Fears that 10,000 girls face threat of circumcision

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The Independent Online
LOCAL authorities and social workers have turned a 'blind eye' to the genital mutilation of young girls among African and other Third World communities in Britain for fear of being labelled racist, a London conference was told yesterday.

More than 10,000 girls in the UK, most of them aged eight or under, are estimated to be at risk of female circumcision, a 'traditional' procedure usually performed without anaesthetic, causing great pain and leading to long- term health risks, according to Efua Dookenoo, director of Forward, a group campaigning for the end of the practice.

Although the procedure, which can include the removal of the clitoris and other organs, was made illegal in Britain in 1985, loopholes remain and young girls in Britain continue to be mutilated, Mrs Dookenoo said.

Girls can be taken out of the country for holidays. Social and health service staff are also 'nervous' about preventing or reporting mutilation as they feel it conflicts with anti-racist policies. 'There continues to be confusion as to what is legitimate in culture, which should be respected, and what is human rights abuse.'

The practice involves three main types of procedure: cutting off the hood of the clitoris; cutting off the clitoris itself; and cutting the clitoris and other organs, followed by stitching, which almost closes the vagina.

Slivers of wood or matchsticks are used to stop the vagina from sealing fully. Kitchen knives, razor blades or pieces of glass are used in the operation and stitching is with silk, catgut or thorns. Girls may have their legs bound for 40 days to allow scar tissue to form.

A survey by Forward last year showed the practice was more widespread in the UK than previously believed. Of 65 social services departments, 10 had reported intervening because cases were suspected, and another 18 were concerned about groups 'possibly' practising it.

Forward is involved with six current cases in four local authorities. The girls, who were at risk of being sent home for circumcision, are the children of parents from Nigeria, Sierra Leone, Malaysia and Somalia. Councils can stop the children being sent abroad but one of the girl's parents has instructed a solicitor to challenge that power.

Opponents of the practice, which is carried out in Africa, Asia and the Middle East, say the belief that it is justified by religious teaching is mistaken: it has no basis in any creed. About two million girls undergo it every year; 80 million women worldwide are estimated to have undergone it. The risk to girls in Britain often comes to light when one tells her teacher she is going 'home' for a holiday. One Sudanese girl, aged 14, wrote to Forward saying: 'My mother says I'm to . . . stay with my grandmother and that I will come back a woman. I fear I am to be cut.'

A Somali girl aged 16, from London, asked a social worker if she could become 'unstitched', and alerted her to her two sisters, aged eight and 10. The elder of these told her teacher she was going on holiday outside the UK and would come back 'with a sore bottom'. Her mother insisted it was for her well-being; the daughters were made wards of court.