'My flesh was being cut away. I heard the blade sawing back and forth'

10th July 2009 at 01:00
Brutality of female genital mutilation flagged up in campaign to raise teacher awareness of risk to children in UK schools

"Mama tied a blindfold over my eyes. The next thing I felt, my flesh was being cut away. I heard the blade sawing back and forth through my skin. The pain between my legs was so intense, I wished I would die."

This account of female genital mutilation (FGM), highlighting how painful and dangerous the procedure can be, forms part of a government campaign launched this week to raise teachers' awareness of the issue, which affects British pupils as young as four.

The Equalities Office has produced a six-page fact sheet outlining different types of female genital mutilation, ranging from piercing or cauterisation to removal of all external genitalia. It also lists the communities most likely to practise it.

It is estimated that as many as 24,000 British girls under the age of 15 are at risk. Since 2003, it has been illegal not only to practise FGM in Britain, but also to take British residents overseas for the procedure. Teachers are advised to be alert to girls who talk about going abroad for a special ceremony, or to "become a woman".

Jennifer Bourne, a clinical nurse, has run a series of workshops on FGM for teachers in east London.

"Many people believe it's a requirement of religion, but it doesn't have any basis in religion," she said.

"There are many positive religious practices, but this is harmful to the health of girls. It can have physical and psychological consequences."

Long-term effects can include infection, chronic pain and infertility.

Girls who have recently undergone the procedure may need to go to the toilet frequently, or may take longer than usual during each visit. They might find it uncomfortable to sit still, or excuse themselves from PE. Alternatively, girls may become withdrawn or aggressive.

Ann Tenant, deputy head of Kelmscott School, in Waltham Forest, north-east London, has been trained to spot these signs. But she acknowledges that teachers can be reluctant to address the issue.

"It's challenging, it's difficult," she said. "I don't think anybody likes to think about anything where a child is being hurt or harmed.

"But you have to come back to where it stands in terms of the law. It's not about criticising people's cultures. It's just something that's illegal in this country."

FGM is most commonly practised among girls aged four to seven. But older children might also raise concerns about younger siblings.

Staff can pass the information on to a child-protection specialist or to a specialist FGM unit. For example, the Metropolitan Police's Project Azure regularly follows up reports from teachers.

Ruth Shulver, a spokeswoman, said: "The more people who are aware, the more opportunities there are to see that girls aren't put through this. It's far better to raise concerns for nothing than for the child to suffer. This is child abuse that's happening, and it stays with them for the rest of their lives."

Ms Bourne would like to see all school staff, from headteachers to ancillary workers, given basic training. "It's absolutely essential that everyone has a certain level of awareness," she said. "Children may speak to anyone, anyone they trust. Then it needs to be managed. Managed sensitively, but it does need to be managed."



- What is female genital mutilation?

It can range from a symbolic prick to the vagina to removal of all external genitalia and narrowing of the vagina opening.

- Which UK communities are most widely affected?

Kenyans, Somalis, Sudanese, Sierra Leoneans, Egyptians, Nigerians, Eritreans, Yemenis, Kurds, Indonesians and Pakistanis.

- When do girls undergo FGM?

Most commonly, age four to seven, but any time from just after birth to first pregnancy.

- What are the main risk indicators?

A long holiday abroad, possibly during term-time, or a girl may talk about a "special ceremony".

- What are the signs that a girl may have undergone FGM?

There may be behaviour changes and bladder or menstrual problems. The girl may look uncomfortable or find it difficult to sit still.

- What are the principal health risks?

Chronic pain, infection, cysts, menstruation difficulties, infertility and sexual dysfunction. Psychological risks include post-traumatic stress disorder.

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