Managing the health of women who have undergone female genital mutilation
An increase in refugees from countries that practice female genital mutilation is likely to challenge Townsville healthcare professionals and a James Cook University medical student is determined to ensure they are prepared.
Sixth-year student Shreyansi Sharma’s honours research project is believed to be the first in Australia to explore how health carers in regional areas handle cases of female genital mutilation (FGM).
“As the refugee populations in places like Townsville grow bigger over the years, with people coming from communities where FGM has a high incidence rate, it is becoming more common to encounter patients who have suffered this kind of procedure,” she said.
“It can be quite confronting for health professionals and bring up emotions that they did not realise they might feel.”
The World Health Organisation (WHO) defines FGM as any procedures that intentionally alter or cause injury to female genital organs for non-medical reasons. Such procedures can cause severe bleeding and problems in urinating, and later lead to cysts, infections, complications in childbirth, and increased risk of newborn deaths.
WHO estimates that more than 200 million girls and women around the world have been subjected to FGM, predominantly in Africa, the Middle East, and Asia.
Ms Sharma’s qualitative study seeks to tap into the experiences of Townsville health carers most likely to encounter patients with FGM, including obstetricians, gynaecologists, paediatricians, midwives and general practitioners.
“The aim is to figure out the current attitudes, knowledge and practices around FGM management in regional Queensland,” she said.
“Hopefully, we can identify any gaps in the management of such cases and then make recommendations about how to address them.”
Ms Sharma said that a number of health professionals she had already interviewed had encountered women with FGM, or had anecdotal stories about colleagues who had.
The researcher has been heartened by the willingness of volunteers to participate in the study.
“I've been surprised by just how much interest there actually is in this issue,” Ms Sharma said. “I think there's awareness about FGM in Townsville, which is a good start.
“My research participants have said they are glad they decided to be interviewed and that this study has inspired them to do more research into FGM. It's very validating to hear that.”
Ms Sharma said it was important for health professionals to know how to communicate in a culturally sensitive manner with women who had undergone FGM.
However, those who encountered a child who had been subjected to FGM had a clear-cut responsibility to report their findings, she emphasised.
“It's our responsibility to report it,” she said. “It's as plain and simple as that. Reporting is mandatory. It's illegal in Australia to conduct FGM or to take someone outside Australia to get it done.
“It's just like any other child protective services issue. It is always a difficult conversation to have and it's always a confronting thing to do, but if there's a child who's in trouble, you have to act.”