In February 2019 the UK courts experienced their first victory in a battle that began in 1985. This momentous verdict was when the first person ever was convicted of FGM offenses, since it was first criminalised over 3 decades ago. Finally, we have been able to prove someone was guilty of female genital mutilation and they are now paying for that crime. What hopefully has set us on a journey of more successful conviction processes, has also made us take a moment to recognise and evaluate the FGM situation in the UK. While sometimes it’s our role within social work to remain relatively impartial or emotionless about certain areas; here it is relatively impossible. The reality of female genital mutilation is cutting a woman, or more frequently a child or baby, and permanently scarring them for life. This level of violence is condoned within communities, predominantly in African nations, but with a substantial prevalence in the UK. Thousands of girls and women are mutilated every year, jeopardising their immediate health and causing countless life-long consequences; making it hard to remain neutral in this matter.
Nonetheless, the key issue at stake in the UK is awareness, and that doesn’t need personal feelings or judgements; but instead benefits from cold facts. We know that FGM is wrong. We criminalised it. We have protection centres and support services for victims who come to the UK. What seems to trip us up is the risks that girls and women face in the UK. Even if the cutting process doesn’t happen in our country (although it frequently does), UK communities are still practising FGM and getting away with it. It’s been over 30 years that FGM has been a crime, and yet we have managed a grand total of 1 guilty verdict. Things need to change, and the first step is to understand exactly what female genital mutilation cases in the UK look like.
We all know the general gist of FGM. It’s brutal violence and abuse towards young girls, usually with a religious, cultural or social “reasoning” within a community. However, to look at the specifics, according to Forward (Foundation for Women’s Health Research and Development), there are four main classification types for female genital mutilation:
- Type 1 – Clitoridectomy: partial or total removal of the clitoris (a small, sensitive and erectile part of the female genitals) and, in very rare cases, only the prepuce (the fold of skin surrounding the clitoris).
- Type 2 – Excision: partial or total removal of the clitoris and the labia minora, with or without excision of the labia majora (the labia are “the lips” that surround the vagina).
- Type 3 – Infibulation: narrowing of the vaginal opening through the creation of a covering seal. The seal is formed by cutting and repositioning the inner, or outer, labia, with or without removal of the clitoris.
- Type 4 – Other: all other harmful procedures to the female genitalia for non-medical purposes, e.g. pricking, piercing, incising, scraping and cauterizing the genital area.
There are categorically no health benefits to circumcising a woman in this way. Contrastingly, the WHO reports the following complications that the girls may face after FGM.
Immediate complications can include:
- severe pain
- excessive bleeding (haemorrhage)
- genital tissue swelling
- infections e.g., tetanus
- urinary problems
- wound healing problems
- injury to surrounding genital tissue
Long-term consequences can include:
- urinary problems (painful urination, urinary tract infections);
- vaginal problems (discharge, itching, bacterial vaginosis and other infections);
- menstrual problems (painful menstruations, difficulty in passing menstrual blood, etc.);
- scar tissue and keloid;
- sexual problems (pain during intercourse, decreased satisfaction, etc.);
- increased risk of childbirth complications (difficult delivery, excessive bleeding, caesarean section, need to resuscitate the baby, etc.) and newborn deaths;
- need for later surgeries: for example, the FGM procedure that seals or narrows a vaginal opening (type 3) needs to be cut open later to allow for sexual intercourse and childbirth (deinfibulation). Sometimes genital tissue is stitched again several times, including after childbirth, hence the woman goes through repeated opening and closing procedures, further increasing both immediate and long-term risks;
- psychological problems (depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder, low self-esteem, etc.);
There are an estimated 137,000 women and girls affected by FGM in England and Wales. That is thousands of UK females who either are at risk of being cut or have already been cut and are facing the consequences. These women are from families where FGM is a part of the pre-existing culture, where a woman’s virginity is of great value to a community.
However, there is no area within any religion that specifies a need for FGM to take place; thereby making it a practice that girls have to endure, simply because their mothers or grandmothers did. They are usually at risk of undergoing a FGM procedure before they hit puberty, between infancy and around 15 years of age. This means that there could be babies, of no more than a couple of months old having their genitals mutilated, burdening them with lifelong complications and painful issues.
We need to be aware though that it’s not just children who could face this horrific ‘rite of passage’. Due to the association with virginity and purity, some women can face it before marriage or childbirth, once they’re well past puberty.
What we need to make clear to FGM-practising communities across the UK is that they are 100% breaking the law. It is an offence to:
- perform FGM (including taking a child abroad for FGM)
- help a girl perform FGM on herself in or outside the UK
- help anyone perform FGM in the UK
- help anyone perform FGM outside the UK on a UK national or resident
- fail to protect a girl for whom you are responsible from FGM
As the February 2019 case has now proven, anyone found guilty can face up to 14 years in prison. However, why has there only been 1 person charged if it’s such a pressing matter in this country? If potentially up to 100,000 women and girls in the UK are estimated to have undergone the illegal procedure, then why aren’t hundreds or even thousands of guilty perpetrators behind bars? A large problem is it’s difficult to trace. Families will either perform the cutting themselves or bring in a “cutter” – someone specifically employed to circumcise these girls. Either way, these procedures take place within a very tight-knit community, where people rarely speak out about it. Even if a child, relative or friend does flag up a case of FGM, it’s then complicated to prove who the guilty party is. And if a case of FGM hasn’t occurred yet, then how do you evidence that it was going to happen?
Therefore, we face a major challenge in social work when it comes to female genital mutilation within our nation. Children, babies even, are being abused; and yet they’re not speaking out about it. It’s estimated that the number of reported cases of “female circumcision” are only a fraction of the real number, so we need to be better at getting children and women to speak out. The more noise we make about the illegality of FGM and the teams of safeguarding practitioners in place ready to help vulnerable children, the more communities will become more uneasy about committing these offenses. The tradition of mutilating girls in this way is strong, that’s how it’s able to cross borders, evade the law and continue in an era of such powerful women’s rights. Therefore, the test ahead of us is simple: we have to prove that those fighting to keep children and vulnerable adults safe are much stronger.
While you're here...
If you’re working with someone who you believe is at risk of FGM or has already undergone a procedure of this variety and you’d like to understand the subject matter more to improve your practice, One Stop Social has a few helpful resources on our site which could aid your social work journey.