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Wednesday, November 23, 2011

No more suffering in silence: A west London scheme has made treatment for women who have suffered genital mutilation less traumatic, find

November 23, 2011
The Guardian
Linda Jackson

Projects highlighted by the Guardian Public Services Awards are often tackling challenges that society as a whole might prefer not to think about. This year's winner of the diversity and equality award is a prime example of work on such vital but unsettling issues.

The Acton African Well Woman Centre, a community project based in west London, has developed unique expertise in helping women who have arrived in the UK, having been through the trauma of female genital mutilation (FGM). It is the only scheme to offer reversal treatment to women who have undergone the severest form of the practice when they were younger, leaving them often in constant pain.

For women like 22-year-old Hamdi, from Somalia, who has suffered in silence for almost 15 years, the centre has offered her a confidential, invaluable life-line.

Warned by her mother against the barbaric ritual, she ran off with her friends aged just eight to undergo what she thought was a rite of passage. Nothing could have prepared her for the pain and suffering that followed, and six years later she came to the UK following a family split. Last year, the former care worker married and, supported by her husband, she approached the centre for help.

To her relief the team of midwives and counsellors offered her a de-infibulation – a reversal of the most extreme form of FGM. Today, she is living free from pain and is determined that any daughter she has will not go through the same ordeal.

Sadly, staff at the centre encounter cases such as that of Hamdi every week. Figures suggest a staggering 65,000 women in the UK have been subjected to FGM, particularly women from Somalia, Eritrea or Sudan. In its severest form, FGM involves "stitching up" a woman to guarantee her chastity to a future husband, who can then cut her open on their wedding night.

Now, thanks to the project, these women are able to book an appointment without the embarrassment of seeing a male general practitioner and waiting months for a hospital consultation. Instead of the trauma of going to a hospital operating theatre, women can undergo the reversal in a 30-minute procedure under local anaesthetic.

Juliet Albert, a specialist FGM midwife who is based in Acton, where there is a large Somali community, says the centre has de-infibulated 160 women since it started three years ago. A further 16 women have been referred for hospital-based treatment and 29 for specialist trauma consultations.

She says: "The need for a community-based ante-natal service became clear after growing numbers of Somali women were arriving at hospital in labour having suffered from FGM. This was placing them at risk of trauma. We wanted to try and reach out to women who weren't already pregnant, so we put an advert on Somali television giving details of the free drop-in service. We were immediately inundated with the response. Since then women have come to us after hearing about the centre by word of mouth."

It is not just women from African communities in London who are receiving the service. Women from Manchester, Huddersfield, Leeds and Cardiff have all had their lives changed by the centre, which offers a confidential, holistic approach. Working alongside Albert is another midwife, a counsellor and an Arabic and Somali-speaking health advocate.

The team also runs a service for pregnant women at the nearby Queen Charlotte's Hospital, which previously had no policy on women with FGM. Thanks to the project, midwives based at the hospital now receive training so that they have the knowledge and skills to de-infibulate if required, and they refer women identified ante-natally to the team.

As well as operating the clinic, the team also engages with the local community through coffee mornings and presentations, and promotes sexual health, family planning and cervical screening.

To read the full article on The Guardian website, click here