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FGM in Northern Ireland ...the truth

Ahead of a conference in Belfast next week, Leona O’Neill talks to campaigners working to stamp out the barbaric ‘cultural’ practice that can leave its child victims suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder

Sahra Mahmuud, founder of Swan in Northern Ireland
Sahra Mahmuud, founder of Swan in Northern Ireland
Angie Marriott
Teaching awareness: Operation Limelight is a safeguarding exercise
Speaking up: campaigners, including Sahra Mahmuud and Angie Marriott (centre), at Stormont
Vital campaign: Operation Limelight is launched

By Leona O’Neill

Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) is happening in Northern Ireland. According to one expert, girls are being taken from here, as they are elsewhere in the UK, and flown to other countries to undergo brutal and deadly cultural procedures that have lasting repercussions for their health and well-being.

And that is only if they are lucky enough to survive the insanitary and dangerous “cutting” that is often carried out on dirty floors, with unclean razors and blades used on multiple children.

Former nurse Angie Marriot heads up Diversity Employment Solutions and the Cheshire woman will be in Belfast next week, alongside FGM survivors, English police officers, the Somali Women’s Action Network (Swan), members of the PSNI and the union Unison, for a major conference on raising awareness and managing FGM in Northern Ireland.

Angie hopes that securing their first prosecution and conviction for FGM on a three-year-old girl in England will deter others from taking part in the traditional practice that is happening across the UK.

“I was a nurse in the NHS for 30 years,” she says. “I worked in gynaecology and was a breast nurse. And that is where I first came across instances of FGM.

“We had a patient who, in 1987, came in for corrective surgery. Back then, as you can imagine, we didn’t have a clue how to manage that patient.

“I was a trade union activist with Unison and put FGM on Unison’s agenda and have campaigned ever since. I have gone to the House of Commons, asking for training for doctors and nurses and for a change in the Prohibition Act, because we knew that perpetrators were taking girls out of the country to have FGM performed.”

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Angie adds: “FGM involves partial, or total, removal of the female genitalia. There are different types of FGM: type one is where they will remove either part, or all, of the clitoris; type two is where they remove part of the clitoris and either part, or all, of the labia.

“Type three is the most severe form of FGM, where everything is removed — clitoris, inner and outer vaginal lips. They will sew those raw edges together and they will leave a tiny orifice, the size of a match head, for a woman to pass urine, menstruate and have sexual intercourse and deliver a baby, too.

“FGM is performed any time between the ages of three and seven years old and then from 11 to 15 and 16 years old. We are aware of victims who are cut before marriage.

“In Africa, in particular, these procedures are done on a dirty, dusty floor, with no anaesthetic, in unsterile conditions. The same razor blade, knife, or witch’s ritualistic blade is used from child to child.

“We have to remember that these are countries that are endemic in HIV, Aids and hepatitis.

“We know, in the UK, that there are FGM gatherings, or FGM ‘cutting parties’, as they are called, where perpetrators will gather a large number of girls and cut them.

“We know that, in Edinburgh, London and Leeds, they have cutting centres, where medical doctors are performing FGM.

“We don’t know where these are, but we do know that the doctors are charging extortionate fees.

“Communities think that it is safe, because it’s a doctor who is performing it, even though they are performing it illegally.”

Angie explains that the ritual has its roots in tradition and culture and that it is difficult to get through to mothers that the procedure is extremely dangerous to health and can lead to a child dying.

“FGM is a cultural and traditional practice,” she says. “There has been, for many years, a misconception that FGM is associated with the Muslim faith and the Koran. There is absolutely no association with religion. It’s a cultural tradition and part of a celebration of womanhood. So, it’s a woman’s rite of passage in preparation for marriage.

“Communities believe that, if a woman is not cut, she is certainly not suitable for marriage; she is seen as unclean, not socially accepted, as promiscuous.

“FGM is part of gender-based violence, coercion and control. It’s about a man suppressing a woman’s sexual desire. And that is very prevalent.

“We did a focus group with a number of Sudanese men and women in Belfast and men would clearly say to us, ‘We can’t keep up with women sexually if we don’t cut them’.

“There were community leaders that would say to me that we could come and tell them about FGM, but we will cut our girls — even though we know it is abuse and it is a safeguarding issue, a violation of human rights and it will have long-term health consequences, both physically and psychologically, for the rest of their lives.”

Angie says that FGM happens in Northern Ireland on a regular basis and that detection at the airports has increased since Border Force officers received specialist training.

“FGM happens in Northern Ireland,” she says. “One of the things I did in Belfast, a few years back, with a Somali group of women, was a health questionnaire. It was so powerful and emotive.

“Women, for the first time, talked about the after-effects of FGM. There was not one woman that realised that the menstruation problems they had — the period lasting 21 days, instead of the usual five — the trauma, anxiety, depression, infertility, pelvic pain, incontinence and lack of sexual pleasure they experienced, were the result of FGM.

“Every woman in that room suffered psychologically. They had post-traumatic stress disorder, remembering the day that they had been cut as a child.

“They talked about going to their GP frequently and that their GP didn’t really understand and passed it off. We know that women in Northern Ireland are suffering hugely.

“In the UK, we have, under the Serious Crime Act, a mandatory duty for professionals to report FGM. We know that there is a huge issue in terms of reporting it.

“Professionals are not confident and there is a fear of being labelled racist. They don’t know how to tackle the issue of FGM.

"They need diversity training, as well as FGM training."

She adds: "The long-term consequences of being cut are huge and we know that many women have died. There are 200 million woman globally who have been cut and, in the UK alone, including Northern Ireland, there are 65,000 girls at risk.

"When I come to Belfast, I will be bringing PC Fiona Clements, who worked on Operation Limelight, which is a safeguarding exercise which we do during what is known as the 'cutting season', the six-week school holiday, where we know that girls are being taken away out of the country to be cut, because there is a larger window for the child to heal.

"We know that this is happening in Northern Ireland. We have perpetrators taking girls out of the country to be cut and cutters coming in doing the procedure here.

"I have done a lot of work with the UK Border Force. I have trained Border Force at Belfast City and International airports to be aware of and look out for incidences of FGM and ritual tools used to conduct FGM. The level of detection has gone up since they have had the training, which is great."

Angie says that changing mindsets that are stuck on the cultural significance of "cutting" is one of the hardest tasks to complete. She says she hopes the conviction of a mother who "cut" her three-year-old girl will deter others.

"We have had our first prosecution in 30 years," she says. "It came about after a three-year-old girl was cut and the perpetrator, the mother, a Ghanaian lady, received a 13-year custodial sentence. I am hoping that it will send a message to perpetrators that if you cut girls, you will be prosecuted.

"A key focus with regards changing mindsets, for me, is going into communities and working with them and getting them to understand that it's abuse of a child. Communities do not see FGM as abuse, with long-term consequences.

We know that, even though it is part of gender-based violence, coercion and control, women are driving this; when you have a mother, who is supposed to protect and nurture her child, doing it.

"I tell them that it is unlawful and abusive and that their child will suffer huge, long-term health consequences.

"It's also about educating women about who owns their bodies. We are educating men and women. I have trained teachers and nursery school workers. I am now training girls in schools, educating them, and that gives them the power to protect themselves.

"I tell girls about the 'one chance' rule with regards the police; that, if they suspect that they are going to be taken out of the country to be cut, to put a spoon in their underwear, which will set off the metal detectors at the airport."

Sahra Mahmuud, founder of Swan in Northern Ireland, says that FGM is happening regularly in Belfast and that perpetrators are "getting away with it" because of lack of awareness.

"I sat on the NI Safeguarding Board and I was shocked to hear members say FGM is not happening in Northern Ireland, when it is, believe me," she says.

"Communities say they are fearless, because nobody carries out checks on our children and they feel confident they are not going to get caught, so they continue to cut our girls in Belfast.

"FGM survivors in Belfast have nowhere to turn for help and medical support. We all suffer menstruation and urinary problems and health services are not providing African women in Belfast with any medical support for physical or psychological issues, that we, as FGM survivors, are suffering every day.

"We need psychological support urgently and funding for Swan to be able to run an outreach FGM service that can work with partner agencies, including the police.

"I would like to see Operation Limelight replicated in Belfast by Border Force officers and the PSNI as a deterrent and to raise awareness that the police are serious about prosecuting perpetrators."

  • The free conference, organised by Swan and Unison, will take place on Tuesday, May 28 at Unison, Galway House, 165 York Street, Belfast. Registration starts at 9am

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