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EDITIONS
Saturday, 8 February, 2003, 00:14 GMT
Reversing female circumcision
Female circumcision can be linked to religious belief
Female circumcision can be linked to religious belief

Female genital mutilation is practised in around 30 African countries.

BBC News Online talks to Comfort Momoh, the only midwife working in the UK who reverses the procedure.


Comfort Momoh feels she is well placed to raise awareness about female circumcision and the risks associated with it.

She says: "I'm totally against it, but because I'm an African myself, I understand the culture behind it."

Female genital mutilation (FGM) has been illegal in the UK since 1985, although there are fears that it is still carried out illegally.

Comfort Momoh, specialist midwife
Comfort Momoh helps educate communities
But the women seen by Comfort Momoh are usually suffering from the consequences of circumcisions carried out in Africa when they were children.

Different communities carry out FGM for different reasons, and it can be performed just after birth right up to when the girl is 18.

There are three types of FGM:

  • type one - where the clitoris is removed,
  • type two - where the clitoris and surrounding labia are removed,
  • type three - where the clitoris and labia are removed and vagina sewn up, leaving only a small opening for urine and menstrual blood.

Ms Momoh said: "Some communities believe it is a religious obligation, but now we're moving away from that.

"Some people do it to safeguard the girl's virginity, or as a sign of cleanliness because they believe the clitoris is dirty."

Operations

Immediately after the procedure, girls bleed and can become infected.

But she said: "Women tend to have psychological problems. They often experience flashbacks.

"When they come and see me, how they feel depends on what experience they have been through.

"Some are emotional, some are sad that they have had to have it done, and some just want help."

No restorative operations can be carried out on women who have had type one or two FGM, but type three can be reversed.

Comfort is the only midwife in the UK to carry out the procedure, which involves making an incision and reforming the labia by stitching over the edges.

Some women come to see her in pain during labour.

"People can still get pregnant if they have had a type three circumcision because a small opening is left for urine and menstrual flow."

She became interested in FGM 15 years ago, while training as a midwife, and worked in an area with a large Somali community.

Attitudes

Comfort said attitudes to FGM were changing in African communities in the UK.

"Younger women are mixing with Western culture. They say to me that they don't think female circumcision is right."

She added: "Even when I visited Somalia in 2000, I saw attitudes in the cities were changing."

Comfort, a specialist midwife at St Thomas' Hospital, London, which this week will open a high-tech women's health centre, also tries to raise awareness amongst communities, teaching them about the law.

My work is not about attacking the practice

But she also has to educate health professionals about female circumcision.

Many are not even aware the practise is illegal in the UK, she said.

"If they are not aware of that fact, how can we expect women in these communities to be aware?"

Campaigners are also trying to make it illegal to take children back to Africa for female circumcision to be carried out.

Comfort said: "I wouldn't say I felt angry about female circumcision or felt it was barbaric.

"My work is not about attacking the practice, it's about mobilising the community, it's about mobilising men and women, and supporting them.

"To the communities themselves, where they come from, it is the norm. Here, it is a different environment."

Comfort can be contacted for information and advice on FGM by calling (0207) 960 5595, or by emailing her on cmomoh@hotmail.com.

See also:

07 Feb 03 | Africa
21 Aug 01 | Health
22 Nov 00 | Health
23 Dec 98 | Medical notes
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