Wednesday, November 11, 1998 Published at 13:27 GMT
3,000 UK girls risk female circumcision every year
Female circumcision is a traditional in many parts of Africa
More funding needs to be put into community education if the government is to reduce the estimated 3,000 female circumcisions a year carried out in the UK, a leading charity has stated.
Forward, the UK's leading charity working in the field of female circumcision, says it estimates that up to 15,000 girls in Britain are at risk.
But it admits accurate figures are impossible to come by because of the secretive nature of the practice.
The British Medical Association says it believes 3,000 are circumcised every year in Britain, although the practice is outlawed under the Female Circumcision Act 1985.
A government health spokesman, Lord Hunt of Kings Heath, admitted to the Lords on Tuesday that no-one has been prosecuted under the Act because of the difficulty of getting evidence.
He said the practice was "deeply steeped in the cultures" of the communities which carry it out so complaints were rarely made to police.
But he denied that the Act was unenforceable or that the government and police were not putting any effort into enforcing it.
Baroness Rendell of Babergh, the crime writer, said female circumcision should be dealt with by the women's unit.
Forward spokeswoman Jenny Davidson said the Act needed to go hand in hand with community education programmes, but funding for these was scarce.
"The two need to go very much together. More community initiatives need to be implemented in order to eliminate the practice," she said.
In many countries in Africa the practice was outlawed, but it was still widespread, she stated.
And she added that campaigns against the practice were very sensitive.
"We must always remember that, while for us it is a form of abuse, for a practising community is not."
Female genital mutilation has become one of the most political areas of women's health. It is mainly carried out in western and southern Asia, the Middle East and large areas of Africa.
Around 100 million women have been circumcised and it is estimated that two million a year undergo the process which is potentially fatal.
The aim of the process is to ensure the woman is faithful to her future husband. Some communities consider girls 'unclean' and unmarriageable if they have not been circumcised.
Girls as young as three undergo the process, but the age at which the operation is performed varies according to country and culture.
Health workers say that the operation is often carried out in unsanitary conditions with no anaesthetic and can lead to serious infections. Some girls die as a result of haemorraging, septicemia and shock.
It can also lead to long-term urinary and reproductive problems.
Due to health campaigns, female circumcision has been falling in some countries in the last decade. Many countries have outlawed it.
Jenny Davidson says Forward is appointing a community worker in December to work on strategies for educating people about the health risks of female circumcision.
"But it needs more than one community worker from one organisation. We need more funds," she said.
A Department of Health official is halfway through a two-year secondment to Forward.
She is looking at what knowledge local and health authorities have about female circumcision, how many incidents they have come across and whether they have policies on it which they implement.
Forward, set up in 1984, played a big part in campaigning for the 1985 Act and also does international campaigning in Gambia and Nigeria, trains health workers and does advocacy work.
Jenny Davidson says few health workers come forward for training. She believes this may be due to lack of NHS funds for training and lack of awareness about it.