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24 Aug, 2010 12:45

Female genital mutilation on the rise in UK – medical officials

Although the practice of female genital mutilation is illegal in the UK, thousands are considered to be at risk annually – and no one has ever been convicted of the crime.

Aged 15, UK-born Jay Kamara was taken home to Sierra Leone by her mother for an initiation ceremony. Jay had vague ideas of evenings around the fire, cooking and gossiping with female relatives. She had no idea that during the celebration of her womanhood, her genitalia would be cut.

“I was laid down on the floor, lots of hands, lots of celebration cheers, etc… And then my mouth was covered and my legs were spread, and I felt pain… I think that the pain itself will never, ever leave me,” Jay Kamara says. “I can understand how people feel when they lose an arm or a leg, when they have that phantom kind of pain, all the time, and that’s the kind of pain that I personally have to live with on a day-to-day basis… Some people say it’s really quick, but for me, it felt like it was being sawn.”

The women’s rights organization “FORWARD” estimates that 6,500 girls in the UK are at risk of female genital mutilation every year. The most common age for girls to have the procedure is between 6 and 8 years of age.

The summer holidays are a prime time, because there is an opportunity for a long visit back to the family’s country of origin. And, although it is illegal in the UK, there is evidence that it is nonetheless being performed in the country.

Female genital mutilation is performed for cultural reasons, and justified as a religious requirement, or rite of passage to womanhood. Much like male circumcision, it is supposed to ensure cleanliness and better marriage prospects. However, it often has serious and long-lasting physical complications, and St. Thomas’ Hospital in London is one of the centers that deals with those repercussions.

Some girls die – they bleed to death or develop tetanus infections when dirty instruments are used.

Midwife Comfort Momoh sees the lasting effects of female genital mutilation, which include cysts on the vagina, and sterility.

“They’ve removed everything, and stitched it up, leaving a small opening for the passage of menstrual fluid, urine, etc., and they expect the women to have sexual intercourse from this small opening,” says Momoh, a midwife at St. Thomas’ Hospital.

Female genital mutilation is thought to be so prevalent in the UK that local authorities have set up task forces to identify when children are at risk.

But this is a practice that has gone on for centuries in some African and Arabic countries, and it is entrenched in families.

“We acknowledge that in some communities this has been custom and practice. And we acknowledge that some females who’ve had this procedure done to them may feel that it’s appropriate to do it to their own daughters, and this is why it’s an important matter of education, as well as acknowledging that it’s an illegal act,” says Andrew Fraser from the London Safeguarding Children Board.

Despite its illegality, there has never been a single conviction against someone who has arranged or performed female genital mutilation in the UK.

Victim Jay Kamara says that has a lot to do with the terminology used.

“For me personally, I hate the term mutilation,” Jay Kamara says. “I’m not mutilated, I’ve been cut, but I’m not mutilated, and I think the whole mutilation term is very negative, and I think it just causes a lot of survivors to go underground because no one wants to walk down the street with the term over their heads.”

With legislation proving ineffective, it is a culture that the British authorities have so far failed to eradicate, leaving thousands of its citizens at risk every year.