Around five FGM victims identified in Bedford as experts warn of hidden abuse
Experts fear impact of pandemic may mean there are more cases
Around five new victims of female genital mutilation (FGM) were seen by NHS services in Bedford last year, figures show.
Since recording began in 2015, health services have identified around 55 FGM victims in the area.
But there could be more, with experts saying that the already “extremely hidden” form of child abuse may be going further unnoticed nationally due to the impact of the coronavirus pandemic.
NHS Digital data shows in the year to March, around 10 FGM survivors attended appointments with health professionals in Bedford.
Around five of them had their injuries recorded by the NHS for the first time, with the number of new cases remaining largely in line with the previous year.
Only approximate numbers are recorded in the data, to prevent identification of individual women.
Lockdowns and school closures alongside a reduction in face-to-face medical appointments during the pandemic have led to fewer opportunities to identify signs of abuse, according to the National FGM Centre – and the organisation has warned the problem could worsen post-pandemic.
Women and girls who have suffered FGM have had their genitalia deliberately cut, injured or changed for non-medical reasons – most undergo the procedures as children.
The practice, traditional in some cultures, has been illegal in the UK since 1985, with the law strengthened in 2003 to prevent girls having treatment abroad.
Since recording began, NHS trusts and GP practices across England have identified more than 27,000 individual women and girls who have undergone FGM.
But in the year to March, FGM-related attendances at NHS appointments nationally dropped to around 10,600 from more than 12,000 the year before.
NHS Digital statisticians said it was not clear whether the change was due to a reduction in the number of women and girls seen during the pandemic or a reduction in the capacity of NHS services to report all FGM-related attendances in that time.
However, Leethen Bartholomew of the National FGM Centre – a partnership between Barnardo’s and the Local Government Association – said it was unsurprising to see a decrease in the number of cases reported since coronavirus measures took hold across the country.
He said: “This does not mean that there are fewer survivors needing this support.
“Lockdowns, school closures and fewer interactions with health, social care and other professionals, have meant many survivors are going unnoticed and are not receiving the support we know they need.
“FGM is an extremely hidden form of child abuse and there are undoubtedly women and girls who are suffering in silence.”
Mr Bartholomew added: “As society goes back to normal following a successful national vaccination campaign and the easing of restrictions, I am certain we will see those numbers rising again.
“When they do, health, social and educational professionals need to have access to the time and resources they need to ensure survivors receive the right help to overcome their physical and mental trauma.”