(Updates with comment from the Royal College of Midwives paras 17-19)
LONDON (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – Doctors and nurses in Britain will be required to register cases of female genital mutilation (FGM) as part of efforts to combat the practice, the government announced on Thursday.
From April it will be mandatory for all National Health Service (NHS) hospitals to log cases of FGM in a central database to help provide an idea of the scale of the problem in UK. The first official figures are due to be released in the autumn.
"Female genital mutilation is an abhorrent practice that has no place in this – or any other – society," Public Health Minister Jane Ellison said in a statement.
"In order to combat it and ensure we can care properly for the girls and women who have undergone mutilation we need to build a more accurate nationwide picture of the challenge. This is the first step towards doing that," she added.
FGM, sometimes referred to as female genital cutting or circumcision, is a procedure which involves partial or full removal of the external female genital organs. In some cases the vaginal opening is sewn close.
The ancient tradition, practised throughout Africa and pockets of the Middle East and Asia, can cause serious long-term physical and psychological damage.
The state-run NHS estimates that over 20,000 girls under the age of 15 are at risk of FGM in the UK and that 66,000 women have been cut. The real scale of the practice, which was criminalised in Britain three decades ago, is unknown due to its secretive nature.
Under the government's plans, NHS staff will be required to record if a patient has had FGM, if there is a family history of FGM and if an FGM-related procedure has been carried out on a woman - such as de-infibulation, which involves opening up of the vagina.
Campaigners say girls and women who are cut are most likely to be identified when they seek treatment at hospital or when they undergo medical check-ups during pregnancy.
It is important to register cases of FGM because daughters of women who have been cut may be at risk and should be monitored, they say.
FIRST PROSECUTION IN UK?
Other measures announced by the government on International Day of Zero Tolerance to Female Genital Mutilation included setting up a group of leading anti-FGM campaigners to support the anti-FGM movement in Africa.
"We will not see an end to FGM in the UK unless the practice is eliminated worldwide. This will take a grassroots movement across Africa that can change attitudes and help communities see FGM for what it is: child abuse," International Development Minister Lynne Featherstone said in a statement.
The government also launched an initiative inviting charities to bid for up to 10,000 pounds ($16,290) to carry out FGM awareness campaigns.
Crime Prevention Minister Norman Baker said there was no justification whatsoever for female genital mutilation.
"It is child abuse and it is illegal," he said, adding: "I am determined we do all we can to bring perpetrators to justice. The law in this country applies to absolutely everyone and political or cultural sensitivities must not get in the way of preventing, uncovering and prosecuting those who instigate and carry out FGM."
FGM was criminalized in Britain in 1985, but until now there has not been a single conviction. However, the Times newspaper reported on Thursday that the first prosecution for FGM was expected within weeks.
Janet Fyle, policy advisor at the Royal College of Midwives, welcomed the move to get NHS staff to record cases of FGM.
"You need to prosecute those who subject children to the act that is FGM, but in order to do that somebody needs to tell someone that it has happened to a child. As it is now we have no way of knowing because we do not record that information in a rigorous or systematic manner," Fyle told Thomson Reuters Foundation.
"We have to lay the ground work first and then the prosecutions will follow," she added.