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Covert Female Genital Mutilation Among the Diaspora Community


Thinking things over. Photo credit: Photochiel via flickr under a Creative Commons license.

In the United Kingdom, where Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) is considered criminal and illegal, it is still secretly practiced.

Vicky, whose name has been changed to shield her identity, says, “I know people who can do it, they are based in Bermondsey.”

Vicky walks into the salon where children focus their attention on Mickey Mouse running around on TV, while their mothers discuss the practice of FGM. At the same time, three other women talk almost simultaneously, giving their views on how female circumcision – although a part of their culture – should be discontinued. Vicky remained silent while monitoring the reactions and opinions of others who lambasted the practice.

Faith Omoleghu, the salon owner, says: “My mother, grandmother and great grandmother were all circumcised, but my mother refused to circumcise all her four children after the realisation that circumcision does not add value to anyone.” Faith adds, “I am not circumcised and I cannot even dream of circumcising my daughter because it is bad.”

Awareness of Laws

It is not that people are unaware of the criminality and illegality of FGM. Vicky says, “FGM is taken very seriously here in the UK and Canada. Do not play around when these two countries are concerned.”

Thoka, a hairdresser in the salon, says, “Girl circumcision is bad, do not do it to your child, moreover if you are caught in the UK circumcising your daughter, it is straight to prison. I am not joking.” Thoka adds,”I hate circumcision because it is torture.”

When the conversation seemed to have taken a lighter mood, away from the illegality involved and to a discussion about respecting one’s culture, Vicky, in the absence of others, said, “I know someone who can do it for you.” Her facial expression was serious as she said, “They’re are based in Bermondsey and operate like the National Health Service (NHS): you call them and book a place and they will circumcise your child for you.”

Tradition among Diaspora 

Although members of the Diaspora community are aware of the criminality involved in practicing FGM, some still practice this tradition behind closed doors. For Vicky, it is part of the African tradition to circumcise women, and is very different from religion. She says, “It is something people who have respect for their culture do.”

The reason for this practice in Sub-Saharan Africa is not due to spiritual or religious beliefs. As Bella says, ”This is done to put a leash on women by preventing them from having desires that will inspire them to stray from convention within their particular community.” According to Bella, this practice is meant to rein in women as much as possible.

Many cases of Female Genital Mutilation are covert and regarded as sacred among the Diaspora community. According to the UK Home Office, it is difficult to determine the scale of such practices within these communities because many of the cases are not reported.

Since the practice of FGM remains covert, it is difficult to trace the perpetrators. “This is a route many people, particularly Nigerians, take to seek asylum in the UK,” Vicky says. “Just go there [the Home Office] with your daughter and say that your husband wants you to do it [circumcise] and you do not want to. They will take you in, give you a house and everything else, even school.” Vicky added that if you have a husband, the process of obtaining a visa cannot work because the Home Office will say, “Your husband is responsible for you.”

According to some, it is the inequality that exists between men and women that is  to blame for the continuous practice of FGM. Bella views female circumcision as similar to the practice of breast ironing, where the aim is to prevent men from being tempted because they cannot help themselves. She reiterates the ideological position linked to culture from which the practice emerges, explaining, “The ideology from whence it stems is quite simple and uncomplicated. It is still a man’s world.” 

Somalia Bans the Practice of FGM 

A constitutional ban on FGM in Somalia ushers a stepping stone  towards the abolition of the practice in Somalia, and perhaps in  other African countries in the future. Whether the law will be passed is not yet known, as severe punishments and sanctions on those who practice will also have to be attached to the law.

Dr. Michael Walls of University College London, whose expertise centres around the emergence of a system of state governance in Somaliland and Ethiopia, says, “I’m afraid that the constitutional ban on FGM is not likely to mean much unless the government itself becomes functional, and sadly that is still a long way off.” Dr. Walls does not seem enthusiastic as he says, “It is a symbolic progress of a sort, but it is not yet time to celebrate.”

Diaspora parents are aware of the laws that exist  in advanced liberal countries, and due to the fear of repercussions that may follow as a result of circumcising their female children, the majority seem to abstain from the practice. If they do continue, they ensure it is carried out in secret.

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About The Author(s)

Delphine Ngehndab

Delphine Ngehndab

Delphine was born in Buea, Cameroon, and is now based in London. She worked as a radio journalist for Abakwa FM in Cameroon for six years. Her interests include cross country research and she has been involved in regionally coordinating a global study on women in the news media. Currently, she is researching the transnational soap opera consumption patterns of rural women.

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