Study: Risk of female genital mutilation in England, Wales is higher than thought

 A discussion on female genital mutilation takes place at Sheikh Nuur primary school in Hargeysa, Somalia, on February 19, 2014.

Story highlights

  • The number of people at risk is more than twice as high as previously thought, report says
  • A children's charity says it refers nearly one case a day to police or children's services
  • English prosecutors launched their first genital mutilation case this year
  • UNICEF estimates that 125 million girls and women around the world have been mutilated

"All I can remember is being held down and the pain. I think it will haunt me forever," the young girl told counselors. "I try to avoid talking about what happened to me because I think people will judge me, but I'm scared that if I don't tell, it will happen to other girls."

What happened to the girl is genital mutilation.

She's one of more than two dozen girls to get counseling this year through Britain's National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, and new figures out Monday suggest what happened to her is part of a much bigger problem in England and Wales.

The charity's helpline for female genital mutilation concerns has fielded nearly 300 calls already this year, and referred an average of nearly one case a day to police or children's services, the group said Monday.

The society's figures come on the same day that a major new report suggests there are more than twice as many women affected by or at extreme risk of female genital mutilation as previously thought in England and Wales.

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The report estimates that 137,000 women are affected or at risk of FGM, as the practice is called.

The study is based on a new examination of 2011 United Kingdom census data, an effort to determine how many women and girls have moved to the country from places where the practice of mutilation is common.

The last major report on the problem in England and Wales, in 2007, estimated that there were 66,000 women affected in the country and 24,000 at risk. It was based on the 2001 census.

There are 29 countries where FGM is practiced, mostly in Africa, according to the report from City University London and the campaign group Equality Now.

The report estimates that there are an additional 60,000 girls up to 14 years old whose mothers suffered FGM. And though the report doesn't say so, those girls must be considered to be at risk of it themselves.

The British government is trying to fight the problem. It has issued guidelines ordering hospitals and schools to be on the lookout for signs of FGM, such as girls being taken out of school early for summer vacation for extended trips to Africa.

Three out of 10 callers to the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children helpline were worried about children being taken to Nigeria, and about 16% expressed fears for girls being taken to Somalia.

Half the calls to the helpline were from professionals, including teachers and health care workers, the charity said.

The charity did not name the girl it cited as it released its figures.

The Department of Health has ordered hospitals to report signs of genital mutilation, but the first statistics aren't due until September.

And in March, the Crown Prosecution Service launched its first effort to get convictions for FGM -- of a doctor and a person who encouraged the practice. They're due to go on trial on January 13, 2015.

Female genital mutilation has been specifically outlawed in England and Wales since 1985.

UNICEF estimates that at least 125 million women and girls around the world have been subjected to FGM, the "partial or total removal of the external female genitalia or other injury to the female genital organs for non-medical reasons."

As many as 30 million girls under the age of 15 may still be at risk, UNICEF says, although the practice appears to be declining.

Mutilations are normally performed by people with no formal medical training, without anesthetics, using crude instruments such as knives, scissors or razor blades, the City University study says.

Experts tie it to specific ethnic groups rather than religion or country and say there's a variety of justifications, including diminishing or controlling female sexual desire.

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