Thousands of Greater Manchester girls at risk from illegal circumcision by family
Girls as young as six from across the region are likely to be taken abroad over the holidays for female circumcision – a custom practised among some African and Middle Eastern communities.
Authorities believe others may even undergo the illegal procedure at home, with ‘cutters’ – women who perform the operation – operating in secret or flown in through Manchester Airport.
Greater Manchester is known to be one of the top six places in Britain where the illegal procedure is carried out and campaigners are desperate to stamp it out.
They say the six-week holidays are a key time when girls are at risk – as it gives them the longest time to heal, without raising suspicions at school.
Viewed in the West as barbaric, female circumcision is seen by many in Somali, Egyptian and Sudanese and Middle Eastern communities as essential to preserve a girl’s purity and honour.
But it is also known to lead to a range of health risks, from infections to HIV and can even be fatal.
The procedure is carried out without anaesthetic, usually by a woman with no formal medical training using a knife or razor.
Because secrecy surrounds the practice, campaigners say teachers can play a key role if they learn the warning signs that a girl may be at risk.
So-called ‘red flags’ include girls talking about holidays where they will ‘become a woman’ or ‘become just like my mum and sister’.
Girls who have had the procedure performed will often avoid exercise on their return to school and ask to go to the toilet more often because of their discomfort.
Campaigner Jaria Hussain-Lala is chair of the Greater Manchester FGM Forum, which brings together police officers and charities to support victims.
She said: "People from communities who practise this may prefer to call it cutting, or circumcision – but let’s not flower it up, it is mutilation.
"It is a form of domestic and honour-based violence and has huge health implications.
"We know around 24,000 women and girls have undergone this in Britain, although this number is likely to be a lot higher because it is kept so secret.
"Greater Manchester one of six hotspots for it so there could be thousands of women and girls affected here.
"It’s essential that teachers, doctors and other professionals learn the warning signs that a girl might be at risk.
"We are trying to find out more about how it is carried out here in Greater Manchester at the moment and whether women are being flown in from abroad to carry it out.
"Because a lot of the communities who are practising this are relatively new in this country, there’s the element of distrusting authorities because they want to preserve their traditions."
While circumcision is mainly practised on girls between six and 15, women may also undergo the procedure before marriage or even just before giving birth.
Immediate health risks include infection, HIV and hepatitis C, as the same razor is often used on many girls.
Long-term risks include kidney and urinary infection and problems giving birth along with long-lasting psychological trauma.
Because of its illegality, many women and girls who develop health problems avoid hospitals and doctors, seeking help from ‘healers’ or back-street clinics.
FATOU is 22 and lives in Rochdale with her three-year-old son. Born in the Ivory Coast, she fled after being forced to undergo circumcision and came to Britain.
She said: "It happened when I was 18. My mum had been very protective of me and made sure I didn’t get circumcised because she was against it, but couldn’t say so openly.
"I was hoping to come to Britain to study at university and she had helped me get a travel visa.
"But then my dad found out and decided that I could not go abroad unmarried. He arranged for me to become the third wife of a man in his 40s.
"This man’s family found out I had never been circumcised and it caused a scandal.
"Before the wedding, my arms and legs were tied down and I was beaten for resisting.
"An old woman from my husband’s family used a sharp knife to cut me.
"It was very, very painful and there was a lot of bleeding. I didn’t receive any medical attention. After that my husband didn’t care about the pain I was in and kept abusing me.
"I was so unhappy I tried to commit suicide.
"I had given my sister my passport to hide and she arranged for me to escape to Britain while I still had my visa.
"I started English classes and there I met someone and we started a relationship.
"He didn’t like that I was circumcised and I think that is one of the reasons we split up while I was pregnant.
"When my son was born I was so relieved he was not a girl who might have to go through what I had.
"Four years on, I am still in pain sometimes and have scars I don’t even like a doctor to see.
"I can never go back to the Ivory Coast and have applied for asylum here.
"I am on my own with my son but think I will never want to be in a relationship again."
(Fatou’s name has been changed to protect her identity)
PEGGY Mulongo works for charity New Steps for the African Community.
She trains doctors, nurses and medical students at hospitals and universities across Greater Manchester to help women who have undergone female circumcision.
She is also setting up new support groups in Rochdale, Salford and North Manchester and runs youth groups to educate teenagers on the health risks.
She said: "It is important not to condemn families but to educate them about the health risks , that it’s a form of abuse and illegal.
"We have heard of people taking their daughters to Bolton to have it done but I think most travel abroad.
"It is very secretive. Women will never tell you who carried it out and children want to protect their parents. But when women start sharing their stories there are a lot of tears.
"I am convinced that educating teenagers is key to ending the practice in this country. They can persuade their parents and stand up against it happening to their younger siblings.
"There are signs of progress, but we still have a lot to do."
THE POLICE OFFICER:
SERGEANT Nita Jhanji-Garrod works in the public protection division of Greater Manchester Police.
The force conducts outreach work amongst communities who carry out female circumcision – but like the rest of the country, there has never been a single conviction for carrying it out. She said: "We treat it as a form of honour-based violence.
"There is a real feeling that it is not something to go to the police about, that it should be sorted out within the community or at home.
"Because it is illegal, it has really pushed underground.
"But we are really wanting to raise awareness of the practice and encourage more people to report it. We have done outreach work within the Somali community and I feel so far we have only scratched the surface of the issue.
"We’re hoping to do more outreach work within schools to raise awareness as it is young girls who will be affected by it.
"If you wish to discuss the issues we Greater Manchester Police have trained specialist officers who can support you on 0161 872 5050."