"In a hugely significant, and possibly life-saving step, the NSPCC has launched a helpline for those at risk of, or worried that someone else might be at risk of, undergoing female genital mutilation (FGM) in the UK.
This is a procedure carried out for religious and social reasons in many countries (primarily Africa and the Middle East) and immigrant communities across Europe, during which parts of a girl’s genitalia are brutally cut out and the remaining opening stitched together (often in a makeshift procedure with no anaesthetic, professional tools or proper hygiene), so that her future husband can be sure he is marrying a virgin. In truth, FGM ensures the girl experiences no sexual pleasure, as the clitoris is often damaged, while side effects include infection, blood loss and organ failure. What happens when the girl starts her period or undergoes childbirth is probably better left unsaid.
Details of the referrals the NSPCC has made to the police emerged at a meeting of ministers, police, health workers, lawyers and others to discuss an initiative launched by chief prosecutor Keir Starmer a year ago to tackle Britain’s failure to prosecute a single ‘cutter’, as practitioners are known, in the 28 years that FGM has been illegal – yet still carried out – in this country.
I have been aware of this appalling practice for almost as long as it has been outlawed. For most of her career as a gynaecologist, my mum worked in south-east London, in areas heavily populated with women who had immigrated with their families from the various parts of the world where it was – and still is – practised. She witnessed the horrific physical and emotional results time and time again.
Back then, it was called ‘female circumcision’ because it was regarded as the distaff equivalent of the removal of the male foreskin. But I wonder if it also provided, subconsciously, a protective mental veil for those who were involved in its execution or consequences, because they are too awful to contemplate – although this is nothing, of course, to the pain of the procedure itself.
The first overt sign of progress, and recognition of the suffering incurred by those forced – generally girls at the age of seven or eight – to undergo it, came when this name was supplanted by the one we use now, which far better conveys what actually happens.
How many young girls suffered or even died while we dithered?
At first, various parties – and not just those who ‘believed’ in the necessity of the procedure – argued vociferously that for ‘us’ to intervene and try to stop it happening was culturally insensitive at best, and imperialist or racist at worst. But as the truth of what was happening came to be more fully understood, this argument gradually fell away. The police, health workers, social workers and lawyers have all been educated and empowered to help and investigate whenever they suspect that a girl is at risk.
It is wonderful, of course, that the issue is being taken seriously at last, and that it has gathered enough momentum to enter the public consciousness, because, as with many cultural practices, social pressure not to engage in it can be more effective than the threat of prosecution. Not to mention the signal it sends the girls and women affected that they have somewhere to turn for help. The police are now actively planning to bring an FGM case to trial for the first time in the UK.
But jeez – 28 years? Twentyeight years to emerge from all the layers of shock, horror, misplaced propriety and misguided political correctness. How many girls suffered or even died from the consequences of such butchery, while we dithered?
It’s a salutary reminder of how great our inertia can be, and of all the forces that are brought to bear on those people who are trying to introduce change; even when it is one so vital and so obvious. Even when the status quo is unbearable and the violation – physical, moral and mental – is so heinous and unspeakable. May the trials of those who wield the knives and sharpened stones come quickly, their convictions be just and the penalties applied heavily. And may we all look at ourselves and remember that silence can amount to complicity, too.”