• The scandal of Britain’s mutilated women

    On Monday July 23rd, Newsnight are running a shocking film about Female Genital Mutilation. It is is something about which I have been passionate for a while and since the joint investigation I undertook with Mazer Mahmood (the fake sheik) earlier this year for the Sunday Times in which we caught three different doctors and dentists in the UK saying they would carry out the procedure it is an area in which I really believe the government have to act. Shockingly, there has been a law against female genital mutilation in the UK and taking a child abroad to have it done, for over ten years; the sentence is 14 years. Unfortunately, there have been no prosecutions.

    Last week I ran a story in the Sunday Times News section saying that the government are finally taking some more action by launching a Health Passport, a laminated official document that will be available from schools, doctors and community centres for concerned professionals or friends to give to a girl who might be about to be taken abroad on what are known as 'special holidays' when they are often cut. Shockingly, this happens to girls aged under 10, often in unsterile conditions with a piece of glass or knife. A midwife I interviewed in Birmingham told me that because the girls try and escape and it is not a precise science she had never seen two women whose genitals looked the same. This is not a small problem there are estimated to be 100,000 women in Britain who have been cut and 24,000 girls living in the UK are at risk. this is largely down to the influx of immigrants from the horn of Africa (in Somalia and Eritrea some 90% of women are mutilated). This is done in the name of making a girl marriageable - in the most extreme cases, where the girls' labia and clitoris are entirely removed and the flaps sewn together, leaving only a small hole through which urine and menstrual blood can escape - this is ultimate proof of virginity. It is often up to the husband to cut open his bride - with a knife - on the wedding night. the pain that the subsequent sex must inflict is unimaginable.

    I'm sorry if this has quite put you off your breakfast, but it really matters. Several groups campaign in this area including Forward, Equality Now and the wonderful Daughters of Eve, a group of young women in Bristol, who are campaigning to change community attitudes. You can find links and read my earlier story on my personal blog www.eleanormills.com. Jane Ellison MP who chairs the Parliamentary Group on Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) has also been brilliant on all of this, this is a link to her most recent speech on the subject

    What follows is a piece written by the producer of the Newsnight film. They found a french doctor who can go some way to helping women who have been mutilated by reconstructing their genitalia, particularly the clitoris much of which is hidden internally...

    Reconstructive Surgery - extract from the Newsnight script:

    18.00: I shall reconstruct the clitoris it will take approximately half an hour.

    Dr, Fondes operates on about fifty women a month. Women come from all over the world, including from the UK though the majority are French immigrants. For them, he operates for free; the state pays the costs.

    27.40: It’s a normal nerve so we’ll be able to restore a normal. Living clitoris

    Although the visible clitoris was cut from the woman as a child, part of it remains in the body, the doctor can bring that to the surface.

    01.20: And now I shall restore the labia It’s important for normal sex, intercourse and delivery.

    02.27: It’s not quite normal but it’s a good restoration.

    Fatou had the operation a few months ago.

    FATOU: 1722/12/6 @25.30: I feel a complete person, at last, after my operation Now, I need gradually to get to know my sexuality. This is what I am doing now and it is going rather well. 26.03

    The man who can help mutilated women...

    Nestled in a picturesque Paris suburb is St Germain Poissy Hospital, home of Dr Pierre Foldes. The private hospital specialises in plastic surgery, catering for well-healed Parisians looking for an aesthetic succès d’estime

    But it is not the society women of Paris that Dr Foldes is interested in. Instead he has decided to devote his life to helping women who have suffered vaginal mutilation.

    As topics go female genital mutilation is about as unglamorous as you can get. Many media outlets and newspapers simply refuse to talk about mutilation. In fact one newspaper stopped me after the words ‘genital mutilation’ when pitching this story. In terms of recognition Dr Foldes would have been better served devoting his life to more savoury areas of medicine, areas of medicine that don’t make people wince by its very mention.

    Despite its low profile in this country female genital mutilation is a global problem of innumerable proportions. It is estimated that between 100 and 140 million women have been mutilated in Africa alone. Types of mutilation differ, however all involve the cutting of the vagina and the removal of the clitoris. The most extreme forms of mutilation involved sewing up and even adding acid to the vagina.

    The procedure leaves girls in agony and can lead to a lifetime of physical and mental health problems. The sexual impact of mutilation is often overlooked. The purpose of the procedure is to ‘purify’ girls - to remove sexual urges - and turn little girls into obedient and faithful wives. For these victims sex is often dreaded.

    One woman we spoke to, who was mutilated in Africa and is now living in Scotland, described the act of sex as ‘more painful than giving birth’. Dr Comfort Momoh, the UK’s leading expert in Female Genital mutilation told us that it can take 6 months for a man to achieve full penetration.

    In Egypt, Somalia, Mali, Eritrea, Guinea and Ethiopia the prevalence of female genital mutilation is 90 per cent or more. That’s at least 90 per cent of girls who are victims of devastating sexual violence. A ritual performed in the name of tradition and entrenched in misogyny has robbed them and their partners of any kind of ‘normal’ sex life. It’s child abuse on an industrial scale.

    In the UK ‘reversal’ surgery is offered to women, but as Naana Otoo-Oyortey, of Forward says ‘I don’t like calling this procedure reversal surgery, you can never reverse what has happened and been taken away’. It’s a fair point. The clitoris contains 8,000 nerve endings, more than any other part of the human body. It’s not something that even the most gifted surgeon can artificially recreate.

    It’s a challenge that has motivated Dr Foldes for decades. Can women who have been mutilated ever be given the chance to enjoy sex?

    After ‘unstitching’ women during missionary work in African Dr Foldes went about trying to answer this question. He worked on the premise that the clitoris is like an iceberg, most of it being submerged internally, and therefore untouched by the razor. He knew that if he could find a way of externalising this clitoral tissue he could reconstruct the clitoris.

    He quickly realised that the procedure was much easier than he had thought. Cutting away the scar tissue around the clitoris he developed a method of exposing the clitoral tissue beneath, bringing it to the surface. 3,000 operations later and Dr Foldes has managed to get the procedure down to half an hour.

    Dr Foldes’ work has also been hampered by a lack of peer-reviewed evidence to illustrate the procedure’s efficiency. Who wants to learn and perfect a procedure that doesn’t work?

    Last month Dr Foldes published a research article in The Lancet confounding his doubters. 51 per cent of women who had undergone the procedure were able to achieve orgasm after a year and 80 per cent of women said that their sex lives had improved.

    The implications for women around the world are mind boggling. Sexual gratification and even orgasm don’t have to be illusive feelings that only other women experience. Painful, pneumatic copulation can be transformed into lustful, passionate sex.

    Fatou, was born and mutilated in Burkino Fasso and now lives in France. Her story is typical. After years of sexual incompatibility with her husband, contributing to the breakdown of their relationship, she sought help. She found out about Dr Foldes’ work and was operated on last year. “I feel like a complete person, at last” she says. “Now, I need to gradually get to know my sexuality. That’s what I am doing now and it is going rather well.”

    Fatou is one of the lucky ones. The operation is only conducted by Dr Foldes and demand outstrips supply. He is currently teaching the procedure to a team of budding reconstructive surgeons in the hope of rolling out the method across the world. It is has the potential to bring about a sexual revolution in Africa, where 30 countries have a prevalence higher than 50 per cent.



  • Female Genital Mutilation in Britain

    One of my proudest journalistic achievements is the investigation I did jointly with Mazer Mahmood into Female Genital Mutilation in Britain and how we uncovered three men who are prepared to conducts this horrendous procedure on young women in the UK. Because of increased awareness about this horror in some of the communities in which it occurs - primarily women from the Horn of Africa who have settled in the Uk - girls are being mutilated at younger ages; often between the ages of three and eight. The interview below is with Alison Byrne a specialist midwife in Birmingham who has seen the numbers of women presenting to her with FGM triple in the last decade.

    In a shiny car seat, immaculately swathed in co-ordinating pink blankets and hat a new-born baby girl is about to leave the maternity unit of Heartlands Hospital in Birmingham. Her proud mother’s eyes shine above her veiled face.

    Bordesley Green, is one of the most ethnically mixed parts of Britain’s second city, mosques and foreign grocers proliferate and the streets are full of saris and hijabs, capped Asian men and redbrick semis. Public notices in the hospital are written in several different languages. As a nation, we embrace diversity and celebrate it – but there are definite legal limits to our tolerance and this midwifery unit is leading the way in dealing with one of the most abhorrent and culturally sensitive practices of all: female genital mutilation (FGM).

    “It was in 2002 that we started getting an influx of women to the maternity unit here who had been cut” explains Alison Byrne, 42, a specialist midwife who has pioneered treatment for such women in the UK. In 2003, she saw 109 women with FGM, by 2010 that number had tripled to 317, last year she saw 318 and in the first months of this year she has already seen 105. “The women who present to me are all of child-bearing age between 16 and 40. The women from the Horn of Africa (Egypt, Sudan, Somalia, Eritrea) in my experience predominantly have Type3 FGM – that means all the external genitalia have been removed and the raw edges brought together. Some women are left with an opening the size of a matchstick through which to urinate and pass menstrual blood – as a result they get terrible infections, often bleed continuously for 28 days because it is so hard for fluids to escape, get terrible menstrual cramps and can take 20 minutes every time they urinate.”

    Penetrative sexual intercourse is of course impossible for such women: “I see some where in order for them to get pregnant some very active sperm must have been deposited near the tiny opening and swum up,” explains Byrne. Traditionally, she says, “It was a husband’s duty to open his wife on the wedding night. In some communities the man would cut her open and consummate the marriage and then wipe the blood of the knife on to his clothing and parade round the village. One woman told me how her husband had repeatedly tried to penetrate her night after night for three months before he achieved partial entry. The suffering these women have endured is unimaginable. I am humbled and impressed by their strength, good humour and dignity”.

    Often the women are entirely ignorant of their own anatomy – or even that it is unusual. Often Byrne has to show the women diagrams to find out what kind of FGM they have; “sometimes they don’t know what they have until I examine them and explain.”

    As Britain has accepted more refugees from FGM practicing countries the number of women presenting with the condition in Heartlands hospital, which is part of the Heart of England Foundation Trust, for instance, has tripled in a decade. Rates of FGM vary widely according to the cultural norms of tribe and country, but according to the World Health Organisation 90% of Egyptian women, 88%of Eritreans, 74% of Ethiopians, 78% of Gambians, 97% of Somalis, 90% of Sudanese, 95% of women from Guinea and 85% from Mali have suffered FGM. (But in Uganda and Cameroon it is around 1%). “In the last few years I have been seeing more women from The Gambia, they tend in my experience to predominantly have Type 1 FGM where the clitoris has been removed in the first year of life. I find women with Type1 FGM often present with high levels of psycho-sexual issues. “

    Type 2 is partial or total removal of the clitoris and the labia minorae with or without excision of the labia majore.

    In cultures that practice Type 3 FGM it can be done anytime between the ages of three and eight, or at the onset of puberty or as a right of passage to marriage. “No two women present with exactly the same genital geography; the cutting is not a precise science. Sometimes it would happen outside the back of a hut, with goats around and the child would be held, struggling, wriggling, screaming trying to escape while they were cut in unsterile conditions with a piece of glass or razor blade.” Over the years she has heard many women’s stories and witnessed their trauma – she offers them psycho-sexual counselling and support.

    “In these societies this is never spoken about, not even amongst the women. It is taboo. Often talking about it with me brings back upsetting memories. It can be very hard for the women to deal with it because usually it is the mother, the aunties, the grandmother, the women who love them most and that they most trust who have this done to them. These cultures see the cutting as an act of love, a preparation for the future, often a girl will only be able to make a good marriage if she has had it done. It is the women who do it and organise the process.”

    FGM is not a religious practice but a cultural one which predates Christianity and Islam by thousands of years. The most extreme form, Type 3, where the woman is ‘sealed’ is also known as ‘Pharonic circumcision’ – legend has it that the Pharoah’s wife had herself sewn up to prove that she would be faithful while he was away at war.

    “Before a woman with Type 3, who has been sewn up, can give birth she must be de-infibulated” explains Byrne. Deinfibulation is the process in which the scar tissue which has formed when the clitoris and soft tissue were cut out originally and then the lips of the vagina were sewed together (often they were pinned with thorns) is surgically cut open. The raw edges are over sewn so the woman is once again ‘open’ with the urethra and vagina exposed – allowing a normal birth and urination. Before midwives such as Byrne learnt such techniques, “Many hospitals were giving these women unnecessary caesarians because they didn’t know what to do,” explains Byrne. In traditional societies the women would have been cut open with a knife while in labour and restitched again afterwards.

    “I just try to give these women who come to me what everyone else expects as birth right,” Byrne says of the women she has ‘opened’. “The ones I have followed up have not been re-stitched, often they go on to have five or six new babies and being able to urinate normally and have normal length periods is a revelation; they stand and move completely differently. They have to adjust to a whole new kind of life – and, of course, they can have penetrative sex and in some cases under the scar tissue there can be remnants of the clitoris. Some of the women I have treated are delighted.”

    Hasseena Lockheart who has written extensively about women’s sexual experiences post FGM reports that some women have “cervical orgasms” rather than clitoral ones.

    Yet Byrne’s major concern is about what happens to the girl babies, born in Britain but into cultures where FGM is the norm. “After such a woman has given birth, the fact that she has FGM will be put on her notes and we also record that the little girl’s genitals are intact, in case there is a problem later on. But there are so many children who need supporting and could be at risk and awareness amongst the safeguarding professionals about FGM is very low. I’ve met doctors who say to me, “What is FGM?” I am concerned that the signs are being missed. This is a secret, silent phenomenon; no woman has ever just come out and told me she has it. There are no secrets between a woman and her midwife, but even so they are elliptical, embarrassed. Often a woman cannot talk about it directly. Some have told me how they have gone to the doctor, over and over again with a ‘headache’ hoping someone will examine them and help them, but the signs are missed.”

    Of even more concern to her is safeguarding the girl children of FGM women; in 2004, the International Centre for Reproductive Health estimated that in the UK around 20,000 girls in Britain aged under 16 were at risk (with 100,000 women in Britain having been effected). Given the increase in immigration from the 28 African countries that practice it, and the tripling in incidence that Byrne has seen over the past 10 decades, that figure could be far too low. Byrnes is also convinced that “girls are being cut in the UK, or taken back to their country of origin – but it is also happening privately on the black market in the UK”.

    “I am worried that the staff in Accident and Emergency departments, GPs, paediatricians, health visitors, school nurses don’t know enough about FGM to join the dots when it appears in front of them,” she says, running her hand anxiously through her thick, wavy red hair. Byrne believes the best way to protect these vulnerable girls is to raise awareness of what FGM is, that it exists in Britain and what the signs may be that a child is at risk. “If a young African girl is brought in with a urine infection to her doctor, or Accident and Emergency, or takes a long time urinating, then alarm bells should go off, the professionals around her should recognise that that might be symptomatic of abuse,” she says. She is particularly worried about young Gambian girls, “It is happening more actively in that community, there are current threats from current practitioners and less awareness amongst the women I talk to that cutting is illegal in Britain and that it comes with a hefty 14 year prison sentence. That needs to be much more widely talked about.” It would perhaps be more of a potent threat if in the 25 years the legislation has been on the statute book there had been a single prosecution: there hasn’t. It’s all very well for Britain to cite its laws (FGM is a criminal offence here and it is also a crime to take a child out of Britain for that purpose) and is outlawed under the European Court of Human Rights conventions on the rights of the child, but if we never prosecute anyone for practicing FGM, it’s not much of a deterrent.

    “The law is there to empower people to speak up and raise awareness, “ says Amber Rudd MP. “We know FGM is happening in Britain, as a society we should be doing everything we can to stop this dreadful, cruel barbaric act being carried out on any girl in Britain.”

    Schools, Byrnes believes, also have a crucial role to play. “If a teacher hears a primary school girl talking about how she is being taken home for a “special holiday” to “become a woman” then alarm bells ought to be ringing. But FGM is not on the curriculum for medical school training, or for social workers, or teachers and even for midwives it may only be covered in the inner city. There is very low awareness. We owe these little girls born here more than that.”

    The little pink bundle, carried out to the waiting taxi with so much pride is a British citizen; as a society we should do whatever it takes to ensure she makes it to womanhood intact – that is her birthright.








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  • It's still a man's world

    It's still a man's world

    It’s jobs for the boys as usual at the top of British business, according to a damning new report from the Equality and Human Rights commission published this week. It finds that “the appointment process remains opaque and subjective, being driven by male-dominated corporate elites who tend to favour those with similar characteristics to themselves”.

    In 2011 the Davies Review into the paltry number of women on boards – at the time only 12% of directors of FTSE 100 were female - promised to end so-called “mini-me recruiting” (where Chairmen only hire directors in their own image) and challenged business to have boards which were 25% female by 2016. But the Equality quango’s recent investigation into the appointment process, particularly the practices of Executive Search Firms or Head Hunters, reveals that progress has been “slight” with companies dragging their feet on implementing the reforms the Davies Review recommended.

    There has been an “incremental increase” in the number of women on boards (from 12.5% to 14.2%) with 21 new appointments overall but “the pace of change was too slow for the targets suggested by the Davies Review to be met. Based on the current rate of change women would account for only 18% of board members by 2013 (rather than the recommended 20%) and only 21.4% by 2015 (instead of 23.5%).” Only 33 FTSE 100 companies and 17 FTSE 250 companies had set targets for gender diversity on Boards as Davies required and less than a third of FTSE 100 companies discovsed the number of women on their boards (only 22% for FTSE 250 companies). Only around half of top companies had the recommended boardroom diversity policy but only 20% had, as Davies requested, made their Board appointment process and how it addresses gender in particular, transparent. “This suggests a relative disconnect betweeh the abstract intention of tackling diversity and the concrete Board appointment practices among FTSE 350 companies”. Indeed.

    The Equality quango tasked Cranfield’s International Centre for Women Leaders to examine the corporate Board appointment process and the role that executive search firms play. It found that at present rates of progress “it will take more than 80 years to achieve gender-balanced Boards of directors on the UK FTSE 100”. Cranfield found that contrary to common perceptions – particularly amongst men - that there are simply not enough qualified women to take up such positions, “a plethora of research actually suggest that persistent gender stereotypes create biased judgments about the competence of potential or actual female board directors or about their suitability for top roles… the assumption that women lack sufficient qualifications is a simplistic and inaccurate explanation for the gender imbalance.”

    Indeed, when they looked at existing women directors they found they were better qualified than their male peers “more likely to hold MBA degrees, to have experience of multiple sectors (private, public, voluntary, governmental) and to have international experience”. This they said “was due to the fact that gender stereoptypes cast doubt on women’s ability to succeed in typically male roles, women must provide unambiguous proof of competence in order to be considered as competent as men.” This they found to be “a double standard”. And contrary to male director perceptions, Cranfield identified a pipeline of 2,551 suitably qualified women who were currently sitting either on Boards or at the executive committee level just below who would be perfectly qualified to be Non Executive Directors elsewhere.

    Interestingly when they asked women what the obstacles were to being appointed, they didn’t mention the lack of qualified candidates (as the men did) but “the prevalence of closed traditional networks in the appointment process”.

    The report, politely, blames mini-me syndrome: “There is a natural tendency for the male-dominated corporate elite to exclude demographically dissimilar others.” It adds “The Board appointment process is subjective and exclusionary”. Suitable women were not made aware of available directorships, or the selection criteria and were the victims of “unconscious bias”. It adds that “old boys networks, competitive behaviours, a long hours culture and informal events often related to masculine activities” also excluded women. “These cultures make it difficult for women to build the relationships and the trust needed to effectively operate on Boards.”

    HeadHunters are key to changing such perceptions, but all too often mimic the traits of the boards they serve, according to Cranfield. “There is evidence that a number of practices employed by organisations and ESFs in the appointment process fail to foster diversity,” These practices include focussing on nebulous qualities for board membership such as “fit” or “chemistry” (ie being like the other chaps) and they found that very few qualified women”reported having been approached by search consultants for potential NED appointments”. Cranfield found that recruitment to board still very much depended on being part of the old boys network or “being known to someone on the board”. Women who had been appointed said that “high visibility” or “family contacts” had been essential. Also counting against women is the head hunters’ insistence on “prior board experience” – leaving them in a Catch 22 situation.




  • Detention or Destitution..

    When Saron, a 28- year-old Ethiopian journalist, saw police shoot dead 40 student demonstrators, she wrote about it for her newspaper. "I reported what I saw and then the police came to my workplace to arrest me," she says. "The prison was hell. A tiny room, a slit for a window. Toilet once a day, no tissue, no water to wash. Insects jumped from one to another. I got a kidney infection and my body was covered with a rash. I was in prison for four months."

    Saron was interrogated every day. "Then one day a more senior police officer came to the cell and took me to his office. He started touching me. I tried to move away. He said he could do whatever he wanted. I started to cry, pushing him away, and he became angrier. "He began to slap me. I struggled, he told me to keep quiet. He hit my face and my nose started bleeding. I felt dizzy. Then he bit my breast, which started to bleed. After that I felt faint. I couldn't resist any more. He raped me." She was taken to hospital, where her family came to her aid. Her sister bribed a nurse with money given by their father to spirit Saron out of a staff exit. They stayed the night at an aunt's house, then fled to the north of the country.

    Eventually Saron made it to Sudan and then, in 2003, to Britain: "I expected there would be more humanity in England; I had been told Africa was backward but Britain has a reputation for helping those who have suffered. But what happened to me here was worse than Ethiopia."

    Saron, confused and traumatised, found herself interrogated in public by a series of immigration officials. Embarrassed by what had happened to her, she found it almost impossible to tell her story in her halting, schoolgirl English. Her application for asylum was refused." They told me I was too young to have such a story," she says. "They said I must leave Britain by a particular date. But I had no passport, no money; how was I supposed to go?"

    At this point Saron breaks down: "I had nothing, I had to live rough on the streets. I was traumatised, depressed, crying all the time. I had no legal papers to work or stay in the country. I was completely without friends. If you sleep rough as a woman, men abuse you. They offer you a safe place,

    a warm place — but then it is like what the policeman did to me in prison." Eventually a doctor in a homeless shelter sent her to hospital. From there she was sent to a Home Office detention centre at Yarl's Wood in Bedford for a few weeks, then released. This pattern of detention and living rough continued until 2008, when she was finally given leave to remain in Britain.

    A report to be publishedby the Women for Refugee Women (WRW) organisation this week shows Saron's case is not unusual. Every year about 18,000 people claim asylum in Britain after fleeing persecution in their home countries; some 5,000 of these are women. Unlike economic migrants, who work undercover in the black economy, these women are open about their plight and declare themselves to the authorities, expecting protection.

    Of the women claiming asylum in their own right, some 74% are turned down. That means every year about 3,000 women, who may be as vulnerable as Saron, are refused asylum. While the authorities are understandably keen to root out those trying to play the system, many are nevertheless left in a wretched position by an immigration bureaucracy that is at times chaotic. Some, like Saron, later have the rejection of their claim overturned. The WRW research found that 48% of women claiming asylum had been raped in their home countries — 32% by soldiers, police or prison guards. More than half who had fled here were subsequently left with no means of support, housing or way of returning home. Many had fled their homes and families because of political activity (36%) or persecution because of religion or ethnic background. But the majority (66%) of the women were fleeing what the United Nations terms "gender-related persecution", such as forced marriages, female genital mutilation, forced prostitution or rape by a male relative.

    I interviewed several women for this piece, many of whom were still so obviously traumatised by their experiences that they found it hard to revisit them. They explained how they had been interrogated here by male immigration officials in open offices in English, a language they hardly spoke. Three-quarters of the women said they had not been believed. "They said I was lying," says Rhiam from Cameroon, who fled a forced marriage and a violent husband. "They asked me so many questions. But why would I leave my home, my family, my beloved daughter, the sunshine, the food that tastes good in my mouth, to come here alone, if I was lying?" She arrived in Britain in 2001, yet it was only last year she was given leave to remain. A handsome woman with beautiful grey-painted nails, she weeps as she tells me that when she left, her daughter was six years old: "Now she is 18. That means she is too old to come and join me. I have been a bad mother." For more than a decade she has slept on sofas and floors: "I was abused by men; I had nowhere to go, nothing to eat — in order to stay alive I had to have sex with them." She says this with deep shame, her head bowed. In Cameroon she had been educated, with a job as a secretary.

    "I just want to work; I thought I could make a better life here for me and my daughter. But now I wish I had never come. I should have died in Cameroon at my husband's hand with my child. Coming to England has brought me nothing but misery. I cannot tell you how much."

    Such despair is common. Of the women questioned in the report about being refused asylum, 97% said they were depressed, 93% were scared, 63% said they thought about killing themselves. "They kill me already," says Saron. "I feel like the walking dead." WRW was founded by the journalist and author Natasha Walter after she was moved by the story of a refugee called Angelique from the Democratic Republic of Congo. "I met Angelique in a hostel with her baby," says Walter. "Her father was a political activist, so the soldiers attacked and killed the family, imprisoning Angelique. In prison she was repeatedly raped. Friends of her father helped her to escape, but when she arrived in Britain she was disbelieved, turned down for asylum and left destitute. While living rough she was raped again — resulting in the pregnancy.

    "The horror of her story reminded me of Dickens. I was appalled that such women were living invisible, hidden, right under my nose, yet they are women who have experienced terrible things. It is so important that they are treated with humanity." The report also recommends that asylum seekers are granted permission to work if their case has not been resolved within six months or they have been refused but temporarily cannot return home through no fault of their own. Alternatively it suggests that such women are provided with welfare support until the point of return or integration.

    Walter hopes the report "will force ministers to show leadership to get the Home Office to improve the quality of its decision-making processes, so that women who have fled intolerable cruelty don't get unfair refusals which lead them to a situation of detention or destitution".



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