Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Black parents fly in African village elders to circumcise their young daughters in Britain

Nicola Woolcock:

HUNDREDS of young girls in Britain are suffering genital mutilation at the hands of women paid to come to Britain by their families.

African immigrants are clubbing together to pay for practitioners to fly to Britain and circumcise their daughters in highly secretive rituals.

Police believe that the trend has developed among parents who do not have passports or cannot afford to return to their home countries to have their daughters circumcised, a brutal practice that remains commonplace throughout Africa.

The procedure is generally performed by elderly women, in unsterilised conditions with no anaesthetic. Children as young as five have parts or all of their clitoris or labia removed. Some have their vaginas sewn up or the flesh shrunk with corrosives.

Last week, Esther Fornah, 19, was granted asylum because she faced being forced to undergo female genital mutiliation if she were returned to her home country of Sierra Leone.

In an interview with The Times, Esther said: “If I’d been sent back to Sierra Leone I would have been forced to have it done and they would have punished me more for exposing it and made it even more painful. I would rather have killed myself than go back.”

In Britain, female circumcision — or female genital mutilation (FGM) — is illegal, and carries a maximum sentence of 14 years’ imprisonment. The penalty has, however, failed to halt the practice, with thousands of young girls taken abroad each year for that purpose. There has never been a prosecution, although it has been an offence since 1985 with the introduction of the FGM Act. Since 2003, taking a child to another country to have it done has also been an offence.

Female circumcision among the African community in Britain has been commonplace for years but the wider population has been unaware of it. Now, however, police, social services and health workers have become concerned. They believe it to be widespread, with about 25,000 young girls remaining at risk in Britain, according to the Foundation for Women’s Health Research and Development (Forward).

A specialist unit has been set up by Metropolitan Police child abuse investigation detectives to tackle the problem in tandem with other agencies. Over the past year they have monitored schools and airports and advised minority communities that sending their daughters abroad for genital mutilation is illegal. This has resulted in about 20 successful interventions.

Detective Inspector Carol Hamilton, an expert in the field, said: “One primary school child was overheard telling her friends that she was going to be taken to her home country and there would be a party, a ceremony, because she was becoming a woman. Police and social services visited the girl’s home. They said they were not stopping the family from going away, but wanted the parents to know that FGM was against the law, that their daughter would be monitored on her return, and they could be arrested if she had had it done.

“This particular family didn’t know that it was against the law and took the advice fully on board — many people still think it’s OK if you go abroad.”

However, she said there had been a worrying development. “The information we’re now getting is that people who don’t have passports or who can’t afford to go abroad are clubbing together to pay for someone to come in. But getting the details is a problem. People always say it doesn’t happen in their area, but they’ve heard it takes place elsewhere.”

The procedure is highly dangerous and leaves many of its victims with health problems throughout their lives. Infections and cysts are commonplace, as are complications during childbirth, endangering both mother and baby. Women who have suffered genital mutilation are twice as likely to die in childbirth and three times as likely to give birth to a stillborn child.

Despite the dangers, many African Muslim communities prize the ritual and ostracise women who are not circumcised. It is common in a band stretching from Senegal in West Africa to Somalia on the East coast and in many areas uncircumcised women cannot find a husband.

One health worker who helps the Somali community in Sheffield said: “At 12 or 13, some girls are pressured by their peer group if they haven’t had it done. They will be ostracised or seen as unclean.”

Over the summer, police ran a poster campaign aimed at parents taking their daughters on “holiday” for the procedure, produced a DVD for community leaders and are negotiating with BAA to show a rolling 30-second video at airport departure lounges reminding people of the penalty.

But there has been frustration at the lack of prosecutions. Ann Clwyd, the Labour MP who brought the Bill that became the 2003 Act, voiced her dissatisfaction in the Commons last year, saying: “When I introduced the legislation, I expected some prosecutions to follow.

“Acts that have been in force for 20 years without any prosecutions mean that 7,000 young girls in this country are estimated to be at risk of being taken abroad for those procedures.”

Agencies working with those at risk say that victims will not admit that they have been forced to undergo mutilation because they fear their family or community elders could be investigated.

Guy’s and St Thomas’s Hospital runs an African well women’s clinic that treats about 400 victims of female genital mutilation every year.

Asylum for circumcision-fear teen


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