New U.K. Data Show Female Genital Mutilation Prevalence Highest in London

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A counselor meets with a woman in her home to try to convince her that she should not have female genital mutilation performed on her daughters in Minia, Egypt, June 13, 2006. Tara Todras-Whitehill/Reuters

New figures on the prevalence of female genital mutilation (FGM) or female circumcision practices in the U.K. shows that survivors of the practice are believed to reside in every local government in the country, with London, Manchester and Slough having some of the highest numbers of women who have been affected.

The report, by City University London and international human rights organization Equality Now, was published Tuesday to coincide with the one-year anniversary of the Girl Summit, a conference held in the U.K. last July that sought to mobilize efforts to combat child marriage and FGM. Figures in the report show that 137,000 women and girls affected by FGM were permanent residents of England and Wales as of 2011, twice as many as previously thought.

FGM, which is usually performed on girls between infancy and age 15 , is prevalent in West, Central and East Africa , Iraq and Yemen, as well as Egypt, which has some of the highest rates of FGM in the world . Organizations like the United Nations and Equality Now have advocated for abolishment of the practice, arguing that it endangers the health of girls and causes physical and psychological problems that can last for their entire lives. Daughters born to FGM survivors are also at greater risk of undergoing the procedure themselves. Globally, between 100 million and 140 million women and girls alive today have undergone some form of genital cutting, according to the United Nations Population Fund.

The report, which provides a more detailed breakdown of where in the U.K. women and girls affected by FGM live, uses the same 2011 census data as last year’s report to estimate the number of women in the U.K. affected by FGM who gave birth between 2005 and 2013. The report also details the numbers of girls born to FGM survivors, information that is important, advocates say, for trying to preventing daughters from undergoing the procedure.

Numbers in the report show that London has by far the highest prevalence of FGM in the country. The south London borough of Southwark has the highest prevalence of FGM in the U.K., with 4.7 percent of women living there having been affected by FGM. The northwestern London borough of Brent has the second highest rates in the capital, with 3.9 percent of women having undergone FGM.

Rates of FGM range from 1.2 percent to 1.6 percent of the population in the cities of Manchester, Slough, Bristol, Leicester and Birmingham, while Cardiff, Oxford and Northampton had rates over 0.7 percent, according to the report. While women and girls affected by FGM tend to live in the U.K.’s urban areas, “there are likely to be affected women and girls living in every local authority area,” according to the report.

More than half of the women and girls in the U.K. affected by FGM were born in countries that almost universally practice the most severe form of FGM, type III, which involves narrowing the vagina and leaving only a small hole, which can cause health complications, especially during childbirth. Those countries include Somalia, Eritrea, Sudan and Djibouti, according to the report.

Across England and Wales as a whole, 0.5 percent of women have experienced the procedure. Outside of London, the West Midlands is the region with the highest rate of FGM prevalence, the report found.

Previous estimates for England and Wales “provided very little information about the origins of the women and hence the type of FGM they were likely to have undergone,” according to the report. Since 2001—the last time census data was published on the number of women from FGM-practicing countries living in the U.K.—there has been increased migration from FGM-practicing countries like Nigeria, Somalia and Iraq. At the same time, there has been decreased migration from Kenya and Uganda, where FGM is also practiced.

Since 2008, 1.5 percent of women giving birth in England and Wales have been FGM survivors.

“Support is needed for these women during pregnancy and childbirth and may also be needed for older women, because of long term complications of FGM,” Alison Macfarlane, professor of perinatal health at City University London and author of the report, said in a statement Tuesday.

Earlier this year, new data on the prevalence of FGM in the U.S. found the number of women and girls at risk of undergoing the procedure has doubled in the past decade. California, New York and Minnesota have some of the largest numbers of at-risk women and girls, according to the data, which was published by the Population Reference Bureau in February.