Between April 2016 and March last year, the NHS identified 9,179 cases of female genital mutilation (FGM) in England. On average, the women affected were aged around 30. Most had been cut as minors. These women had been living with the consequences of FGM for over a decade, many suffering pain on a daily basis.
FGM is an issue that jumps in and out of public consciousness in the UK. Every so often, an awful news story will pop up – a clinic closure, news of people performing the procedure on UK soil – and a few more people will be made aware. Then the furore surrounding the story will die down and many will assume the problem has, too. Except, of course, for the women living with the consequences.
To be clear, the 9,179 cases mentioned above are just the ones that have been identified. It is not the number of women living with FGM in England and Wales; that number is estimated to be more like 137,000. Across the world this number is much higher. The majority of cutting takes place across the northern half of Africa. Somalia has the highest prevalence (in 2013, UNICEF estimated that 98% of Somalian women between 15 and 49 had undergone variations of the procedure) and it is estimated that three million girls are at risk globally each year.
It is illegal both to perform FGM in the UK and to arrange for a British citizen or permanent resident to undergo the procedure overseas. In 2016 however, it was reported that FGM "parties" were taking place here. During "cutting season" (typically the summer holidays), girls are taken to other countries to have the procedure done. Despite this, there have been no prosecutions in the UK. In contrast, by 2014, France had prosecuted over 100 parents and two practitioners.
FGM isn’t linked to a particular religion. The people that practise it do so for a number of reasons: it is seen as the “right” thing to do, either in a misguided attempt at cleanliness or for “medical” purposes, or as an attempt to curb women’s sexuality. Education and awareness is desperately needed to undo these beliefs. In this country, awareness can in large part be attributed to activists – people like Leyla Hussein, Hoda Ali, survivors who have been cut and who refuse to be silenced.
In 2014, Leyla, Hoda and activist Mabel Evans realised there had never been an anti-FGM billboard in the UK. As a result, they formed The Vavengers, a group committed to promoting awareness about FGM and raising money for initiatives like the Dahlia Project, a support group for women who’ve been cut. The Vavengers’ first event helped raise the £12,000 needed for the billboards, which subsequently went up across Islington and Ealing.
We spoke to Mabel to find out what’s next.
So your plan is to put on nights to raise money for clinics and services that deal with FGM but which are being impacted by cuts?
Yeah, we even had an event in Amy Winehouse’s old house. It was amazing. People can come and listen to music, have a good night while also directly impacting the clinics that are offering help. At our latest event (in October), all ticket sales went to the Dahlia Project who offer psychiatric and healthcare to survivors of FGM. I think you have to start with the creatives; if you get FGM into people’s poetry and music, then it has a much wider spread.
The fact that many people are still unaware of FGM is terrifying…
Yes, some artists come and they are completely shocked because they have no idea and I don’t blame them. It took me 17 years to learn what FGM was myself. When you’re a child you’re taught that rape is wrong, don’t let anyone touch you inappropriately, and yet for these girls, they’re told [the same] but then they are pinned down in the middle of the night and have their underwear removed. Before FGM is even committed, Leyla always says, child abuse is being committed.
What are some of the myths people still believe about FGM?
There’s a “cultural” umbrella over it and that’s when people start turning a blind eye. I think that’s something we very much need to dismantle because Hoda, Leyla and all the other survivors say that it’s not part of their culture; their culture is about the celebration of life. We’re trying to dispel the myth that it has any roots in Islam or Christianity; it doesn’t. It just seems that the men want their women to be oppressed and basically controlled. It’s a very effective way of getting people like the government and the general public to turn a blind eye, because to condemn it would be attacking someone’s culture.
Where are we as a country with regards to FGM?
First of all, the statistics I’ve been given are just the tip of the iceberg because they’re just the statistics from people who’ve come forward or who’ve gone to the hospital for assistance. At the moment it’s estimated that 137,000 women and girls are believed to have been affected by FGM in England and Wales. And it’s only in the last couple of years that it’s become mandatory for sexual health workers and healthcare workers to be trained on FGM. Prior to that, when girls and women got to the hospital with complications, doctors could literally not know how to treat them. Last year the NHS had 9,000 cases of FGM and if a lot of people in the NHS were just learning what FGM was, the fact that they were tasked with looking after these girls is slightly terrifying. They’re not going to know what psychiatric support to offer them, or deal with the deinfibulation (surgery to open up the vagina especially if women are pregnant or struggling to pass urine) with Type 3 FGM, which is where just the tiny hole remains (this page has some illustrations which may help in your understanding).
Heartbreakingly, in January last year, the African Centre for Women was shut down and that was one of the few places in central London for deinfibulation. These problems aren’t going away. Girls are still dealing with the aftercare of being cut and often these women are suffering in silence; some of them can barely even urinate and the places they can go, the places with trained professionals, are being shut down.
A few years back there were stories about people performing FGM in this country…
Yep, because in different parts of Africa the pressure is mounting to stop FGM from happening, people will bring their families over to the UK if they have a doctor within the family that will do it. I’ve heard stories from within the communities about doctors who, after hours, when people have gone home, use their key to get the child in and cut them.
What are some of the problems you guys are dealing with?
Mothers and grandmothers who cut their children run the risk of victimisation. One massive misconception that we’ve seen is that people think the mothers and grandmothers [who cut their daughters] are these torturous women but often they can be the most loving, caring people but they’ve been told that if they don’t cut their children they will be infertile. But FGM can cause infertility so education is really needed. The government should be holding coffee mornings where women in the community can get together, where women might learn about the realities of FGM. Although they’ve experienced it themselves, they’ve no point of reference and nobody to communicate with about it – they might assume that most women live in pain constantly.
What needs to be done to see a significant change?
In the UK, the way I see the most change being brought about is to have posters, have artwork, commission graffiti. Even using the words “Female Genital Mutilation” can help because it’s shocking how many intelligent, socially aware people don’t know what it means. If a poster about FGM is on the Tube, someone might go and learn about it and then tell their friends who tell their friends and their friends. Sometimes women don’t understand what’s happened to them and hearing about it might result in them seeking help. I think the government can create think tanks, create campaigns, art on the Tube… But we have to understand this problem with women’s sexuality is a layer on top of the problems we already have because people don’t want to talk about vaginas. But penises and dicks are everywhere – I think there’s like 78 different names for penis but for a vagina there’s mainly only derogatory names.
In my opinion it’s the most severe case of gender inequality. In my cynical opinion, the sexual health of women and girls is the lowest priority for the government. I had a contact in the House of Lords who was sending me the minutes of the weekly discussions and there would be four pages on the housing crisis, which is obviously a massive problem, and then there would be four sentences on FGM – literally of two people speaking saying, “Yes this is a problem, more needs to be done to tackle it” – and then onto the next subject.
How do you guys keep on going?
Trying to be optimistic? The women that have been cut and have been campaigning for decades, they’re truly an inspiration because they work tirelessly at coffee mornings, at the Dahlia Project. They’re incredible. So what gives me the most hope is them.