“It was painful, so painful, there was blood everywhere,” Yeabu recalls. “There were other people watching in the room. They were singing their own songs. They were happy when they were cutting me.”
Yeabu* was 16 when her parents sent her to undergo female genital mutilation (FGM) in Sierra Leone, telling her afterwards: “You’ve become a proper woman now.”
She says she remembers knowing what was going to happen to her, but was too frightened to fight after seeing other children held down while fighting and biting the cutters.
“As a young girl you have to do it because for them it’s decency,” she explains. “When you’re with your man you are clean if you do that, that’s the mentality.
“I was frightened but we don’t disrespect our people. I they say that’s part of our tradition we have to go through it, but it’s not something I wanted.”
Yeabu, now 35, sought asylum in the UK but her injuries were only discovered by doctors when she gave birth to her children.
The Independent met Yeabu at Heathrow Airport, where officers tasked with stopping people arriving from countries where FGM is prolific offered her support. She was among hundreds of passengers met by police, Border Force officers and specialists from the National FGM Centre, who questioned travellers from countries with high rates of the irreversible practice and other linked abuses such as forced marriage, breast ironing and witchcraft beliefs are rife.
What is FGM?
Female genital mutilation (FGM) is a procedure where the female genitals are deliberately cut, maimed or changed without a medical reason.
It is usually carried out on young girls between infancy and the age of 15, before puberty starts, for various cultural, religious and social reasons in the mistaken belief that it will benefit the girl.
It’s very painful and can seriously harm the health of women and girls. It can also cause long-term problems with sex, childbirth and mental health.
Communities at particular risk of FGM in the UK originate from countries including Guinea, Eritrea, Somalia, Egypt, Sierra Leone, Mali and Sudan.
FGM is normally performed by traditional “cutters” without antiseptic or anaesthetic, and is normally done in a girl’s or her parents’ country of origin.
There are four main types of FGM:
Type 1 – removing part or all of the clitoris.
Type 2– removing part or all of the clitoris and the inner labia with or without removal of the labia majora
Type 3 – narrowing of the vaginal opening by creating a seal, formed by cutting and repositioning the labia
The consequences can include pain, difficulty having sex, infections leading to infertility, abscesses, long-term mental illness and life-threatening problems during labour and childbirth and fatal blood loss.
In the UK it is illegal to perform FGM or commission it, abroad or at home, or help anyone carrying out the procedures.
Anyone who performs FGM can face up to 14 years in prison and failing to protect a girl is punishable by seven years imprisonment.
If someone is in immediate danger the police should be contacted via 999 and anyone with concerns should call the NSPCC’s confidential helpline on 0800 028 3550 or email@example.com.
They are uniting for Operation Limelight, which aims to intercept families who take their children abroad to be mutilated and gather intelligence on the practice around the world.
After checking passports, officials usher families, couples, and women travelling alone to experts who gently question them about their trip. Although no passengers were physically checked on the launch day, officials will search people if they suspect a female is the victim of FGM.
Some passengers appear affronted at their welcome to Britain. “Why would I do that to my kids?” asks one Eritrean man.
But most are eager to help, sharing their own experiences of FGM – however distressing – or passing on their knowledge of their countries of origin and taking leaflets to pass around in the community.
Many do not understand what they are being questioned about until officers translate the term into native languages, with each affected country having numerous ways of describing the practice.
A middle-aged couple from Uganda tell officers FGM “happened a lot in the 1980s and 90s” but has started to die out, while a common pattern emerges seeing men and women say they have heard of FGM but not personally been affected by it.
“We don’t take it at face value,” says Inspector Allen Davis, the Metropolitan Police’s head of FGM investigations. For some of them that might be the truth but we look at what the health data is telling us.
“This is a hidden crime and anyone who wants it to continue is never going to turn around and admit ‘yes, we still do it’.”
At least 14,250 women and girls living in the UK have told doctors they have FGM but officials believe the figure is the tip of the iceberg as the practice remaining widely unreported.
According to the World Health Organisation, the percentage of women who have undergone the procedure in some countries is as high as 96 per cent, with the worst including Somalia, Guinea, Egypt and Sudan.
Police fear FGM is also being performed in the UK, with a 49-year-old man currently awaiting trial for allegedly mutilating a girl in London, but know that some families take their children to visit family abroad to undergo procedures.
School holidays are a crucial time to intercept potential offenders, sparking the start of Operation Limelight in 2014 to question families flying into and out of Britain.
Leethen Bartholomew, head of National FGM Centre, said it also aims to raise awareness about the risk facing 3 million girls around the world every year.
“In the worst-case scenario the consequence is death,” he says. “Girls and women can suffer from tetanus, from broken limbs because of how they’re held down, they suffer infertility because of blood-borne viruses
“We know FGM happens in different parts of the world, you have countries in Africa and the Middle East as well and parts of Asia.”
FGM tribal circumcision ceremony in Baringo County
The flights targeted at Heathrow come from countries including Morocco, Egypt, France and Germany, which have connecting flights to affected countries.
Many of the passengers questioned are not entering Britain but transiting through its largest airport on their way to other destinations including North America and Iceland.
An Iranian mother says she is taking her daughters to study abroad because they are at risk at home because of their “Westernised” lifestyle. Elsewhere an Eritrean woman is on her way to study in Winnipeg.
Conversations uncover abuses far beyond FGM, seeing a number of people stopped in Operation Limelight found to be at risk from forced marriage, trafficking and immigration offences and passed onto other agencies for protection.
For Insp Davis, the ultimate goal is “to prevent FGM happening in the first place, and that’s about winning hearts and minds and changing the mindset of affected communities”.
“If you get to the stage where it has happened and you’re having to deal with it as a criminal matter, life-long physical and emotional damage has already been done to the child and that can’t be changed,” he adds. “It’s a really serious crime but one of the challenges is that no one wants to see their mum go to prison … prosecution is important but we know that we’re not going to arrest our way out of the problem.”
Police have been criticised for bringing no successful prosecutions over FGM since laws were widened in 2003, but specialists see the courts as a last resort to be used when other means of protecting girls fails.
FGM protection orders can be imposed to prevent children being taken abroad, or force them to be brought home, or local agencies can support families to turn them away from the practice.
Insp Davis acknowledges that the practice might take generations to eradicate but believes it is “essential” for efforts to continue.
“Victims suffer emotional, physical and psychological damage and it’s done by those closest to them,” he says. “It is happening and it’s going to continue to happen, so it is absolutely fundamental that we protect children and we try to work with others to eradicate this.”
The findings from Operation Limelight are shared with the FBI and Homeland Security, who launched “Operation Limelight USA” across American airports after visiting the team at Heathrow.
Meanwhile in the UK, there is growing cooperation between police, social workers, councils, schools and the NHS. The National FGM Centre, which is run by Barnardo’s and the Local Government Association, is bringing together a range of authorities to raise awareness, educate professionals, intervene with families and gain protection orders.
Meg Fassam-Wright, its head of partnership, said Britain’s action is sending a “strong message” that will help the international fight to end FGM. “We need drive home the message that FGM and other harmful practices are regarded seriously in this country, that we are able to take considerable steps to end these practices, that they’re not acceptable and they are illegal,” she adds.
“It’s a long process because they are very deeply embedded in families and societies, but it’s beginning to change.”
*names have been changed to protect anonymity