The NSPCC has launched a helpline to protect UK children from female genital mutilation (FGM) after discovering that more than 70 women and girls seek treatment every month. The youngest was just seven-years-old.
Over 1,700 victims were referred to specialist clinics in the last two years* - of these 640 referrals (April 2011 – April 2013) were made to the specialist FGM clinic at Birmingham Heartlands Hospital . However, the NSPCC believes the true number of victims is even higher as only a tiny fraction come forward for medical help. Those who do are usually adults with maternity problems.
Female genital mutilation is a form of child abuse common to some African, Asian and Middle Eastern communities in the UK . This illegal and life-threatening initiation ritual can leave young victims in agony and with physical and psychological problems that can continue into adulthood.
Carried out in secret and often without anaesthetic it involves the partial or total removal of the external female genital organs. Victims are usually aged between four and ten, but some are babies.
Lisa Harker, NSPCC Head of Strategy, said: “The UK ’s child victims of female genital mutilation are hidden behind a wall of silence. Like other forms of abuse if female genital mutilation is not exposed it will continue to thrive and more children will suffer.
“Children who are at risk or victims of female genital mutilation often don’t even know it is abusive and harmful because it is done at the request of their family. They are told they are unclean and immoral if they are not ‘cut’ and that it is in their best interest.
“There is also a huge pressure within these communities to keep quiet about female genital mutilation, with some people even being threatened with violence if they speak out.
“This is why we believe a dedicated helpline with specially trained child protection advisors is needed to help overcome the difficulties in protecting children from such a complex and secretive form of abuse.”
The helpline has been welcomed by local agencies, including Birmingham and Solihull Women’s Aid, who run the FGM Project to support women and girls who have experienced, or who are at risk of experiencing female genital mutilation.
Nasheima Sheikh, Deputy Chief Executive of Birmingham and Solihull Women’s Aid, said: “We welcome the launch of the FGM helpline. After three years of community development work with local practicing communities, we have found that 90% of those we reached will help in ending the practice of FGM. Our work has also involved raising the awareness of many professionals working in the area. This has resulted in more enquiries to us and to statutory bodies – the Police had 13 FGM enquiries from Jan – June 2013 alone. The helpline will act as another source of assistance to answer these enquiries and support our work in Birmingham .”
Alison Byrne, a specialist midwife working at the FGM clinic at Heartlands Hospital in Birmingham , said: “I am delighted with the launch of the FGM helpline and fully support its cause. It will provide an opportunity for women and children who have been affected with FGM, both physically and psychologically, to seek help and support.”
The free 24-hour helpline on 0800 028 3550 at firstname.lastname@example.org is for anyone concerned that a child’s welfare is at risk because of female genital mutilation and are seeking advice, information or support. Though callers’ details can remain anonymous, any information that could protect a child from abuse will be passed to the police or social services.
The NSPCC’s child protection experts received training and advice from ‘Daughters of Eve’ and ‘Equality Now’ who work with and campaign on behalf of women and girls who have been affected by female genital mutilation**.
Lisa Harker continued: “We want this helpline to be a safe space for families who are against their daughter having female genital mutilation but feel powerless to stop it. Anyone from these communities can speak to us to get advice and help about female genital mutilation without fear of reprisal.
“Government, professionals, campaigners and the police have shown real commitment to protecting victims of female genital mutilation. We hope that this will prove to be the tipping point that will stop this barbaric abuse of children.”
The Metropolitan Police force is also supporting the FGM helpline as part of its crime prevention work and has provided training to the NSPCC.
Detective Chief Superintendent Keith Niven of the Sexual Offences, Exploitation, and Child Abuse Command said: “The Metropolitan Police Service is committed to supporting survivors of FGM and bringing to justice those responsible for committing this horrific crime. This practice cannot be disguised as being part of any culture, it is child abuse and offenders will be relentlessly pursued. “
The helpline will also provide support to professionals working with children to carry out their duty to protect them from all forms of child abuse. The charity hopes this advice and support will give them the confidence to take action if they are concerned about a child.
The NSPCC believes teachers and doctors are especially important in helping to protect children from female genital mutilation. Teachers’ unique position means they may be the only professionals these children come into contact with. And doctors and other health staff need information and advice about female genital mutilation so they can refer patients for specialist treatment and to report it as child abuse.