FGM – Female Genital Mutilation – is often thought of a practice that happens solely overseas and not in the UK. However, shocking statistics prove otherwise. Award-winning Dr Comfort Momoh is on a mission to not only end this stigma but also end this brutal act happening on young women across the world.
“I think people try to distance themselves from ‘unpleasant’ issues that are happening far away from them; but FGM, unfortunately, happens here in the UK,” Dr Comfort told Miss Vogue, explaining that one of the crucial elements in ending this practice is for it to become common knowledge that this continues to happen in Britain. Comfort has witnessed this first hand as many of her patients have been subjected circumcision.
Often done by a “cutter”, FGM is the removal of healthy female genital anatomy, usually taking place between birth and age 15. The long-lasting side effects are numerous: severe bleeding, problems urinating, pain, childbirth complications and there is an increased risk of new-born deaths.
According to the World Health Organisation, the process comes in four variations: Type one is a clitoridectomy, ie. the removal of the clitoris, either totally or partially; two is the removal of the clitoris either totally or partially, as well as the inner lips, otherwise known as the labia minora; three is the removal of the clitoris either totally or partially, and the inner lips (labia minora), the outer lips (labia majora) and stitching everything together leaving a tiny opening for the passing of urine or menstrual flow; or type four consists a number of other harmful procedures for non-medical purposes, like pricking, piercing, incising, scraping, stretching and cauterising or burning the genital area.
For Dr Comfort, the misinformation that FGM is related to religious beliefs is a stigma she is keen to eliminate. “It is essential to break this stigma to ensure we safeguard women and girls who could be at risk. This is about child protection here in the UK.”
The practice of FGM was made illegal in 1985, yet there have been no criminal convictions (one case failed at trial and several UK police forces are investigating not) yet the NSPCC estimates that there are 137,000 women who have been cut living in the UK. The number grows to 200 million globally.
Since she set out her goal to help those who have been affected or at risk of being affected, Comfort has seen things develop in the right direction. “We have made progress; many survivors are now happy to share their stories – which is the most powerful thing for me. These women and their stories have made me determined to spread awareness and get the services they need commissioned.”
Speaking of the work that the British government has done on the topic, Comfort acknowledges that it’s important to note what they have done. “The first law passed was in 1985 – The Female Circumcision Act. In 2000, I was an expert witness and helped to provide recommendations to the cross-party parliamentary hearing on how to close the loopholes in UK law that failed to criminalise people taking children out of the country for FGM,” she told us.
“In 2003, David Blunkett launched the Female Genital Mutilation Act which changed three things: the term was changed from circumcision to FGM, potential sentences were increased from five to 14 years and anyone taking children out of the country for FGM became criminally liable. There has also been an FGM Protection Order since 2015 which gives anyone the right to report girls they think might be at risk, alongside policies, guidelines and mandatory reporting for all health and education professionals.”
How can the government help next? “Putting more money into resources and supporting survivors. More dedicated psychological support for women who are living with FGM and for the UK government to work closely with countries where FGM is prevalent and to make effective pledges to work with their governments.”
FGM might be a physical act, but for many women the incisions and unnecessary removal of these healthy body parts has a lasting impact emotionally. “Survivors are in need of psychological help, psychosexual counselling and many women want deinfibulation (a procedure to open up the closed vagina) treatment which we need to properly respond to and facilitate,” Comfort shared.
Ending FGM – Global Comfort’s premiere objective – will start when conversations surrounding the matter more regularly occur and the young women in the communities that often undergo female circumcisions feel empowered and engaged with. “I would like the taboo and the conspiracy of silence surrounding FGM to be broken; to have more media coverage so people are aware of it. FGM needs to be part of the national core-curriculum at schools so that every young person – boys and girls – understand exactly what FGM is and the serious, life-long effects and health issues it causes. We need holistic care including things such as psychological and psychosexual counselling for survivors of FGM, tailored services to support women and girls living with FGM in the UK. We need to call it what it is – Female Genital Mutilation. It is happening in our communities right here in the UK and it is up to all of us to take action and protect our girls and women.”