By Digital Presenter and Producer Mojo Abidi
Female genital mutilation figures in England are the lowest since records began - but campaigners warn this is not something to celebrate.
It is feared victims of FGM are not reporting cases because of a lack of access to services during lockdown.
NHS data published on Thursday revealed the number of newly recorded cases of women and girls with FGM was 2,880 in 2020 - a fall of nearly a third compared to the year before (4,085).
Charities worry the low numbers could lead to funding cuts.
Hoda Ali is an FGM survivor and co-founder of anti-FGM charity, the Vavengers.
Ali is concerned that new cases are going under the radar, especially while schools are closed and medical services limited.
She said: “FGM is still happening, but victims aren’t going to report it because where can they go? What service is open where they can just walk in?
“FGM happens behind closed doors, it is like the black market. So, while everyone is locked in their homes, no teachers, nurses or doctors will be able to find out.”
Female genital mutilation is a procedure where the female genitals are deliberately cut, injured or altered for no medical reason.
It is illegal in the UK and carries a sentence of up to 14 years in prison.
Victims over the age of of 18 are directed to specialist FGM clinics in Birmingham, Bristol, Leeds and five London boroughs.
The eight clinics were given funding for two years to provide specialist care from doctors, midwives, nurses and counsellors.
But with consultations moved online, campaigners say the pandemic has made it harder to access services.
Appointments have been delayed by months and reconstructive deinfibulation operations were deemed non-essential.
A worker at a FGM clinic, who spoke to ITV News on condition of anonymity, said: “One woman with learning difficulties was due to have deinfibulation surgery at the clinic in late December but this was postponed due to Covid and is yet to happen.
“This woman is already vulnerable and we're worried that this incident will put her off coming again.”
They added: “Coronavirus has definitely affected referrals and women coming to the clinic. Victims are not coming forward because of lockdown and some services are not doing procedures or opening at all.”
Charities fear that falling figures during the pandemic could affect the future of these specialised FGM clinics.
The clinics were given funding for two years by NHS England and the government but from later this year, they will need to be commissioned by local authorities.
Alexander Adams, Chairman of ACTION: FGM, said: “There is a fear that the clinics are going to be closed down because there haven’t been enough people going to them.
“Many within our sector argue this is a result of Covid, not a result of FGM numbers decreasing dramatically.”
He added: “Our impression is that lockdown will have proliferated FGM. But FGM is, and always has been, a hidden scar.
“It happens in private, in what may be quite secretive and introverted communities.”
A 2015 study by Equality Now and the City University of London estimated that the number of women and girls affected by FGM in England and Wales is 137,000.
Many experts believe the true number is much higher than official statistics suggest.
However, Nimco Ali, an independent advisor to the government on violence against women and girls and CEO of The Five Foundation, says the latest NHS figures are a sign of government achievement.
“I think we need to celebrate the success of these numbers dropping. Girls in the country have never been safer from the practice,” she said.
“We’ve captured most, if not all, women who have undergone FGM. Now we should move towards providing more help - including emotional and psychological support - to those survivors.”
In a statement, the Home Office said: “Female Genital Mutilation is a horrific crime and the government is doing all it can to stop this terrible abuse happening in our country and around the world.
“The Government is set to launch a new strategy to tackle violence against women and girls to help those affected and bring the perpetrators of this crime to justice.”
Help and support
Anyone with information or concerns about FGM is urged to call the national FGM hotline on 0800 028 3550. If you are in immediate danger, call 999.
Read about the National FGM Support Clinics and where to find them.
The Orchid Project - A charity which works to end to female genital cutting.
The Vavengers - A UK-based FGM charity led by FGM survivors.
The Dahlia Project - A therapy service for survivors of FGM.