Thousands of victims of female genital mutilation (FGM) have been identified in England in the past year.
An NHS Digital report has revealed 6,590 cases were brought to light between April 2019 and March 2020, of whom 475 were known to have endured the procedure at under one-year-old.
The total number of identified cases has risen from 6,490 in 2018/19 and 6,265 in 2017/18.
FGM refers to any procedure that intentionally alters or causes injury to the female genital organs for non-medical reasons. It is carried out for various cultural, religious and social purposes, with many communities mistakenly believing the procedure prepares a girl for marriage.
It has been illegal in the UK since 1985, with the law strengthened in 2003 to prevent girls leaving the country to undergo FGM abroad.
The extremely painful procedure often leads to constant discomfort, difficulty having sex, infertility, urinary incontinence and self-harm.
‘Overall trend is still very high’
“The figures show how [a] worryingly high [number of] young women are still being mutilated,” Aneeta Prem, founder and president of the anti-FGM charity Freedom, told Yahoo UK.
“The overall trend is still very high.”
A spokesperson from the charity Halo Project – which campaigns against FGM – noted the number of newly recorded victims in the first quarter of 2020 was slightly down from the end of 2019, at 865 compared to 920.
“We need to ensure we sustain the support provided to women and girls throughout the COVID-19 crisis,” they told Yahoo UK.
“We collectively need to take the necessary actions to safeguard girls, continue to raise awareness and to actively support prevention.”
Since the FGM Enhanced Dataset launched five years ago, around 24,420 victims have been identified.
The latest figures show a slight decline since the number of new cases peaked at 6,675 in 2016/17.
The most recent data was collected in healthcare settings, with four in five victims being spotted in midwifery and obstetric services.
At the time of identification, the victims’ average age was 32.
More than four in five (83%) were born and underwent FGM in Africa, however, some procedures were carried out in the UK.
Out of the 6,590 cases, 2,820 were identified in London, followed by 1,220 in the Midlands.
Overall, 1,575 of the incidences were type 1 FGM; defined as removing part or all of the clitoris.
Type 2 – removing part or all of the clitoris and the inner lips that surround the vagina, with or without removal of the larger outer lips – affected 1,055 of the victims.
Eight hundred and twenty-five endured type 3; narrowing the vaginal opening by creating a seal, formed by cutting and repositioning the labia.
The remainder went through other harmful procedures like pricking, piercing, cutting, scraping or burning the genital area.
How FGM is carried out and the help available
FGM is often performed by traditional circumcisers or cutters, who do not have any medical training.
Pain relief or antiseptics are not generally used, with the procedure being carried out with knives, scissors, scalpels, razor blades or even pieces of glass.
Many victims have to be forcibly restrained during the ordeal. Some die from blood loss or infections.
In certain cases, surgery called deinfibulation can reopen the vagina by cutting away scar tissue.
Anyone in immediate danger of FGM should call the police on 999.
Anyone who performs FGM in the UK can face up to 14 years in prison. Being found guilty of failing to protect a girl from the procedure can result in up to seven years behind bars.
If you are concerned someone may be at risk, contact the NSPCC helpline on 0800 028 3550 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Parents under pressure to have FGM performed on their daughter should talk to their GP or any healthcare professional for help, or contact the NSPCC helpline.