Female genital mutilation (FGM) is a much bigger issue in Britain than most might think.
It’s estimated that there are 137,000 women and girls in the UK who have been affected by FGM — the term used to describe the non-medical procedure that partially or totally removes the external female genitalia, with extremely harmful health consequences.
Yet one of the most pressing problems isn’t necessarily perception. In an immediate sense, it’s access — meaning how many women can get help, even when they might not necessarily know that they need it.
But the National Health Service is attempting to correct that injustice, announcing on Thursday that eight new FGM specialist centres will open up across England to offer expert care and mental health support for survivors.
The Guardian reports that more than 1,300 women should benefit from the services based in five London boroughs, Bristol, Birmingham, and Leeds.
It’s a vital intervention that will help some of the most marginalised groups of women across the country, potentially suffering from one of four main types of FGM — outlined and explained in the video below.
The new centres will have specialist doctors, nurses, counsellors, and midwives — and draw on the experience of advocates connected to community groups like the Dahlia Project (a psychotherapy service for survivors), Forward (the Foundation for Women’s Health Research and Development), and the Ayda Centre (a skills and support group for young people).
They will aim to reach a broader range of women who have undergone the procedure, especially younger women. Often, those who have survived the practice will only engage with health services for the first time after they become pregnant — just like anti-FGM activist Leyla Hussein OBE, founder of the Dahlia Project.
“These specialist services are needed,” Hussein told Global Citizen. “It’s a must.”
“For me, there’s a personal connection to it,” she added. “There was a clinic in Waltham Forest, established in the 1990s, and I came across it in 2002 when I gave birth to my daughter. That was where I was picked up.”
Hussein underwent FGM when she was 7 years old. But like many others, it was at this clinic where she would first begin to understand that traumatic experience — and, for her, it kickstarted years of campaigning around the world to ensure no other girl would be forced to repeat it.
Since then, she’s founded Europe’s first therapy service for FGM survivors; starred in a BAFTA-nominated Channel 4 documentary; been awarded an OBE for her services to the fight against gender inequality; and much more. But it all started from accessing that one specialist service.
“[That clinic] was where I got all the information, everything I needed in order for me to do, basically, what I’m doing today,” she said. “It was having that little bit of safe space to talk about what happened to me — a holistic approach.”
When Hussein founded the Dahlia Project, it was the only FGM counselling service in Europe. Now with this fresh funding, she revealed that it’s going to be based in two hospitals.
FGM has been illegal in the UK since 1985, with the law updated in 2003 to extend prison time, and amended again in 2015 to permit the removal of at-risk children from families against whom they might need protection. That also enforced mandatory reporting on health officials.
But the latter creates an issue in the new centres: NHS staff must record all incidents of FGM they see — and report such cases to the police if the girl they’re examining is under the age of 18. Effectively, that means that those younger women would be excluded from these new centres, a problem identified to the Guardian by Naana Otoo-Oyortey, executive director of Forward.
Although complimenting the “valuable outreach opportunities to tackle much needed prevention work that has been underfunded within the UK”, Otoo-Oyortey said that it “is a major deterrent for young girls under 18 who want to access support services for FGM.”
"What if I get pregnant?" Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) support clinics are non-judgemental places to discuss FGM health needs. FGM is illegal, getting help and asking questions isn't. Learn more: https://t.co/HKDnTYF2xm#FGMQuestions#EndFGMpic.twitter.com/9H3Gg39ROR— NHS England (@NHSEngland) September 12, 2019
Hussein agreed that Otoo-Oyortey’s assessment of the situation was “no doubt” true: “That’s always been the issue with clinics,” she told Global Citizen. “It’s great what’s happening — it’s definitely a good start — but we need to work towards having better services … for girls who are under 18."
“This clinic is super important. But it’s not enough: we need more,” Hussein added. “It cannot be funded for one year, or two years, or three years. It has to be ongoing.”