East London project sees four times more women seeking help for FGM

Outreach workers battling the potentially fatal effects of Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) in an east London community have quadrupled the number of women seeking medical treatment for the practice, local organizers said.

The NHS has offered operations to reverse the serious health implications of female circumcision at Mile End Hospital’s reversal clinic since 1986, but cultural barriers mean that GPs only referred one woman per month to the centre.

Since the employment of a Somali outreach worker by a Tower Hamlets charity in December 2014, now an average of four women are referred to the NHS clinic each month.

Sharon Hanooman, Chief Executive of WHFS is leading a community project to prevent and address the devastating effects of FGM

Sharon Hanooman, Chief Executive of WHFS is leading a community project to prevent and address the devastating effects of FGM

“Prosecuting people for FGM isn’t helping. These women see themselves as mothers, not mutilators,” said Sharon Hanooman, the Chief Executive of Women’s Health and Family Services (WHFS), the charity behind the initiative. “You have to work with the communities on their own terms. If you don’t, they will simply go underground.”

Though FGM is practised in 30 African, Middle Eastern and South Asian countries, Sexual and Reproductive Healthcare Consultant Dr Janet Barter said the clinic sees “mainly” Somali women who suffer “a higher degree” of cutting. “If women are automatically referred to social services, they will get frightened and less likely to approach us,” she said. “It is vital to have a Somali worker out in the community.”

Tower Hamlets is home to some 2,000 Somalis. More than 98% of Somali women suffer FGM, the most common form being Type III, which involves the complete removal and sewing up of the labia. Most harmful of all FGM types, the custom can cause severe problems in childbirth and a lifetime of pain.

As part of the drive to help more women, WHFS has trained 11 local Somali women as ‘community champions’ who advocate against the practice. Department of Health funding will pay for the FGM project coordinator Halima Awad until April 2015, but there is currently no money secured to guarantee the future of the scheme.

Somali-British ‘Community champion’ Aayan Gulaid suffered FGM herself, but says she will not be passing the custom onto her two daughters. “A mother doesn’t want to mutilate her child,” she said. “She actually thinks by doing this, it will make her daughter more appealing and find her a husband. The message that this is not the case is finally starting to get through.”

Nearly 4,000 women and girls have been treated for female genital mutilation (FGM) in London’s hospitals between 2009 and 2014, according to data obtained by the BBC.


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