By Umberto Bacchi
LONDON, July 5 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) — Thousands of cases of female genital mutilation have been identified over the past year in Britain, according to data published on Thursday that experts said showed the need for stronger action to tackle the illegal practice.
More than 6,000 women and girls who visited a doctor, midwife, obstetrician, or another public health service in England between April 2017 and March 2018 had undergone FGM at some point in their lives, official figures showed.
Some had previously been identified as having had the procedure, but almost 4,500 cases were recorded for the first time since the government made it compulsory for medics to report FGM in 2015.
In most cases, the ritual was carried out abroad on women born overseas.
But 150 of the women were born in Britain and 85 had undergone the procedure inside the country.
Janet Fyle, policy adviser at the Royal College of Midwives, said the numbers were "very worrying" and raised concerns over the effectiveness of safeguarding practices.
Orchid Project, a charity working to end FGM worldwide, said more needed to be done to end the practice, working with communities where it is prevalent.
"Focus should be on prevention to keep girls safe," a spokeswoman for the group told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
FGM, which usually involves the partial or total removal of the external genitalia including the clitoris, can cause serious physical and psychological problems and complications in childbirth.
The number of newly recorded cases was down 16% on the previous year, but attendances to health services where FGM was identified or treated remained stable at more than 9,000.
"FGM devastates lives. To help us eradicate it, we must first understand the scale of the problem, which is why we collect data," said the mental health and inequalities minister Jackie Doyle-Price in a statement.
An estimated 137,000 women and girls in England and Wales have undergone FGM. Many cases go unnoticed because they had happened at a young age and abroad, campaigners say.
The practice mostly affects immigrant communities from various countries including Somalia, Sierra Leone, Eritrea, Sudan, Nigeria, and Egypt.
FGM has been a criminal offence in Britain since 1985. Legislation in 2003 made it illegal for British citizens to carry out or procure FGM abroad, even in countries where it is legal. But police and prosecutors have yet to secure a conviction.
"A successful prosecution would have a deterrent effect but we know it's not easy," said Jacqui Hunt, Europe director at women's rights group Equality Now, adding FGM happened in secret and it fell to girls to report on their parents.
(Reporting by Umberto Bacchi @UmbertoBacchi, Editing by Claire Cozens. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, property rights, climate change and resilience. Visit http://news.trust.org)