The other week, Karolinska Hospital Reconstructive Surgery resident Hannes Sigurjónsson successfully reconstructed a clitoris for the first time in Sweden's medical history. Sigurjónsson learned his particular method in France, where 5,000 women have restored their private parts. It was put in practice a couple of years ago.
It's obviously illegal to perform genital mutilation in Sweden. It's also illegal to travel abroad and do it in another country where it might be considered commonplace. Still for some reason a report published by the Swedish Board of Health and Welfare on January 15, estimated that more than 38,000 women living in Sweden have been subject to genital mutilation – 7,000 of whom are under 18 years old.
Slightly shocked, I called up Sigurjónsson to find out more about his revolutionary method.
VICE: Hi Hannes. What does reconstructing a clitoris entail?
Hannes Sigurjónsson: There was a demand for it. The clitoris isn't completely removed during a genital mutilation operation – only the part that is visible. So the point of my methog is to carefully remove scar tissue and reveal the part of the clitoris that's still there, mobilise it forward and put it in its place. In some cases, the perpetrators infibulate the female, which means we have to perform defibulation – open up the vaginal orifice.
But the most important thing when treating women and girls who have been victims of female genital mutilation is for plastic surgeons, gynaecologists, sexologists and psychotherapists to work together. It is only with a multidisciplinary approach that these women can see improvement in their quality of life and experience less pain.
Tell me about the psychological help you offer your patients – is that standard practice?
Yes, it's a part of the treatment. The surgery is only one step on the female's road to recovery – both functionally and mentally. The psychological part is vital. What needs to be said is that this is a new method and a new field we are entering. We need a lot more research on the subject.
What are the risks of genital reconstructive surgery?
According to available research, bleeding and infections are the most common complications affecting about 3 to 5 percent of the operated women. Most of the women who are operated on experience less pain and more sensation in their reconstructed clitoris. Less than 5 percent, feel less in their genitals than before the surgery. There are always risks of complications when it comes to surgery – and obviously we inform the patients about this.
Is it possible to recover entirely after having your genitals mutilated?
I wouldn't say so. It's very hard to recreate something someone has cut off and thrown away. But you can recreate plenty of parts in the genital area. We can open the vagina up again and we can recreate the clitoris and the clitoris hood. We can also in some cases recreate the labia minora.
Do you think it will be possible for these girls to completely recover in the future?
The method is being developed and is getting better with time, research and experience. But it will always be hard to restore someone's mutilated genitals 100 percent.
How big is the demand for this surgery in Sweden?
There are 38,000 females in Sweden suffering from genital mutilation – 7,000 of them are children. The National Board of Health and Welfare estimates that 19,000 are in the risk zone of getting mutilated.
Worldwide, reliable sources such as the United Nations and Unicef report that over 133 million women have been subjects to female genital mutilation. Three million young girls are mutilated every year. So the demand for this kind of surgery is huge.
Those 38,000 females in Sweden: how do you think they were exposed to this?
In their native countries, most often. There's no evidence that it's happening in Sweden, but we definitely can't rule it out. Just look at Germany, Britain and France, where parents have been convicted for forcing their girls to go through genital mutilation.
But we can't confirm that it's happening in Sweden – no one has ever reported any such cases to the police.
OK. Thanks, Hannes.
Follow Rasmus on Twitter