Girls are being pressured to undergo female genital mutilation (FGM) in British playgrounds, a survivor has warned amid an international crackdown on the practice.
Dr Leyla Hussein, who underwent the procedure when she was seven years old in Somalia, said pressure was being put on children by their peers as well as relatives.
“Some of my clients are 19-year-old girls who were children or were born in this country, and they will say they were pressured in a playground in a school in London to go and have it done,” she added, urging people in affected communities to confront the idea of FGM as a “tradition”.
“We really have to be forceful in protecting children, and unfortunately I will be upsetting people but I personally don't care if I'm going to upset some community leader….we cannot tiptoe around it.”
Officers and social workers have been stationed at British and American airports, and on the Eurostar this week as part of a transatlantic operation to prevent families taking children abroad for FGM and help survivors.
An estimated 500 people were spoken to at Heathrow Airport on Thursday alone after arriving on flights from countries where the practice is prevalent, and similar operations are taking place at Gatwick, Manchester and Luton.
The operation, codenamed Limelight, has also been carried out at New York's JFK Airiport after American authorities signed a “proclamation of interagency support” for FGM investigations with the UK.
Signatories including the National Police Chiefs’ Council (NPCC), Metropolitan Police, Border Force, Crown Prosecution Service, British Transport Police, FBI, and the US Department of Homeland Security.
Officials hope to enhance their understanding of FGM and improve the law enforcement response by sharing intelligence on travel patterns, trends and live cases.
Leethen Bartholomew, head of the National FGM Centre, said the crime must be recognised as child abuse and a human rights violation.
“Our work with law enforcement agencies on Operation Limelight, both from the UK and the US, is raising awareness that this practice is illegal in the UK and that it is against the law to take a girl overseas to be cut,” he added.
“Our focus is engaging with passengers travelling to and from countries where this crime is carried out. By talking to them we hope to educate families as well as highlighting the support available to those who may be at risk.
“We hope the high profile nature of the operation will dissuade anyone who may be considering having FGM carried out.”
The Independent attended a previous Operation Limelight sweep at Heathrow in January, when a survivor who underwent FGM in Sierra Leone was among the air passengers stopped.
“It was painful, so painful, there was blood everywhere,” she recalled. “There were other people watching in the room. They were singing their own songs. They were happy when they were cutting me.”
She said her family believed FGM was “decency”, adding: “When you’re with your man you are clean if you do that, that’s the mentality.”
At least 16,265 women and girls living in the UK have told doctors they have FGM, but officials believe the figure is only the tip of the iceberg, as the practice remains widely unreported.
NHS figures show that almost 4,500 women and girls came forward for the first time in the year to March, although the procedure may have been carried out years before and most cases abroad.
According to the World Health Organisation, the percentage of women who have undergone the procedure in some countries is as high as 96 per cent, with the highest rates including Somalia, Guinea, Egypt and Sudan.
FGM, which refers to any procedure that intentionally alters female genital organs for non-medical reasons, has been illegal in the UK since 1985 and the law was strengthened in 2003 to prevent girls travelling to undergo FGM abroad.
But there have not yet been any successful convictions in Britain, with two prosecutions under specific FGM laws and a child cruelty case related to FGM resulting in acquittals.
Dr Hussein said education was key to detection, adding that although she moved to the UK aged 12, she did not know the procedure was wrong until years later.
“Why wasn't that information at my GP, at my school?" she asked. “Why didn't my midwife ask me about this? Why didn't anyone bring this up with me? That's the real problem.”
Dr Hussein, who founded the Dahlia Project to help other survivors, called for health and education professionals to help fight against FGM by reporting any evidence they come across to police.
As well as prosecuting people for FGM, British authorities also use court-issued protection orders to prevent potential victims from being taken abroad.
Despite mounting awareness, the national police lead on the issue said intelligence on the practice was “woeful”, while prosecutions were frustrated by FGM happening abroad and victims being unwilling to give evidence against relatives.
Commander Ivan Balhatchet, of the NPCC, appealed to the public, support groups and those who work with children to pass information to police.
He said it would be “naive” to think cutting was not happening in the UK but, due to a lack of information could not say to what extent, adding: “Our intelligence picture is quite frankly woeful.
“We don't know what's happening even though we know this child abuse and abuse against women and girls is taking place. It needs to improve and we've all got a responsibility to do that.”
Commander Balhatchet said no religion, culture or tradition “should be allowed to mitigate or make an excuse for such appalling crimes” and called for more funding to help efforts to stop it.
While he said preventing the crime happening at all and ensuring victims are taken care of is the priority for police, he admitted: “For the UK not having any successful prosecutions is unacceptable to me as the national lead."
Additional reporting by PA
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