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UK: Exposing Child Abuse In The Name Of Religion

FEMALE genital mutilation is becoming more and more common in South London.

This week, the Met launched a major new campaign to stamp out the barbaric practice. Crime Reporter LEON WATSON exposes the horrific reality experienced by hundreds of girls every year.

WARRIS Dirie was just five years old when her mother held her down while another woman attacked her with a razor blade.

"Mama tied a blindfold over my eyes," she said. "The next thing I felt my flesh was being cut away. "I heard the blade sawing back and forth through my skin. The pain between my legs was so intense I wished I would die."

This is the reality of female circumcision - a brutal, illegal tradition happening to hundreds of young girls across South London.

Female genital mutilation is forced on girls as young as three. And it is happening more and more often.

Today, the South London Press can lay bare the shocking truth of its extent here within our West African communities.

Five hundred girls a year are treated for mental and physical complications at the UK's only specialist clinic at Guy's Hospital in London Bridge.

A further two to three operations are carried out every week to correct mutilations which have taken place without surgical instruments, anaesthetic or medical care.

But experts believe these figures are just the tip of the iceberg because a significant number of victims will never seek medical help.

Some of the girls will have had the cutting "operation" carried out on them abroad, often using just a rusty knife or a piece of glass. But police have warned of an increasing trend for the illegal practice to be carried out at home.

Parents who are too poor to take their daughters abroad are clubbing together with members of their community to pay for a mutilator to come to London and perform the "operation" here.

It is carried out before girls hit puberty and often when they have no idea of what's about to happen to them.

Most West African community leaders have spoken out against female genital mutilation. But within small pockets of certain communities this cruel tradition lives on.

Midwife Comfort Momoh is the UK's only female genital mutilation specialist based in Guy's Hospital's unique African Well Women's Clinic. She said: "Most of my patients come from Camberwell and Peckham. These are areas where there are big West African communities and I am treating hundreds of people every year."

Female genital mutilation is the removal of external genitalia. It can involve extensive surgery and almost always leads to serious complications.

In the short-term, girls suffer bleeding, infections, problems urinating and they are often exposed to tetanus, HIV and hepatitis B.

After the wound is stitched up, girls are left with a small hole the size of a matchstick through which they have to urinate, menstruate, have sex when they're older and give birth.

In the long-term, the practice is linked to serious mental health problems as victims struggle to cope with the trauma of what has happened to them. Anti-female genital mutilation campaigners say it is practised in 28 mainly West African countries but also in the Middle East.

Most victims never come forward.

As a result, police and community workers have found it almost impossible to collect figures on how often it happens or arrest those responsible. One victim who has spoken out is Salimata Badji-Knight, a campaigner from Senegal, who was four when she had the painful procedure performed on her.

She said: "No one can tell me there is nothing wrong with this. It is not true. It has dramatically changed my life."

Although the Met estimates it has saved around 20 girls from mutilation in the past year, no one has been convicted in the UK of taking a child abroad to administer mutilation or carrying it out here - a crime that carries a 14-year jail sentence.

That is why the Met launched a campaign to highlight the practice at a briefing in Scotland Yard on Tuesday.

A £20,000 reward has also been put forward for information leading to the conviction of anyone carrying out female genital mutilation in London. Detectives have also appealed for South London's West African community to work with the police to help stamp out the horrific tradition.

Detective Chief Inspector Alistair Jeffrey said: "This is very much a hidden crime.

"It is child abuse pure and simple.

"We want communities to eradicate it from within, to police themselves and help us gather intelligence on who is committing this act.

"Just because it is happening in South London does not mean it is happening in sterile conditions."

People who practise female genital mutilation claim it is part of their religion - an Islamic obligation.

They believe removing a girl's clitoris will stop her having sexual desire when older, meaning she is more likely to remain chaste before marriage.

But Islamic scholars deny this and there is no mention of female circumcision in any of the scriptures.

Detective Inspector Carol Hamilton, of the Met's Child Abuse Investigation Command, said: "We know this is unnecessary. There is nothing in the Bible or the Koran about it. This is not a cultural practice, it is physical and mental torture."

During the briefing, footage was shown of a girl being held down as she is attacked by a group of women, some of whom are family members.

Maureen Salmon, director of the charity Forward, which campaigns against the practice, said: "Sixtysix thousand women and girls are affected by this in the UK and this number is increasing with the migration from the countries which practise it.

"There needs to be zero tolerance on. It cannot continue."

SOURCE: icSouthlondon

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DATE: 14/07/2007

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