• Team BAME Maternity

Naana Otoo-Oyortey MBE: forward thinking on FGM

Naana Otoo-Oyortey MBE (left): "FGM is a not a disease and cannot be eradicated"

Naana Otoo-Oyortey MBE has made it her life's work to work with communities to end the practice of Female Genital Mutilation (FGM). Ms Otoo-Oyortey tells Alya Harding what led her to this work and what now needs to be done

"When I got to hear about the real facts about FGM, as an African woman I felt it was important that African voices should be at the forefront of this campaign and wanted to be part of the campaign to tackle FGM. I realised that if I had been born in an affected community it is unlikely I would have escaped having to undergo the practice. I was invited by the founder of the Foundation for Women's Health, Research and Development (FORWARD), Efua Dorkenoo, to join the board as a trustee over 20 years ago and have remained invoved ever since.

"FORWARD has been instrumental in a number of policy changes in the UK and Europe. We lobbied for the change in the 2004 law on FGM and conducted the first FGM prevalence study in the UK which helped to inform numerous studies in other European countries.

"While the UK has been instrumental in strengthening the legal and policy framework on FGM, laws should be part of a holistic approach to tackling FGM. FGM is a social norm and as such community engagement should form a central part of this policy response. Unfortunately there is limited support for community engagement. Most importantly the failure to adequately train professionals to have cultural competency in responding to FGM has resulted in huge backlash from affected communities as the current approach is seen as punitive and discriminatory.

"A study by FORWARD on the impact of FGM safeguarding policies on communities confirmed many of these challenges. The research findings, which will be published in 2020, reveal that the new policies have had wide-ranging impact on the lives of families, with common experiences including unsubstantiated suspicions from school staff, unannounced home visits from police and often social services, intrusive questioning by health professionals, unwarranted physical examination of girls, and interrogations at airports by police officers.

Many report being stopped at airports. This humiliates, alienates and stigmatises communities

"Many report being stopped at airports. This humiliates, alienates and stigmatises communities. Among the major outcomes of FGM safeguarding efforts is risk assessment guidelines, which include key indicators such as ‘a family is leaving the country for an extended period of time travelling to an area with a high prevalence of FGM’. This meant that many families were faced with immediate suspicion from school staff when requesting an extended summer holiday to their country of origin. This often leads to referrals to social services, followed by home visits by the police and social services.

"One of the consequences of the new laws on mandatory reporting of girls under 18 years who have undergone FGM has been the failure of girls who are affected by FGM to seek services or disclose that they have undergone FGM.

"FGM is a grave human rights violation, and harms a number of human rights of women including the right to health, the right to be free from torture, the right to sexual and reproductive health. It is classified as child abuse in the UK. FGM must be accorded the same support and funding as other forms of abuse.

"That said FGM is a not a disease and cannot be [totally] eradicated. Women who are affected by FGM require competent and sympathetic care. Health care professionals should be trained on how to respond effectively to the needs of affected women. We have heard so many horror stories that women face when they visit hospitals, but this seems to be changing a lot in the UK due to the numerous specialist FGM support services round the country who are more culturally competent in dealing with FGM.

We had huge support from allies who were policy makers and health professionals and others who were not from BAME communities

"FGM is a human rights violation which requires allies and advocates from all communities. When FORWARD started working on this campaign we had huge support from allies who were policy makers and health professionals and others who were not from BAME communities. However, the most effective advocates who are best placed to end the practice are communities. FGM could end in a generation if families commit not to cut their children."

About Naana Otoo-Oyortey

Awarded an MBE in 2009 for her work on women’s rights, Naana Otoo-Oyortey runs the Foundation for Women’s Health, Research and Development (Forward), which has supported the African diaspora in the UK for 30 years. She is a high profile campaigner against female genital mutilation (FGM). Naana Otoo-Oyortey has featured in the Evening Standard's list of London's most influential people and has discussed her campaigning on the BBC's Woman's Hour and at the International Observatory of Human Rights.

Together with Alya Harding Ms Otoo-Oyortey will be leading a workship on FGM at BAME Birthing With Colour.

About BAME Maternity Birthing With Colour

BAME Maternity Birthing With Colour is a one day conference organised by registered charity The Brun Bear Foundation in association with a top team of healthcare professionals led by Helen Knower, Director of Midwifery, Lewisham and Greenwich NHS Trust.

The conference’s objectives are to draw together medical professionals, policy makers, the third sector, community groups and mothers themselves for an outstanding programme that helps shape, deliver, direct and influence higher standards of BAME Maternity care.

Proceeds from the day – which is being organised on an entirely voluntary basis – will support relevant medical and other causes.

For more information including speaking, attendance, sponsorship, media and supporting organisation opportunities please email

To secure your ticket please visit

Author: Alya Harding

Subeditor: Edwin Lampert

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