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Wednesday, 22 November, 2000, 00:03 GMT
'Harmful' tradition continues in Britain
Some refugee communities practice female circumcision
Figures from the World Health Organisation show female genital mutilation (FGM), or female circumcision, affects approximately 138 million women and girls worldwide.

It is a tradition largely confined to Africa but female circumcision is increasingly becoming prevalent outside that continent.

Groups working to eradicate it in Britain say that up to 10,000 girls are at risk.

They say definitive figures are difficult to come by due to the wall of silence surrounding the procedure but anecdotal evidence points to the numbers rising.

Faith Mwangi-Powell of the Foundation for Women's Health Research and Development, FORWARD, attributes the rise to the recent influx of refugees from Africa.

Some women think if they aren't circumcised they'll be ostracised by their communities

Shamis Dirir
Black Women's Health Action Project
She says incidents of FGM are becoming more widespread due to the government's policy of dispersing refugees around the country.

"It's a problem which is affecting all areas of Britain.

"A case came to light recently in Scotland," she says.

Health problems

Female circumcision is a tradition in around 28 countries in Africa but only a few, including Somalia and Sudan, practice it in its most severe form.

This involves the complete removal of a girl's genitals and sewing up the vagina.

The procedure leaves only a small opening of around half a centimetre.

It is generally carried out without anaesthetic by unskilled women in non-sterile conditions.

Girls have died after the procedure from complications including haemorrhaging and blood poisoning.

Faith Mwangi-Powell
Faith Mwangi-Powell: Calling for more government action

And there are long term health problems including difficulty menstruating and having sex.

But Ms Mwangi-Powell says few women appear to make the link between their health problems and being circumcised.

"It's tied to their culture, some people say it's part of their religion.

"They don't connect the problems they've have with FGM," she said.

"Some women who are almost completely closed up need to undergo the pain of being opened up before they can give birth."

After the birth the raw edges have to be sewn up again.

Fear of being ostracised

Shamis Dirir, of the London Black Women's Health Action Project, underwent the process as a seven-year-old in Somalia.

Even now she finds it difficult to talk about but says the experience made her determined to try and ensure other girls did not suffer.

But she believes many African women in the UK feel pressured into having their daughters circumcised.

Female circumcision is widespread in Africa

She says those most likely to practice FGM came to the UK reluctantly from war zones such as Somali and Sudan.

Conditions in Britain make many want to return to their homeland.

"Here they are stigmatised, they have to use vouchers for shopping, they have problems with the language.

"If they see conditions getting better in their country they want to go back," she said.

"But they fear that if they or their daughters are not circumcised they will be ostracised, they will not be part of the community."

More action needed

Ms Mwangi-Powel welcomes the government's initiative on FGM but says the recommendations in the report are unlikely to have much effect alone.

She believes Britain should adopt some of the measures taken in France against FGM where children at risk are regularly checked at school.

But she is encouraged by a growing trend in Africa to outlaw the procedure.

It is now illegal in eight African countries including Senegal and Togo.

In other, such as her native Kenya, she says it is not yet illegal but widely frowned upon and only practiced by a very few tribes.

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