REUTERS HEALTH, August 20, 2001.

UK doctors given guidelines on female circumcision

LONDON, Aug 20 (Reuters Health) -- Doctors in the UK have been urged to take firm action to protect girls from female genital mutilation.

In guidelines published on Monday, the British Medical Association (BMA) called on doctors to involve social services or invoke child protection proceedings if families insist on having girls circumcised.

The publication follows an increase in the number of immigrants arriving in the UK from Africa, in particular Eritrea, Ethiopia and Somalia, where the practice is common.

The BMA has urged doctors to deal with any circumcision requests sensitively and to be aware of cultural differences. But it has told doctors to make it clear to families that the practice is illegal in the UK and that steps will be taken to prevent the families from going ahead with the procedure.

The World Health Organisation estimates that 138 million women worldwide have been circumcised. There are many different types of genital mutilation, involving partial or total removal of the clitoris or labia minora. The most extreme form is 'infibulation,' where all of a girl or young woman's external genitalia are removed with the remainder being stitched together, leaving a matchstick-sized opening for the passage of urine or menstrual blood.

Mutilation is carried out for many different reasons, from hygiene and aesthetics to protecting virginity and enhancing male sexual pleasure.

While there are no figures for the number of women in the UK who have undergone the procedure, support groups estimate that it could total as many as 70,000.

The Foundation for Women's Health Research and Development (FORWARD), which campaigns against female genital mutilation, believes that between 3,000 and 4,000 girls in the UK are at risk of being circumcised every year.

Professor Vivienne Nathanson, the BMA's head of ethics, said doctors must warn families of the risks of female circumcision. 'Female genital mutilation is a practice that causes girls and women serious health and psychological problems for life,' Nathanson said in a statement.

'There is no doubt that parents agree to the practice with the best interests of their daughters at heart but doctors must work with families to show them that by agreeing to this procedure they are causing them untold harm and damage,' she added.

A spokeswoman for FORWARD welcomed the guidelines but said more needed to be done to educate doctors and other health professionals about female circumcision.

'We all definitely need to work harder to train people and to raise awareness of this problem. Many people say it is not a problem in the UK because they have not come across it. But it is and we need to educate them,' the spokeswoman told Reuters Health.

Cite as:
(File prepared 25 August 2001)

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