“I’ve got the skills, so I can make a difference” 

Interview: Kat Brown / Photo: James Tye

Dr Reeba Oliver, Consultant Obstetrician and Gynaecologist (PhD Clinical Medicine Research 2009).

When we started our clinic in Whipps Cross Hospital in London in 2019 – the UK’s first walk-in clinic for victims of female genital mutilation (FGM) who are not pregnant – none of us thought it would grow into a service used by hundreds of women. We just felt very bad for our patients who were unable to find the help they needed. I would look at people who had been struggling for 40 years and think: ‘This would take me five minutes to fix under local anaesthetic.’ That’s all it takes. I’ve got the skill so I can make a difference.

My basic job is being a doctor in the NHS, where I’m a consultant gynaecologist. When I sub-specialised in urogynecology – urinary incontinence, prolapse, female genital mutilation – which is another three to four years’ training, there were fewer than 20 training posts in the country. That’s very few considering we are looking at 50 per cent of the population. And with an ageing population, huge numbers of women will need the service in the future.

Women have always had issues down below, but because these are linked to childbirth and childbirth is ‘normal’ or a job that women ‘have to do’, the response is often: “Well, what do you expect?” It has never been addressed. This attitude is like a single thread that goes through every culture and every country: women were always seen as vessels to bear children.

When I was appointed a permanent consultant in 2015, there was nothing specially set up for FGM patients outside of pregnancy – often, victims were only looked after by the NHS if they were pregnant. So, I looked to set up a service using my skills and accreditation to cater for all FGM patients, catering not only for their physical wellbeing but also their psychological health. I’m a surgeon and I never learned to think psychologically, so that’s when I established a team. Surgeons never think they need a team – when you hold the knife, you get used to thinking it’s you who’s going to save the life!

You have to approach this as though it’s not a crime; you must never come across as judgmental"

Since ancient times, it’s the matriarchs who have driven FGM in the communities, and it’s been interesting getting into the mindset of a matriarch because, while FGM is an assault and a crime, the difference is that it is usually done with love. The family truly believe this is good for their daughters and will help them find good husbands. You have to approach this as though it’s not a crime; you must never come across as judgmental.

Finally, the most important ingredient is to have passion for the work you are doing, because it’s a hard road. If you actually do it for the right reasons – because you’ve got the skill, know you can make a difference and you really want to see a person get better – then everything else, such as funding and recognition, will follow, often just by word of mouth. Even in our austere NHS, I’ve never had an issue with doing what I wanted to do for FGM work.

Dr Reeba Oliver (PhD Clinical Medicine Research 2009) is Consultant Obstetrician and Gynaecologist at Barts Health NHS Trust and winner of Imperial’s Emerging Alumni Leader Award 2022.