What is Female Genital Mutilation (FGM)?
Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) involves the partial or total removal of the external female genitalia, or other damage to the genital organs, for supposed cultural, religious or non-medical reasons. It is sometimes referred to as 'female circumcision'. However, unlike the majority of male circumcision, it can inflict severe physical and psychological damage.
FGM is generally performed on conscious victims in non-sterile conditions, sometimes using blunt or non-medical instruments, such as knives, thorns or broken glass. Victims can at times dislocate limbs while held down and writhing in agony. FGM has both short term and long term health and medical consequences in addition to the psychological trauma. These procedures can at times inflict life-threatening injuries and destroy a victims’ fertility.
The World Health Organisation (WHO) identifies four levels of severity, ranging from Type I, involving possible removal only of the clitoral hood, to Type 4, which can involve the cauterisation by burning of the clitoris and surrounding tissue.
FGM of minors is a violation of the rights of the child. In relation to both adults and children, the practice violates the rights to health, security and physical integrity of the person and the right to be free from torture and cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment. It can also result in death, in contravention of the right to life. The practice is therefore contrary to a range of international human rights provisions.
Who is likely to be a victim to FGM?
FGM can be carried out on any girl from birth to marriage and beyond however it is typically inflicted on girls aged between four and thirteen.
According to the World Health Organisation there is an estimated 100-140 million girls and women worldwide who have experienced FGM. In Africa alone it is estimated three million girls and women undergo some form of procedure every year. Approximately 60,000 girls aged 0-14 years olds born in England were to mothers who had undergone FGM.
Reasons given for practicing FGM
- It will bring status and respect
- It preserves a girls chastity/virginity
- It is part of being a woman
- It is a rite of passage
- It gives a girl social acceptance, especially for marriage
- It upholds the family honour
- It cleanses and purifies the girl
- It fulfills a perceived religious requirement
- It perpetuates a custom/tradition
- It helps girls and women to be clean and hygienic
- It is aesthetically pleasing
- It gives the girl and her family a sense of belonging to the community.
FGM is usually carried out by women, typically elder women in the community. This could even include the child’s grandmother or aunt, sometimes there is a “cutter” in the community who will cut everyone from the village. It is often carried out with no anesthetic or sterilisation, using any sharp instrument to hand. To compound the pain and confusion the child is often held down by people they love and respect.
"It is a crime which seeks justice"
Some victims come to the attention of police and other agencies when they seek medical help for the physical effects of FGM.
Where does the practice of FGM originate?
FGM is believed to have started in the 5th century BC and originally began because men wanted to control women’s sexuality.
Today it is practiced in many African countries parts of the Middle East and Asia and across the developed world where migration from practicing communities has taken place.
When something has been passed on through countless generations it becomes ingrained in the culture and accepted as the social norm. As a consequence it is difficult to eradicate.
Though some communities may characterise FGM as inspired by religion, no holy books from major religions - such as the Bible, Qur’an or the Torah advocate this practice.
FGM and the law
FGM is an offence under the Female Genital Mutilation Act 2003. The maximum jail term is 14 years. In the two years from June 3 2009, a total of 75 ‘incidents’ in London included FGM concerns. Two cases in 2009 were investigated as crimes, with arrests but no charges. There have been no prosecutions to date.
It is an offence for any person (regardless of their nationality or residence status) to:
- Perform FGM in England, Wales and Northern Ireland
- Assist the carrying out of FGM in England, Wales and Northern Ireland
- Assist a girl to carry out FGM on herself in England Wales and Northern Ireland.
- Assist (from England, Wales and Northern Ireland) a non-UK person to carry out FGM outside the UK national or permanent UK resident.
It is an offence for any UK nationals or permanent UK residents to:
- Perform FGM abroad
- Assist FGM carried out abroad by a UK national or permanent UK resident.
- Assist a girl to perform FGM on herself outside the UK or
- Assist (from outside the UK) FGM carried out abroad by a non-UK person on a girl or woman who is a UK national or permanent UK resident.
The extra territorial offences are intended to deter people from taking girls abroad for mutilation and apply even in countries where FGM is legal.
Identifying girls at risk of FGM is not straightforward and is effectively a hidden crime because it may be the only incident of child abuse usually from what is otherwise a loving family. There are rarely reasons for routine examinations of girl’s genitalia and the girls are unlikely to talk about FGM for the fear of the consequences to and from family members and the community.
Indications FGM may have taken place
- A girl or woman may have recently returned from a holiday or “special trip” abroad
- They may have difficulty walking, sitting or standing
- They may spend longer than normal in the bathroom or toilet due to difficulties urinating
- Lengthy absence from class during the day with bladder/menstrual problems
- Prolonged or repeated absences from school or college
- Noticeable behaviour changes upon return to school
- Particularly reluctant to undergo normal medical examinations
- Asking for help, but not explicit about the problem due to embarrassment or fear.
The importance of referrals about FGM
Anyone who has information that a child is potentially or actually at risk of harm should contact the police on 101 or in an emergency 999 or the local authority social care team. The risk can then be assessed appropriately.
You can also contact the NSPCC FGM helpline on 0800 028 3550.