What Is Female Genital Mutilation, And What Can I Do About It?

Journalist Chloe Farand explores the traumatic practice of female genital mutilation (FGM)

Many customs and rituals around the world are rooted in ancestral traditions going back hundreds of years. And yet, history does not always mean these customs should be continued.  This is the case with an old and widespread practice called female genital mutilation – known as FGM.

You may not have heard the term before or not know exactly what it means. A committee of MPs previously described it as a “hidden crime”, which takes places in the UK.

FGM refers to the the removal of some or all of the external female genitalia. Depending on cultural practises, this implies the cutting of the external part of the clitoris, the vaginal lips and the closure of the vulva by sewing, which is also called infibulation.

In 2016, UNICEF estimated 200 million women in 30 countries, including 27 African countries, Indonesia, Iraqi Kurdistan and Yemen, had undergone the procedure.

Young girls are usually cut before the age of 15 and before they are married.

There are no medical, health or hygienic reasons for the procedure. Instead, FGM is linked to beliefs about honour, women’s sexuality and marriage and it is seen as a rite of passage into adulthood.

By removing the external parts of the clitoris, women are much less likely of experiencing an orgasm and so FGM is considered a way of preventing masturbation and controlling women’s sexuality.

The procedure usually takes place during a ritual. Traditional circumcisers or cutters, usually women, perform the operation – most often without anaesthesia – in the girl’s homes or in a group.

In some cases, non-sterile tools are used, which range from knives, razors, scissors, broken glass or sharpened rocks, and the same device can be used to cut several girls at a time without being cleaned.

This is an extremely painful procedure.

It is important to understand that in many cases it is the women of a community, which force FGM on their own daughters, nieces or granddaughters.

In some traditional communities, there is a social pressure for all girls to be cut or face social exclusion. The lack of health information on the issue puts many young girls at risk.

Infections, infertility, loss of sexual pleasure, bleeding, abscesses and cysts are some of the physical effects of the procedure. Women can experience urinary tract infections, painful sexual intercourse, sore bleeding during their periods and are more likely to have complications during childbirth. Their mental wellbeing is also strongly affected and FGM can lead to emotional trauma.

Since the 1970s, the international community has called on practitioners to abandon the ritual and since then performing FGM on a girl has been made illegal in most countries, where the practice is still common. But the law is not always properly enforced.

In the UK, FGM is considered child abuse and it has been illegal since 1985.

In 1993, the United Nations (UN) included FGM in the Declaration on the Elimination of Violence Against Women and recognised the practice as a human rights violation.

But change is slow and UNICEF believes that despite the decline in the number of recorded procedures, rapid increase of population in some African countries will mean the number of girls and women, which will undergo FGM, will rise.

It is impossible to know exactly how many girls and women have undergone the procedure, not only because in many cases there are no records but the experience for those who have been cut is often taboo.   

Today, FGM is also a reality in the UK.

It is estimated about 65,000 women have been subject to FGM in the UK and between 2015 and 2016, there were 5,700 newly recorded cases reported in England, according to the Health and Social Care Information Centre.  

In December last year, charities warned that traditional practitioners were being flown to the UK to cut several girls at the same time at specially-organised “FGM parties”.

FGM remains a very delicate subject, rooted in years of cultural practice, and it can be difficult to talk about it with someone else. But inflicting FGM or helping anyone to do so is a crime. If you are concerned for a friend or for yourself, the worst thing you can do is stay silent.

But here are a few things that you can do:

  • If someone is in immediate danger, contact the police immediately by dialling 999.
  • If you believe someone may be at risk, contact the NSPCC helpline on 0800 028 3550 or fgmhelp@nspcc.org.uk.
  • If you experience sexual difficulties or you are pregnant and were subject to FGM, it is important that you tell your GP or midwife or any other health professional. There are operations available as part of the NHS service called deinfibulations, which can open up the vagina and alleviate some of the symptoms
  • Women who were subject to FGM as infants or young girls can have serious mental problems such as depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder and flashbacks. As much as for the physical aspects, it is important to talk to your GP about any of these emotional issues, who will be able to refer you to the adequate service for support.

NHS specialist clinics for FGM services are also available across England and you can find the full list here.

Although the Acton FGM Community Clinic in West London, which is the only midwifery-led, community-based service in the country to offer the deinfibulation operation under local anesthetics, could be forced to close in March because of cuts to its fundings.

There is also plenty more information on the National FGM Centre’s website.

Across the UK, there are community groups and charities which help to educate people about the dangers of FGM.

The first thing to do to help put an end to the practice is to talk about it.