LONDON (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – Britain’s national children’s charity has launched a hotline to help protect girls from female genital mutilation (FGM) - a life threatening initiation ritual, which it branded a “barbaric” form of child abuse.
The government says more than 20,000 girls in Britain could be at risk of FGM. But the practice is shrouded in secrecy and people have been threatened with violence if they speak out.
“The UK’s child victims of female genital mutilation are hidden behind a wall of silence. Like other forms of abuse, if female genital mutilation is not exposed it will continue to thrive and more children will suffer,” said Lisa Harker, Head of Strategy at the National Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Children (NSPCC).
The launch of the helpline comes amid a concerted effort by the British government, police and other professionals to tackle FGM – a ritual in which the external genitalia are partially or totally removed. In its most extreme form the vaginal opening is also stitched up.
“We hope that this (helpline) will prove to be the tipping point that will stop this barbaric abuse of children,” Harker added.
Britain's crime prevention minister, Jeremy Browne, welcomed the FGM helpline as "a vital step towards eradicating this horrendous crime".
More than 70 victims of FGM are seen by specialist clinics every month in England alone, according to figures released by the NSPCC on Monday. The youngest girl treated at the six clinics surveyed was just seven.
In Britain, FGM is practised by communities originating from countries including Somalia, Eritrea, Sudan, Nigeria, Kenya, Egypt and Sierra Leone.
The procedure, which was banned by Britain in 1985, is often performed between the ages of four and ten, but it is also carried out on babies and teenagers. In many cases, girls are sent abroad to be cut during school holidays.
FGM, which is found in parts of Africa, the Middle East and Asia, is practiced by both Muslims and Christians. Supporters say the ritual purifies a girl, prevents promiscuity and is a gateway to marriage. Many also believe it is a religious duty even though it is not mentioned in the Koran or Bible.
But FGM can cause serious physical and psychological problems. Girls can die from haemorrhages or infections. It also increases later risks of childbirth complications.
The 24-hour helpline on 0800 028 3550 and at email@example.com will be staffed by specially trained advisors. Callers can remain anonymous, but information that could protect a child will be passed to the police or social services.
London’s Metropolitan Police, which is supporting the hotline, said it was committed to bringing to justice those responsible.
“This practice cannot be disguised as being part of any culture, it is child abuse and offenders will be relentlessly pursued,” said Detective Chief Superintendent Keith Niven, head of child abuse investigations.
Girls often do not realise FGM is abusive or harmful because it is done at the request of their family.
“They are told they are unclean and immoral if they are not ‘cut’ and that it is in their best interest,” said Harker, adding that there is also a huge pressure within practising communities to keep quiet about FGM.
The NSPCC said the helpline was primarily aimed at adults concerned about girls at risk, rather than at children who can use the charity’s existing advice line, Childline.
The new hotline is expected to help families who do not want their daughter cut, but who feel powerless to stop it happening. It is also aimed at teachers, doctors and other professionals who work with children.