risk — are extrapolated from the 2001 census. The new figures are expected to be much higher because of the influx of immigrants from regions where the practice is widespread, notably the Horn of Africa.

Hospitals will be required to record cases in a centralized database. Ellison, the public health minister, said the information will be used to help protect girls. She is also looking at ways to increase awareness and knowledge of the issue among health professionals.

Such a move would be welcomed by Juliet Albert, a midwife who runs two of London’s 10 ­National Health Service clinics for victims. She estimates that about 10 percent of the women who give birth in her hospital in west London have suffered FGM, mostly Type 3.

“This is a very real problem that’s not on the curriculum or mandatory training for midwives, doctors or health visitors,” she said. “It’s not there, and it needs to be.”

Karla Adam is a reporter in the Washington Post’s London bureau. Before joining the Post in 2006, she worked as a freelancer in London for the New York Times and People magazine.
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