On Monday July 23rd, Newsnight are running a shocking film about Female Genital Mutilation. It is is something about which I have been passionate for a while and since the joint investigation I undertook with Mazer Mahmood (the fake sheik) earlier this year for the Sunday Times in which we caught three different doctors and dentists in the UK saying they would carry out the procedure it is an area in which I really believe the government have to act. Shockingly, there has been a law against female genital mutilation in the UK and taking a child abroad to have it done, for over ten years; the sentence is 14 years. Unfortunately, there have been no prosecutions.
Last week I ran a story in the Sunday Times News section saying that the government are finally taking some more action by launching a Health Passport, a laminated official document that will be available from schools, doctors and community centres for concerned professionals or friends to give to a girl who might be about to be taken abroad on what are known as ‘special holidays’ when they are often cut. Shockingly, this happens to girls aged under 10, often in unsterile conditions with a piece of glass or knife. A midwife I interviewed in Birmingham told me that because the girls try and escape and it is not a precise science she had never seen two women whose genitals looked the same. This is not a small problem there are estimated to be 100,000 women in Britain who have been cut and 24,000 girls living in the UK are at risk. this is largely down to the infux of immigrants from the horn of Africa (in Somalia and Eritrea some 90% of women are mutilated). This is done in the name of making a girl marriageable – in the most extreme cases, where the girls’ labia and clitoris are entirely removed and the flaps sewn together, leaving only a small hole through which urine and menstrual blood can escape – this is ultimate proof of virginity. It is often up to the husband to cut open his bride – with a knife – on the wedding night. the pain that the subsequent sex must inflict is unimagineable.
I’m sorry if this has quite put you off your breakfast, but it really matters. Several groups campaign in this area including Forward, Equality Now and the wonderful Daughters of Eve, a group of young women in Bristol, who are campaigning to change community attitudes. You can find links and read my earlier story on my personal blog www.eleanormills.com Jane Ellison MP who chairs the Parliamentary Group on Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) has also been brilliant on all of this, this is a link to her most recent speech on the subject
What follows is a piece written by the producer of the Newsnight film. They found a french doctor who can go some way to helping women who have been mutilated by reconstructing their genitalia, particularly the clitoris much of which is hidden internally…
Reconstructive Surgery – extract from the Newsnight script
18.00: I shall reconstruct the clitoris it will take approximately half an hour.
Dr, Fondes operates on about fifty women a month. Women come from all over the world, including from the UK though the majority are French immigrants. For them, he operates for free; the state pays the costs.
27.40: It’s a normal nerve so we’ll be able to restore a normal. Living clitoris
Although the visible clitoris was cut from the woman as a child, part of it remains in the body, the doctor can bring that to the surface.
01.20: And now I shall restore the labia It’s important for normal sex, intercourse and delivery.
02.27: It’s not quite normal but it’s a good restoration.
Fatou had the operation a few months ago.
FATOU: 1722/12/6 @25.30: I feel a complete person, at last, after my operation Now, I need gradually to get to know my sexuality. This is what I am doing now and it is going rather well. 26.03
The man who can help mutilated women…
Nestled in a picturesque Paris suburb is St Germain Poissy Hospital, home of Dr Pierre Foldes. The private hospital specializes in plastic surgery, catering for well-healed Parisians looking for an aesthetic succès d’estime
But it is not the society women of Paris that Dr Foldes is interested in. Instead he has decided to devote his life to helping women who have suffered vaginal mutilation.
As topics go female genital mutilation is about as unglamorous as you can get. Many media outlets and newspapers simply refuse to talk about mutilation. In fact one newspaper stopped me after the words ‘genital mutilation’ when pitching this story. In terms of recognition Dr Foldes would have been better served devoting his life to more savoury areas of medicine, areas of medicine that don’t make people wince by its very mention.
Despite its low profile in this country female genital mutilation is a global problem of innumerable proportions. It is estimated that between 100 and 140 million women have been mutilated in Africa alone. Types of mutilation differ, however all involve the cutting of the vagina and the removal of the clitoris. The most extreme forms of mutilation involved sewing up and even adding acid to the vagina.
The procedure leaves girls in agony and can lead to a lifetime of physical and mental health problems. The sexual impact of mutilation is often overlooked. The purpose of the procedure is to ‘purify’ girls – to remove sexual urges – and turn little girls into obedient and faithful wives. For these victims sex is often dreaded.
One woman we spoke to, who was mutilated in Africa and is now living in Scotland, described the act of sex as ‘more painful than giving birth’. Dr Comfort Momoh, the UK’s leading expert in Female Genital mutilation told us that it can take 6 months for a man to achieve full penetration.
In Egypt, Somalia, Mali, Eritrea, Guinea and Ethiopia the prevalence of female genital mutilation is 90 per cent or more. That’s at least 90 per cent of girls who are victims of devastating sexual violence. A ritual performed in the name of tradition and entrenched in misogyny has robbed them and their partners of any kind of ‘normal’ sex life. It’s child abuse on an industrial scale.
In the UK ‘reversal’ surgery is offered to women, but as Naana Otoo-Oyortey, of Forward says ‘I don’t like calling this procedure reversal surgery, you can never reverse what has happened and been taken away’. It’s a fair point. The clitoris contains 8,000 nerve endings, more than any other part of the human body. It’s not something that even the most gifted surgeon can artificially recreate.
It’s a challenge that has motivated Dr Foldes for decades. Can women who have been mutilated ever be given the chance to enjoy sex?
After ‘unstitching’ women during missionary work in African Dr Foldes went about trying to answer this question. He worked on the premise that the clitoris is like an iceberg, most of it being submerged internally, and therefore untouched by the razor. He knew that if he could find a way of externalizing this clitoral tissue he could reconstruct the clitoris.
He quickly realized that the procedure was much easier than he had thought. Cutting away the scar tissue around the clitoris he developed a method of exposing the clitoral tissue beneath, bringing it to the surface. 3,000 operations later and Dr Foldes has managed to get the procedure down to half an hour.
Dr Foldes’ work has also been hampered by a lack of peer-reviewed evidence to illustrate the procedure’s efficacy. Who wants to learn and perfect a procedure that doesn’t work?
Last month Dr Foldes published a research article in The Lancet confounding his doubters. 51 per cent of women who had undergone the procedure were able to achieve orgasm after a year and 80 per cent of women said that their sex lives had improved.
The implications for women around the world are mind boggling. Sexual gratification and even orgasm don’t have to be illusive feelings that only other women experience. Painful, pneumatic copulation can be transformed into lustful, passionate sex.
Fatou, was born and mutilated in Burkino Fasso and now lives in France. Her story is typical. After years of sexual incompatibility with her husband, contributing to the breakdown of their relationship, she sought help. She found out about Dr Foldes’ work and was operated on last year. “I feel like a complete person, at last” she says. “Now, I need to gradually get to know my sexuality. That’s what I am doing now and it is going rather well.”
Fatou is one of the lucky ones. The operation is only conducted by Dr Foldes and demand outstrips supply. He is currently teaching the procedure to a team of budding reconstructive surgeons in the hope of rolling out the method across the world. It is has the potential to bring about a sexual revolution in Africa, where 30 countries have a prevalence higher than 50 per cent.