The horrific practice of female genital mutilation affects some 150 million women alive today. The majority are Muslims living in Africa, but this appalling abuse of women and young girls, which involves removing parts of the genitals and even partly sewing up the vagina, doesn't only happen there.
A new report in Britain's Sunday Times newspaper claims that 100,000 women in the UK have had their genitals damaged, usually according to traditional Islamic practices. Police are now investigating a Bristol imam for advocating female circumcision to a reporter working undercover. The right-wing press has seized upon the story as a chance to paint Muslims as "barbaric"; but the real scandal is the British authorities' inertia over this cruel and criminal practice. Now, we have a chance to shame them into action.
Thousands at risk
Female genital mutilation (FGM) has been illegal in the UK since 1985; in 2003 the law was tightened to stop girls being taken abroad for the operation. We know it still goes on, but it's hard to work out just how often. A 2007 investigation funded by the Department of Health estimated that some 6,500 women and children were at risk every year. The Sunday Times($) put the number at 24,000, but admitted that its numbers are speculative.
What the paper's reporters did discover were shocking practices in the health community. They claim to have filmed a "respected dentist" and an alternative medicine practitioner both offering to perform the operation – the latter for £750. Others suggested taking girls abroad, including the Bristol imam. So far, he is the only person mentioned in the article who has been questioned by the authorities.
A legal system that's asleep
And this is the real cause for alarm: there has been never been a conviction for FGM anywhere in the UK – even though in London alone, police have received 166 complaints in the last four years. In more than 30 years, the General Medical Council has only struck off two doctors for assaulting girls in this way.
Waris Dirie, the former model who suffered the mutilation in Somalia when she was five, now campaigns against the practice. She suggests a disturbing reason for the lack of official action: "If a white girl is abused, the police come break down the door. If a black girl is mutilated, nobody takes care of her. This is what I call racism."
Further viewing: Watch I Will Never Be Cut – a film about Kenyan girls joining together to fight back against female genital mutilation. And check out this animated video from Amnesty aimed at the European parliament.
Take action: Sign this Avaaz member's petition calling for a proper investigation into this horrific crime.