Human Rights UK Women's Issues

FGM in the UK – Why it’s Our Problem, What Are the Signs and What Can We Do?

This article was originally posted on January 5 2017. It was last updated on October 30 2019.

‘Genital mutilation of girls is sometimes referred to as “circumcision.” Implicitly, this likens it to male circumcision. If male circumcision meant removing the glans and testicles and adhering the remains of the penis to the empty sac, the comparison would be valid. It is not valid.’

Ayaan Hirsi Ali

Warning: Graphic Images

 Female Genital Mutilation (sometimes known as ‘female circumcision’) is one of the biggest violations of human rights worldwide. In 2016, UNICEF estimated that there are 200 million victims of female genital mutilation from 30 countries living in the world today. With numbers like this, female genital mutilation (FGM) is something that should be impossible to ignore and yet here in the UK we’re doing a damn good job of doing just that.

In England and Wales alone, an estimated 170,000 girls are living with FGM, and 65,000 girls under the age of 15 are at risk of FGM every single year, making FGM in the UK a very real issue.

infographic with FGM statistics

IMG: The University of Salford

But what exactly is Female Genital Mutilation?

Well, there are four types.

Type 1 is called clitoridectomy, and involves the removal of part or all of the clitoris.

Type 2 is excision, which is the removal of the clitoris, the labia minora and sometimes the labia majora.

Type 3, known as infibulation, involves the narrowing of the vaginal opening through the creation of a covering seal. The seal is formed by cutting & sewing over the outer labia, with or without removal of the clitoris or inner labia, leaving only a very tiny hole through which to pass urine & menstrual fluid. This opening needs to be cut open to have sexual intercourse and also to give birth.

Type 4 comprises of all other harmful procedures to the female genitalia for non-medical purposes e.g. pricking, piercing, incising, scraping, stretching and cauterising the genital area.

Contrary to popular belief, FGM is not a religious, but a cultural practice. It is usually arranged by a girls’ parents or other close family members and is carried out between infancy and age 15.

types of fgm diagram

IMG: Soroptimist International

Where is FGM practiced?

Female genital mutilation is traditionally practiced in more than 30 countries, as well as within migrant communities of other countries. It is found in Africa, Asia and the Middle East.

There are 29 countries in Africa alone that practice FGM, including Sierra Leone, Somalia, Sudan, Tanzania, Egypt, Nigeria and the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

Other countries include Indonesia, Yemen, India, Pakistan, Oman, United Arab Emirates, Iran and Iraq. However, due to migration from such countries that practice FGM, FGM in the UK is a growing problem and something that so many girls in the UK are at risk of every year.

A full list of the countries and communities that practice FGM can be found here.

FGM country map

Countries with the highest % of FGM. IMG: Wikipedia

Female Genital Mutilation has absolutely no health benefits & in fact only causes harm.

Just a few of the problems that FGM can lead to include:

  • recurrent bladder and urinary tract infections;
  • chronic back and pelvic pain;
  • kidney infections;
  • fistulas that cause women to constantly leak urine & feces;
  • cysts;
  • infertility;
  • sepsis;
  • tetanus;
  • complications during childbirth;
  • increased death of both mother & child during childbirth;
  • increased risk of contracting hepatitis b.

In addition to this, FGM is often performed with a dirty razor blade, meaning that HIV infection is common.

Many girls bleed to death before the procedure is even finished.

FGM has been a growing problem in Europe as the amount of immigrants from African countries has increased. In 1983, France made the practice illegal and have since sent over 100 circumcisors and complicit parents to prison.

However, even though FGM was outlawed in the UK in 1985, no prosecutions have been made. It is especially interesting to note that despite this, British hospitals have treated over 3000 victims of FGM since 2013.

Something just doesn’t add up.

razor blade fgm

IMG: Club of Mozambique

The trouble with England is that you are very respectful about the traditions of every community that comes to live in your country. In our country it is totally different. We expect our migrants to integrate & obey our laws and traditions,’ says Isabelle Gillette-Faye, head of a French NGO that campaigns against gender-based violence called GAMS (Group for the Abolition of Female Genital Mutilation).

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She’s right.

In France, from birth until the age of 6, every child, regardless of ethnic origin, receives free medical check ups and their genitalia are examined. After age 6, doctors, teachers and health visitors are told to be extra vigilant about children whose background puts them at risk. Parents who take their children out of school to countries where cutting is rife are warned that they will be prosecuted if the girl returns with anything missing.

Leftists assert that it is discriminatory to only check girls from high-risk countries, inferring that it is racially insensitive and that these girls are at no more risk of cutting than the general population, but ample evidence suggests otherwise.

It may also raise eyebrows to even suggest that children should have their genitalia examined. Such a procedure would no doubt be classified as abuse in the UK, but an annual examination by a female nurse working for the local health authority is surely preferable to putting girls at risk of such a serious crime, which falls under the criminal offence of ‘willful, grievous bodily harm.’

woman holding a bloody razor blade FGM

IMG: Global Citizen

Ayaan Hirsi Ali – Somali-born activist, author & former Dutch politician – agrees that routine examinations are the way to go if we are to end FGM in the UK, saying that ‘without compulsory screening, there is no effective way of preventing genital mutilation,’ and that ‘the consequences of genital mutilation are so inimical to the well-being of the child that the government should give priority to its duty to act to protect someone from harm.’

However, despite David Cameron asserting that ‘it is absolutely clear about what we are trying to achieve […] and that is to outlaw the practices of female genital mutilation & childhood & early forced marriage, to outlaw them everywhere, for everyone in this generation,’ and despite the FGM act being updated in 2003, making it illegal for a British National to be mutilated in any country, we have still yet to see any progress.

victim of female genital mutilation

IMG: International Railroad for Queer Refugees

There has only ever been one case of FGM in the UK being brought to trial
 & it was dismissed in less than 30 minutes. Dr. Dharmasena was accused of committing FGM after he was delivering a baby & discovered that the woman had been stitched up as a child. He undid the stitches to allow her to give birth, but then stitched her back up to prevent her from bleeding to death.

Of course, Dr. Dharmasena was just a scapegoat, someone for the government to point to & shrill that ‘of course we’re doing something! Look!’ but the reality is that it is inexplicable why we have no prosecutions compared to France’s 100.

What is the point of France performing annual examinations, educating school children about FGM and having highly publicised trials, when families wishing to inflict FGM on their girls can just catch the Euro Star to London & have the operation performed in a dingy block of flats with a rusty pair of scissors?

This tolerance allows the abuse to continue taking place behind closed doors.

This barbaric practice may be prohibited by law, but due to the private nature of the abuse, it is easy to turn a blind eye. Hirsi Ali sums up the problem perfectly when she says that ‘If children had their noses, or part of their ears cut off, the government would not be able to get away with its policy of passive tolerance.’

Leyla Hussein FGM

Leyla Hussein, victim of fgm and anti-FGM activist

However, with prominent activists such as Leyla Hussein campaigning tirelessly to end FGM in the UK and the City Academy Bristol producing a film, The Silent Scream, which ‘highlights the tensions in a migrant family when an older daughter tries to persuade her parents not to cut her younger sister,’ we are slowly being forced to open our eyes to the brutality that is FGM.

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Hopefully, as more people are made aware of the horrors of FGM and the prevalence of FGM in the UK, we will begin to see some real change. A legislation passed in 2015 has made it mandatory for workers in health, education & social sectors to report any instances of FGM they find to the police, and so hopefully we will see perpetrators finally being brought to justice and the process to end FGM in Britain will be underway.

What are the signs of FGM?

Maybe you are a school teacher, or have another job which means you are working closely with children. Perhaps you are just a parent whose child has a lot of friends and you are concerned about how to spot risk factors and signs that somebody may have undergone female genital mutilation. Luckily, there are certain things that you can watch out for.

Signs FGM might happen:

  • a girl is struggling to keep up in school
  • a family visits relatives abroad during school holidays
  • a female relative of the girl has undergone FGM
  • a relative or someone known as a ‘cutter’ is visiting from abroad
  • a ceremony is discussed where the girl will ‘become a woman’ or ‘is prepared for marriage.’
  • a girl plans to run away (or actually runs away) from home
  • a girl has an unexpected or long absence from school

Note: many of these signs can also point to a potential forced marriage if the girl is from a country where forced child marriage is common. Please see my article about honour killings here for more information about forced marriage and honour culture.

Signs FGM might have taken place:

  • A girl seems quiet, anxious or depressed
  • She is having difficulty standing, sitting or walking
  • She is taking longer in the bathroom than usual
  • She is behaving differently after a long absence from school or a trip to see family (or a visit from family)
  • She is reluctant to go to the doctor or have routine medical examinations
  • She asks for help (not necessarily explicitly as she may be shameful, scared or embarrassed

What can you do if you suspect FGM has taken place or will?

If you are a a health or social care professional or a teacher then you are required by law to report known instances of FGM in the UK to the police. You should make a verbal report to the police force area within which the girl resides. Remember that the girls’ safety could be at risk, and so do not attempt to confront the family.

When you speak to the police, tell them that you are making a report under the ‘FGM Mandatory Reporting Duty.’ This is a legislation that was introduced at part of the Serious Crime Act of 2015 which requires healthcare professionals, teachers and social workers to report known instances of FGM to the police.

(Note: even if you do not KNOW for sure that a girl has been a victim of female genital mutilation, if you suspect that it has occurred or will occur, then you should still report. After all, it’s better to be safe than sorry.)

If you are not a health/social care professional or teacher but you suspect that somebody you know is or will be a victim of FGM then there a few things that you can do:

  • If you suspect that somebody is in immediate danger then you should call the police
  • You can call the NSPCC’s FGM helpline at 0800 028 3550 or email them at
  • If you think that somebody has been taken abroad to undergo FGM then you can contact the Foreign and Commonwealth Office at 020 7008 1500
  • You can apply for a civil protection order online 

fgm in the uk

IMG: Global Citizen

FGM is not just a ‘foreign problem.’

It is not a ‘Muslim problem.’

It is our problem, and we have a responsibility to fix it.

Helpful Resources

Foundation for Women’s Health Research and Development (FORWARD)

Daughters of Eve

Further Reading

The Caged Virgin – Ayaan Hirsi Ali

The War on Women – Sue Lloyd-Roberts

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