THE HEAD of an Oxford group dedicated to raising awareness and supporting survivors of Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) has warned women and girls in the county are at higher risk during lockdown.

Kate Agha, chief executive of Oxford Against Cutting, said a rise in FGM and forced marriage could come from support being less easily accessible and an overseas increase in the practices.

She said global charity Unicef points to a number of factors, including school closures, the decrease in access to health information, lack of support services and child marriages taking place to secure dowry and bride price.

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She added: “We also need to consider that some of the most effective overseas programmes to support communities to end FGM, for example, involve community gatherings (such as alternative rites of passage ceremonies) and these are not possible with social distancing.

“In short, there are lot of signs that harmful practices are increasing overseas, with more barriers to education and health and less opportunity to implement change programmes."

Banbury Cake:

Kate Agha, right, with Kaddy Touray, Community Outreach Director for Oxford Against Cutting

She said an overseas increase was ‘likely to have a ripple effect’ in the UK, explaining: “With the rise in harmful traditions overseas, practicing-communities in the UK will come under increased pressure from family abroad to ensure they are ‘part of the group’ and upholding cultural traditions based on ‘honour’."

The charity head said this was combined with new barriers to getting help in the UK. She added: “Before lockdown, there were more opportunities for victims to seek help including speaking to a teacher at school, or a healthcare professional during a check-up.

“Professionals, such as teachers, play a vital role in safeguarding children. Seeing children on a daily basis, they are usually well placed to spot signs that something may be wrong.”

She continued: “Children from practicing communities now have much less opportunity to reach out and they are often living with multiple perpetrators.”

Ms Agha said if children do reach a phone or computer, ‘it is now imperative’ they reach specialist support quickly, especially as the risk may have increased due to a time delay in waiting for the opportunity.

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She said it was also incredibly important this support was specialised ‘to ensure the response is spot-on’.

She explained: “Helplines need to be answered quickly, by people with specialist knowledge and understanding of honour-based abuses and with multiple language skills.

“The response needs to be sensitive and nuanced – a poor response, for example police being unnecessarily heavy-handed, can increase risk and damage community relations, driving harmful cultural practices further underground.”

The charity, which works across the Thames Valley, has launched a poster campaign to highlight the places to access help.

This includes national organisations such as the NSPCC and charity Karma Nirvana as well as local support,

For more information visit oxfordagainstcutting.org.