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Thousands of FGM Cases Identified in UK Are Just the 'Tip of the Iceberg'

Nearly 2,000 cases of female genital mutilation were newly identified in England from September to December 2014. But this doesn't come as a surprise to survivors of the procedure.
Image via AP/Sayyid Azim

Nearly 2,000 cases of female genital mutilation (FGM) were newly identified in England from September 2014 to December 2014, according to statistics released today by the Health and Social Care Information Centre.

According to the new figures, 1,946 cases were found from September to December, with 558 cases of FGM identified nationally in December 2014 alone. This statistic also shows an increase on previous months, up from 466 cases in November and 455 in October.


Yet the sheer scale of these numbers comes as no surprise to Nimco Ali. She told VICE News that while growing up she knew many girls who had been cut. Now, Ali says that through Facebook, Twitter, and direct contacts she knows about 600 FGM survivors.

'That might be shocking to other people, but it's not shocking to me, " she said. "I welcome these statistics, because we can finally start to see the reality of FGM, what it is, and how widespread."

And for Ali the realities of FGM are something she has had to deal with throughout her life. When she was seven, she was taken to Djibouti in order to undergo a cutting procedure. Now in her early 30s, and the co-founder of the FGM charity Daughters of Eve, Ali says that while she remembers the act, it was the response of those around her that has stuck most in her memory.

"What ultimately stays with me and what will ultimately stay with me was the lack of answers to the questions that I had, and also the dismissal of my experience by nurses, teachers, and so on, who would tell me that it wasn't really a massive issue and that I'd probably get over it.'

One such experience that Ali describes as particularly painful was going to her teacher in Manchester and telling her about her ordeal of undergoing FGM.

"I went and told her and she said, 'Oh yeah, that's what happens to girls like you,'" she told VICE News. "It was that moment that you essentially found yourself as someone that was completely different. It others you."


For Mary Wandia, FGM program manager at Equality Now, these latest statistics are only "the tip of the iceberg." "The UK is the FGM capital of Europe in terms of percentage prevalence," Wandia told VICE News.

"Although much progress has been made in the UK, the government has yet to engage on several fronts, including the adequate provision of support to survivors, raising awareness at a national level, and ensuring that front-line professionals receive adequate training to ensure that all girls at risk are protected," she continued.

Wandia describes FGM as "child abuse" and an "extreme form of violence against women and girls." As such, she maintains, "it should not be dealt with in a different way to other violations of human rights."

While FGM was made illegal in the UK in 1985, prosecutions for carrying out procedures have only recently surfaced, and it is estimated that 20,000 girls in the country are at risk of the practice annually.

While FGM practices vary, at its most extreme, the procedure can involve the removal of the clitoris, the labia, and then a stitching up of the vagina.

Figures from the World Health Organization estimate that more than 125 million girls and women alive today have been victims of FGM in the 29 countries in Africa and the Middle East where the practice is concentrated.

According to Rocco Blume, policy manager at children's charity Plan UK, the problem of FGM needs to be looked at globally first in order to address its presence in the UK.


"The practice is deeply ingrained in communities where it's practiced as a social norm. It's a practice that's prevalent in a number of countries, primarily across Africa, and also in Yemen and some parts of South East Asia," Blume said.

"It's a global problem in the respect that when diaspora communities come to Britain among other countries, they bring with them customs that have originated from those countries. What we'd say is it's impossible to end FGM here in the UK if it's not ended in those countries themselves."

For Ali, the possibility of eradicating FGM is a definite one. 'There are lots of things we used to call social norms. Now we just call them barbaric acts," she said.

Ali added that if you'd asked her a year ago if FGM could end in her lifetime she would have said it was wishful thinking. But she now believes that there can be a drop in FGM practices by 2020: "We now have a case going through the court in the UK of a doctor who undertook FGM surgery, which opens up a conversation about the practice."

Also on a positive note, Ali added: "FGM does not define you and those who carry out the practice or support it cannot break you. You can overcome it."

She concluded: 'There will still be women living with the consequence of FGM, but we can end the practice. Once the cycle is broken, it cannot be reinvented."

Follow Kayleen Devlin on Twitter: @KayleenDevlin