Eighty-five newly discovered cases of female genital mutilation (FGM) occurred in Tower Hamlets last year, according to NHS statistics.
Further NHS statistics show that 10 occurrences of FGM were reported within Tower Hamlets between April and June 2016, a figure which rose to 35 in the following three months.
FGM has been a criminal offence since 1985. Not only does FGM serve no medical benefit, but it can also cause many health risks from urinary tract infections to infertility and childbirth problems.
These 85 reports in Tower Hamlets only reflect the occurrences of FGM which have been reported to the NHS, many more are suspected to have gone unreported. It is estimated that 137,000 women and girls have gone through FGM in England and Wales.
Across the country in general, attendances to NHS trusts and GP practices concerning FGM decreased between the second and third quarters of 2016. Between April and June, 2,029 girls and women in England attended NHS doctors regarding FGM. This number fell to 1,971 between July and September. Conflictingly, the number of women and girls in Tower Hamlets who attended NHS practices regarding FGM in this time has more than tripled.
Aneeta Prem, founder and president of The Freedom Charity, an organisation focused on ending forced marriages and FGM, told ELL: “It is shocking that there has been such a large jump, but I believe this is still the tip of the iceberg. The figures in Tower Hamlets are higher than those reported. Many girls say they are scared to report FGM to the police as they do not want their families to get in trouble.”
“But FGM is child abuse,” says Prem, “the girls normally are not given a say and this procedure is life changing.”
Prem’s charity aims to end FGM in a generation through its education programme. Prem says the education programme aims to “explain to boys and girls the dangers of FGM and how they can be the generation to end this.”
Despite being illegal in the UK for 32 years, there has not yet been a single successful prosecution in response to FGM. In a report given in September 2016, the Commons home affairs select committee described the lack of convictions as a ‘national scandal’, saying that the absence of any successful convictions would ‘deter those brave enough to come forward’.
Data on FGM has only been collected by the NHS since July 2015. It is unclear what the cause of this increase in FGM cases in Tower Hamlets is. Whether the data reflects an increase in actual occurrences of FGM, or if the high figure is a response to the recent campaigns to encourage victims of FGM to seek medical help is unknown.
Naana Otoo-Oyortey, executive director of the charity Foundation for Women’s Health Research and Development (FORWARD), which has close ties with the Tower Hamlets council, told ELL that the recent figures may be misleading: “While the numbers may be new as they have only recently been recorded, these may not be new cases of FGM and as such interpretation of the data may give a false impression.”
The FORWARD campaign, a leading African women-led FGM organisation, “works directly with communities affected by FGM as well as faith/community leaders across London and in Tower Hamlets specifically”, says Otoo-Oyortey. By running projects with both women and men, the campaign hopes to eradicate FGM through education and awareness.