it is private. It is a secret. By its very nature it is always covered up from the outside world.
No one sees it but the person who does it, the woman who is the victim, the victim’s mother and the man the victim is married to.
Things are different in parts of Africa where female genital mutilation (FGM) is public, is a ritual, and a crowd gathers to watch it being done and listen to the screams of the victims.
Suffering: A terrified child undergoes female genital mutilation in Egypt, in a ritual now happening in the UK
No anaesthetic is given and the tool used to cut off the labia and the clitoris is rarely sterile but likely to be a piece of broken glass, a kitchen knife or a razor blade.
How awful it is that these things are always done to women – the foot-binding, the neck-lengthening and the genital cutting.
Men, of course, are circumcised but male circumcision has some benefits whereas FGM has none.
Those who practise it and defend it say it keeps a woman ‘pure’, it keeps her clean. The reverse is true.
A girl whose outer labia have been tightly stitched up, leaving only tiny pinpoint orifices, urinates with difficulty and menstruates painfully and with a very limited flow.
Menstrual blood is retained inside the uterus and accumulates with a deleterious effect on general health.
Author: When Ruth Rendell (pictured) came into the House of Lords as a life peer, she heard about the 1985 law which made FGM a crime
Unless the vagina is opened by a health professional cutting the stitches that close it, having a baby is a nightmare.
Women in the Horn of Africa have a saying that the three dreadful days in a woman’s life are the day she is mutilated, the day she marries and the day she gives birth.
And yet these last two are the days which, in the UK, in Europe and the US, are looked forward to with joy.
Mutilation day never happened in the UK, but it does now. Since I first campaigned against FGM – 15 years ago – men as well as women have asked me why it is allowed to go on.
The answer is, it isn’t.
When I came into the House of Lords as a life peer I heard about the first law, the one enacted in 1985, which made FGM a crime.
There had been no prosecutions but still we went ahead with a new law which I took through the House and which made it an offence to take a girl or woman out of the UK to have her mutilated abroad.
This became the Female Genital Mutilation Act which superseded the previous one and made carrying out mutilation punishable by a maximum of 14 years’ imprisonment.
This was in 2003 and I remember how we who had worked for it and supported it were sure it would have the desired effect because we trusted that a prosecution would soon follow.
A single prosecution, we thought, would have a deterrent effect.
But nothing has happened. Ten years and more have gone by and there have been no prosecutions.
Yet in France there have been a large number. In Kuria East, a district in Kenya, the parents of a mutilated 13-year-old girl were sent to prison and the woman who performed the act awaits trial.
Protest: An 11-year-old girl protests against FGM outside the Tasaru Safehouse for Girls in Narok, Kenya
But not here. We are constantly promised that it won’t be long now. We are constantly told that the first prosecution will take place within weeks.
When pregnant women from the Horn of Africa began coming to the UK as immigrants in the 1970s, doctors and nurses who examined them thought they were looking at a malformation of the genitals.
Women appeared to be without labia, without a vaginal opening.
Of course, they saw so many that it was soon realised that this distortion of the female genitalia was no freak of nature but the result of human brutality.
That’s a long time ago, but not so long as the first instance of FGM seen by archaeologists. This was on the mummified body of a young Egyptian woman who died in 300BC. Two thousand and more years later Egypt, though with a law against FGM, is one of the African countries with a high incidence of mutilation.
'Those who have had it done suffer physical and psychological effects for the rest of their lives'
We know now that FGM is an ancient practice, that it predates the Christian era and Islam and that it has nothing to do with any religious faith.
Why is it done? To make a woman attractive to men seems a ridiculous answer.
But in parts of Africa a man will not marry a woman unless she has been mutilated.
I have talked to midwives in the UK who have been asked by the husband of a woman who has just given birth to restitch her vagina.
Not to mention his request that his new baby daughter be mutilated. Fortunately, restitching is forbidden by law.
Mothers of girls living in the UK are sometimes pressurised by family members to have their daughters mutilated either here or abroad. In some cases British girls who have escaped the practice when they were children, have been forced by their future husbands and family members to undergo FGM on marriage.
Until recently, no records were kept of the numbers of women who presented at a hospital with evidence that FGM had been carried out on her genitalia. Now a pilot is being carried out for some reason I don’t understand.
Why not forget the pilot and go ahead with requiring health professionals to record every instance of FGM they find?
Male circumcision has some benefits, while FGM has none. Above, a young boy is circumcised in Indonesia
Figures are wildly disparate. Some say 66,000 women in the UK have been mutilated, others that 66,000 are at risk of FGM.
Six thousand is another figure of girls at risk. No one will know until records are kept as a matter of course.
Meanwhile, midwives are regularly delivering the babies of women who have had FGM. Regularly, such women have to be asked if they would like their vaginal stitches to be cut during labour or prior to labour.
In Somalia, FGM is standard practice. Ninety-nine per cent is the figure given and female children who migrate to this country with their families have all, almost certainly, been ‘cut’. A tenth die of it.
They come of a beautiful race, particularly appealing to the British and Europeans, who remark on their slenderness, their large dark eyes, golden skin and regular features.
When you look at one of them, serving you in a shop or a restaurant perhaps, treating you in a hospital or looking after your mother in a care home, remember what has been done to her to preserve her virginity.
'This distortion of the female genitalia is no freak of nature but the result of human brutality'
For FGM is very successful at that. What young girl is going to have sex with a would-be lover when her genitals have been cut and stitched up?
It will be bad enough on her wedding night.
I have talked to women living in London, Birmingham and Bradford, all of whom have endured FGM as children.
They have never forgotten what it was like. It has left its mark not only on their bodies but on their minds and their memory.
Their mutilation was performed if not by a parent personally – though this is not uncommon – by someone appointed by a parent. Yet family is very important to these girls and few will tell a doctor or the police what has been done to them and who did it.
You could say that these girls, some of them born here, have been effectively returned to the 19th Century. On the other hand, you may be one of those now rare people who take the moral stance that things were better in, say, 1880 when women retained their virginity until marriage.
You may say that we shouldn’t try to change a cultural practice or tradition.
But whoever you are, and whatever you believe, you won’t approve of FGM. Most women who have had it done suffer from the physical and psychological effects for the rest of their lives.
And very likely you know one of them. Maybe she lives next door.