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„Groundbreaking could be a word to describe Comfort’s work“, is one of many quotes one gets when asking about the role of Comfort Momoh in British society. And even though she decribes her achievements with much more humility – saying she feels “well placed” – nobody really doubts the importance of her crucial work.
A trained midwife, she was the first and to date only midwife in the UK to carry out special procedures on women who have suffered from Female Genital Mutilation (FGM). Especially those who try to conceive and later when they are in labour, are in need of Ms Momoh’s help. Depending on the type of FGM, affected women go through different but equally intense difficulties.
There are three types of female circumcision, Ms Momoh insists on pointing out: when the clitoris is removed, when clitoris and labia are removed and when clitoris and labia are removed and the vagina sewed up. No restorative operations can be carried out on women who have had type one or two, but type three can be reveresed. And Comfort Momoh is the only one to date who does exactly that. Without her, these women would be left untreated and threatened to loose their lives when giving birth.
Ms Momoh became aware of FGM in the UK when working as a midwife in London borough with a large Somali community. Even though FGM has been illegal in the UK since 1985; many girls are circumcised there when their parents are flying in someone from their country of origin to execute the procedure. But most of the girls are taken back to their parents’ home communities and circumcised under dangerous conditions. Holidays, Comfort Momoh says, are the most dangerous time of the year for them.
“I am completely against it, but being African, I can understand the culture behind it”, Nigerian-born Ms Momoh says today. More than 7000 girls are in danger of FGM each year – in the UK only. Besides her work at the London Guy’s and St Thomas’s Hospital that now has a special health center for women and trained personal to deal with circumcised women and girls, Ms Momoh has also been a special advisor to the World Health Organisation and is an honorary lecturer at King’s College London.
An integral part also played her work in educating African communities, first in the UK and after receiving a research grant, also in different African countries. “Many Westerners just say it is barbaric. But rather than condemning them, we should all support those communities to be able to change”, she says acknowledging that for many African communities FGM is a religious prerogative.
In 2007, Ms Momoh, who also trained as a health specialist, was awarded an MBE for her services to nursing and women’s healthcare. She became one of the key advisors to British Parliament on issues of women’s health and African communities’ issues as well as changes in the rights to asylum. Under her lobbying and the pressure of associated campaign groups, FGM or the threat to FGM has been recognised as grounds of asylum in many cases.
“My work is not only about trying to abolish the practice”, she likes to point out. “It is mainly about joining forces against it, about mobilsing men, women and whole communities. We have to be realistic that it will take time. But I can see a shift in attitude already.”