LONDON, July 21 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Thousands of cases of female genital mutilation (FGM) have been recorded in Britain in the wake of new laws requiring health professionals to report the potentially deadly practice, but campaigners say the numbers are the ‘tip of the iceberg’.
Official data revealed on Thursday a total of 5,700 new FGM cases in England were recorded in 2015-16, but only a small number had been cut in the UK.
The UK government made it compulsory for social workers, teachers, doctors, nurses and midwives to report FGM last October, but many cases are going unnoticed because they had happened at a young age and abroad, campaigners said.
The figure, recorded annually for the first time, accounts for just a small fraction of the total number thought to have undergone FGM.
“It’s great that reporting of FGM by UK health professionals is now mandatory, but the numbers we see...are still just the tip of the iceberg,” said Mary Wandia, programme manager at rights group Equality Now.
The charity has estimated that around 137,000 women and girls living in England and Wales are living with the effects of FGM. It is practised by various ethnic minority communities in Britain such as Somalis, Eritreans, Sudanese and Egyptians.
FGM involves the total or partial removal of the clitoris and external genitalia. In extreme cases the vaginal opening is sewn closed. The practice is illegal in Britain.
The new cases recorded in data collated by the government-funded Health and Social Care Information Centre (HSCIC) often came to light during ante-natal appointments.
Nimco Ali, a British Somali anti-FGM campaigner, who was cut when she was seven years old, said she welcomed the data, but was concerned that women only revealed that they had been cut when they were examined during pregnancy or while giving birth.
“I fear women may only be reporting this when giving birth, which is sad,” said Ali, director of Daughters of Eve, a charity set up to support those at risk of or affected by FGM.
Her organisation, together with other advocacy groups like Equality Now, have called for greater access to psychological, emotional and medical support for FGM survivors.
“I really wish young women and girls got the support to come forward (sooner),” Ali told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
Worldwide more than 130 million girls and women have undergone FGM, according to United Nations data.
FGM has been a criminal offence in Britain since 1985, but legislation in 2003 made it illegal for British citizens to carry out or procure FGM abroad, even in countries where it is legal.
UK border force officers have stepped up education and surveillance of airline passengers flying to and from countries which practise FGM, such as Kenya, Nigeria and Sierra Leone.
The new UK data showed that where the information was available, 90 percent had been born in an African country where FGM is practised.
Somalia was the most common country of birth, at more than 800 cases, followed by Nigeria with nearly 250 cases, the data showed.
Nearly all new cases were recorded by health authorities in cities, with London, Birmingham, Bristol and Manchester topping the list.
Only in 18 cases was the mutilation said to have taken place in the UK, including about 11 women and girls born in the UK. Of all the UK cases around 10 were genital piercings, the HSCIC said.
Campaigner Nimco Ali said the statistics were useful in providing a “true picture” of FGM in Britain.
“We can finally target work where (it is) needed in order to end the practice within a generation,” she said.
Reporting By Tom Esslemont, Editing by Ros Russell; Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, corruption and climate change. Visit news.trust.org