A surgeon who worked for 27 years battling the effects of female genital mutilation (FGM) on women in East London has called for the term to be changed, saying it has an alienating effect on practising communities.
Speaking at a the annual general meeting of Tower Hamlets charity Women’s Health and Family Services (WHFS), Dr Geetha Subramanian MBE said: “The communities don’t accept the word ‘mutilation’ because it sounds horrible. It’s not what their parents or grandparents had intended – they thought they were doing something good for the children.
“The term is cutting. The language that health professionals use should be learnt from the communities. If the service is not culturally sensitive for the women who need it, there is no point.”
Dr Subramanian began working as a gynaecologist in Tower Hamlets in 1986. She taught herself to ‘open up’ female circumcision sufferers and estimates she performed some 4000 reversals during her career, roughly 15 women a month. She was awarded an MBE for her services to Mile End Hospital’s Tower Hamlets Contraception and Sexual Health unit in 2013.
Chief Executive of WHFS Sharon Hanooman said: “Talking to the Somali community, they say ‘if you call it FGM, we will go underground and under the radar. If you call it cutting, we will work with you.”
In October the charity completed a six month research project run by Somali women of workshops on FGM/C. After the project, agreement among Somali participants that FGM/C should be stopped rose from 62 to 79 per cent.
Somali-British mother of two Aayan Gulaid experienced FGM herself. She said: “There’s a lot of talk about people doing FGM being put in prison, but a much better way is through community engagement, at grassroots level.
“A mother doesn’t want to mutilate her child. She actually thinks by doing this, it will make her daughter more appealing and find her a husband. When you put a label of ‘mutilation’ on it to communities you want to engage – the term itself is off-putting to changing minds.”
“Put it on the flip side and look at plastic surgery in the west at the moment – it’s designer for women to have surgery down there but it’s not called mutilation – its enhancement. It feels hypocritical, and patronising.”
A spokesperson for FORWARD, the leading FGM campaign group said: “We call it FGM at a campaign level because that’s the term the World Health Organisation gave it. But when we work with the communities, we call it circumcision. You have to be sensitive.”