An Open Letter by Anj Handa to Local Authority CEOs in Yorkshire

Press release
For immediate release 17/07/17

An Open Letter by Anj Handa, Inspiring Women Changemakers to Local Authorities in Yorkshire

I am calling for the CEOs of Local Authorities in Yorkshire to urgently come together to develop a strategy to address Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) in the region.

The latest annual statistics published by NHS Digital show that there have been 500 new recorded cases of FGM across Yorkshire during 2016-2017. Although shocking, this official figure, derived from information gathered from acute trusts, mental health trusts and GP practices, does not reflect the true extent of this hidden practice.

My message to you is this: child abuse of this scale cannot be allowed to persist in our towns and cities. And let’s be clear, it is child abuse: five to nine years old is the most common age range at which FGM is undertaken; and beyond the age of 17 it is significantly less likely to take place.

These girls do not have a voice so I speak up for them, even though it has at times resulted in online harassment and fear of recrimination.

The Regional Picture

For the last three years, I have worked with strategic partners, lawmakers, public bodies, charities and grassroots organisations up and down the UK on combatting FGM. I also published a 2014 report, co-authored with Dr Jean Garrod, on the scale of FGM in Leeds.

In our report, we estimated that between 1,761-2,667 women and girls have undergone, or are at risk of, FGM in Leeds, not including those from communities where prevalence is unknown or groups such as asylum seekers who are not included in Census data.

Our findings were presented to policy-makers at a high-profile event at the Civic Hall in Leeds, but I feel that public bodies have not adequately addressed this highly complex issue. Grassroots organisations continue their vital work on a shoestring, yet no additional investment for combatting FGM has been apparent.

As a result, girls and women continue to be at risk, failing those who already count amongst the most vulnerable and marginalised in our society.

The Challenge

Our report found that 80% of women seen by the Leeds FGM Clinic come from Eritrea, Somalia and Sudan. This is significant, knowing that those countries practice Type Three – Infibulation, which involves cutting away the labia and stitching together the flesh. These women tend to be outside ‘the system’, so FGM is often first identified when they access maternity services, putting them at risk of the most severe physical, psychosexual and obstetric complications.

Gaps in the System

Leeds, Bradford and Sheffield are major dispersal centre for asylum seekers. Despite our demographics, we remain less advanced in terms of awareness and partnership working than some other parts of the UK, such as London, Bristol and Birmingham.

Practitioners who do take action are frequently frustrated to find that referral pathways do not exist, or that levels of awareness within organisations are inconsistent. When care pathways are available, some practitioners do not know how to use them appropriately.

A Model of Good Practice

The award-winning Leeds Migrant Access Project (MAP) is set up to empower migrant communities to support themselves, harnessing their skills, knowledge and commitment.
MAP provides a living map that gives refugees and migrants up-to-date information on the services that are available in their communities. Trained people from migrant communities, who speak English as well as a range of community languages, lead on this work.

The benefits of this approach are many fold: MAP not only benefits refugees and migrants, but also helps services provide effective support, and reduces the number of people going to the wrong service or not getting any support at all.

Importantly, it also builds trust within communities, providing an opportunity to talk to those affected, learn what they need and develop community-led solutions.

The social value of the project is great. For a relatively small investment, the project has been able to reach out into communities. By taking a networked, migrant-led approach, community projects and enterprises have been established. Some of the initiatives have included safe spaces for girls and women to congregate outside of restrictive family and cultural structures, using innovative ways to engage them.

In Conclusion

Trust and sensitivity are paramount when tackling FGM. In the UK, the over-reliance on a health-focused approach with legal measures shows that a different approach is needed, using a combination of available strategies and interventions, with clear referral routes and community leadership. This requires investment as well as leadership at regional, local and grassroots levels.

The MAP model provides a starting point for discussion, which I would personally be happy to support. I look forward to seeing action.


Anj Handa is the Founder of Inspiring Women Changemakers, a movement of women leaders focused on making positive social change.

In 2014, she led a high-profile campaign of behalf of asylum seeker, Afusat Saliu and her two girls, based on the risk of FGM in their country of origin. Her petition gathered over 128,000 signatures and interest from figures such as Nick Clegg and Richard Branson.


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