Page last updated at 11:55 GMT, Wednesday, 29 June 2005 12:55 UK

Girls still facing 'life of pain'

A girl undergoing circumcision
Up to 76,000 women living in the UK may have been circumcised

A little over a year ago a loophole allowing girls to be taken abroad for genital mutilation was finally closed.

Parents who did so were warned they could face 14 years in jail - then Home Secretary David Blunkett calling female circumcision "very harmful".

But figures show that nobody has been prosecuted so far, prompting Labour MP Ann Clwyd to suggest: "Somebody is not taking this seriously."

With an estimated 7,000 girls at risk in the UK, is enough being done?

'Lifetime of pain'

That female genital mutilation is happening to girls living in Britain is widely accepted by health professionals.

The operation involving the partial or total removal of the external genital organs has been illegal in the UK for almost 20 years, but it is suggested that it has been performed on 76,000 women now living in the country.

Some of the cases might be brought to the attention of medical personnel, but not to the police or the authorities
Enshrah Ahmed

While it mainly affects members of the African community, opponents do not see it as a cultural issue but one of child protection.

One of the cases involves Leila, who was eight years old and on her first holiday abroad when her grandmother decided it was time for her to be circumcised.

She has told the BBC that as she was screaming with pain during the procedure, her grandmother said: "What are you screaming for? It's for your own good."

'Surrounded in secrecy'

The threat of imprisonment has not eliminated the problem of female circumcision, says Forward - a charity supporting African women and girls.

"We do believe there are some girls being circumcised either here or outside the country," said community officer Enshrah Ahmed.

"But the whole thing is that it's surrounded in secrecy, so it's very difficult to catch people."

Ms Ahmed said women's sexuality was not readily discussed in the affected communities and so the problem seldom addressed.

This had made it very difficult to know how many girls had been circumcised, let alone who was to blame, she said.

There was also reluctance to risk stigmatising children by insisting on physical examinations. Instead, the question of finding victims could come down to spotting changes in behaviour.

'Not trained'

Often, the evidence needed to take action against those responsible was first spotted by health workers, but many did not know what steps to take, said Ms Ahmed.

In order to have an investigation, in order to have a prosecution, we need to have reporting
Junior Home Office Minister Fiona Mactaggart
"Some of the cases might be brought to the attention of medical personnel, but not to the police or the authorities because [health workers] are not really trained in the issues and may not know it's illegal."

The need to inform and train health workers is something the British Medical Association is well aware of.

"There is a pressing need to raise awareness about the health and legal issues, and about the services and sources of information that are available amongst communities that practise female genital mutilation," it says in its guidelines.

"All medical personnel must be trained in cultural sensitivity and how to meet the needs of women who have undergone female genital mutilation."

'Secrecy'

The authorities also insisted that they were not complacent.

Junior Home Office Minister Fiona Mactaggart said chief police officers, crown prosecutors and social services had been issued with guidance.

But she said people needed to alert police: "We must be honest - in order to have an investigation, in order to have a prosecution, we need to have reporting."

Ms Mactaggart said the government was also working with foreign countries where mutilation took place.

'Barbaric practice'

Critics of the government's efforts continue to call for more to be done.

"It's not unusual for a grandmother to arrange for this to be done to a child in the absence of the mother from the home," Tory MP Angela Watkinson told the Commons, calling for better education of older women on the "barbaric practice".

Ms Clwyd said the government must do more to bring people to court.

"The success of this legislation cannot be measured only by the number of prosecutions," she said.

"Prosecution after the fact does not relieve the victim of a lifetime of pain and discomfort. We want to prevent female genital mutilation from happening in the first place."

SEE ALSO
Female circumcision law extended
26 May 05 |  Scotland
'I had female circumcision'
13 May 04 |  Health

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