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Female Genital Mutilation: The Difficult Debates

May 11, 2012

Female genital mutilation (‘cutting’) is an inherently difficult subject.  The clash of social mores, clamours of righteousness from all quarters, the vast contradictions evident in legal and child protection practice and the sheer sensitivities of the topic, contrasting personal vulnerability and grotesque practice, all make intervention perilous.
And beyond that there are the demands for clarity about male circumcision and appropriate ways to address it in the UK and elsewhere.

It is extraordinary that in 21st century Britain female genital mutilation (‘cutting’), a barbaric, traumatic and sometimes lethal form of child abuse illegal in both practice and procurement, continues unabated – but as yet there have been no prosecutions.

Here is child neglect on a massive scale, a failure of professional care and child safe-keeping which absolutely must not continue.  This failure of child protection, whilst dozens of young children suffer grotesquely every day, is a deeply shameful national scandal.

Nonetheless, views on the most effective way forward will differ widely, and it is important that those who campaign on such difficult matters lay out their stall openly.

So, to open discussion, we consider below two of the most controversial aspects of FGM:  questions around female and male child circumcision, and complexities around ‘cultural’ issues:

Female and male genital mutilation
Inevitably, mention of female genital mutilation raises also the issue of male circumcision.   Both are with very few exceptions performed for non-medical reasons on children who cannot legally give consent, both are painful, and both are inherently a risk to future health.  For these reasons many would claim, whatever the rationale for cutting, that both male and female genital mutilation are contrary to human rights, and also de facto child abuse.

As a principled position, this claim is difficult to refute; and presumably it has some substance in law (but I am not a lawyer), regardless of the sex of the child.  Nonetheless, certain differences between male and female ‘cutting’ may be pertinent to the situation in regard to the UK context. These may include:

Male circumcision (MGM: male genital mutilation) is normally a minor procedure carried out on new-born babies, under informed supervision and with well-established modes of after-care. It is a ‘hygiene’ ritual which has been part of some faiths for millennia and is not seen as subjugating those on whom it is performed.

Female ‘circumcision’ (FGM: female genital mutilation) is performed on girls whose ages range from very young to teens (average age ten years); it is usually a more severe – sometimes extremely severe – process undertaken clandestinely in the UK (where it is illegal) or as part of traditional ritual somewhere else which takes little if any account of pain reduction, hygiene or sheer human fear.  Its express purpose, however stated, is the subjugation of women in favour of men.

Whilst in 2012 substantive morbidity and mortality data in the UK are hard to come by – more information would be very welcome if available – these considerations suggest that negative psychological and medical impacts (up to and including death) are significantly greater for girls than for boys, overall.  The female form of the procedure is, all things considered, more dangerous than the male form – and by its very nature also reaches out to the next generation when maternity complications(and even fistula) ensue.

For these reasons alone – even apart from the unequivocal illegality of FGM performed or in any way commissioned under UK law – female ‘circumcision’ would seem to be a more immediate matter in the UK than male circumcision.  There can be no argument: it must cease, now.

Having said that, however, there remain important issues to resolve about male circumcision.  It does have medical dangers and tragically a small proportion of the baby boys who undergo circumcision do die or have long-term health problems because of it.  And in some African countries fatalities amongst teenage boys undergoing circumcision are well acknowledged.

The harming or even death of any child is unspeakable; but UK and other legislators (NB overwhelmingly male) seem unwilling to confront these dangers in the case of boys.

At the very least in the UK parents permitting their baby boys to be circumcised should be required to sign a statement which overtly acknowledges the clearly listed risks of the procedure; and much better still would be deferment until the child reaches his majority and can choose to be circumcised (or not) for himself – thereby both removing the possibility that his parents might be deemed to have permitted an abuse, and also respecting his human rights.

Whatever the debates about MGM however, it is critical that the even greater perils of FGM are not put aside. Both are very significant matters, but this is one area of contention where male ‘traditional’ considerations must not be permitted to eclipse female well-being.  The immediate priority is, unequivocally, to stop FGM.  And from that we can hope will follow action to protect, from what is for most a somewhat lesser danger, the boys as well.

No child should ever suffer bodily intervention because of ‘cultural’ rather than clinical pressures.

UK focus, or international?
Most of us in the UK know too little about the cultures of other nations to offer anything of use (apart from financial support?) when it comes to tackling FGM ‘abroad’.  The United Nations, Amnesty and many other organisations have work to do here, and ill-informed alternative intervention without appropriate understanding could cause even more damage to victims and their families, not less.

The same does not however apply to what happens within the jurisdiction of UK law, which expressly forbids both the procedure of FGM, and arrangements to take children elsewhere for it to be done.

The statistics tell of a horrendous situation.

It is a child protection scandal of massive dimension that even now (May 2012) no-one in the UK has been sanctioned by the law for performing or allowing FGM in the UK, or on UK minors.

Given this, even humanitarian considerations apart, British citizens have an entitlement to a view.  The law is clear and is not, even remotely, being upheld.  The complicity between UK professionals and practitioners in permitting this situation to appertain is a major issue; and in any other field would have been exposed years ago.

There can be no ‘taboo’ aspects in law.  Professionals’ embarrassment or unwillingness to intervene ‘for cultural reasons’ are no excuse for turning a blind eye when child abuse and cruelty are the issues.

Of course those working on the ground, whether in the UK or elsewhere, will often avoid terms like ‘abuse’ or ‘mutilation’ (one project says ‘cutting’ is a ‘less judgemental’ term), and they will choose education as the way forward whenever possible. Establishing collaborative partnerships and trust in the communities where FGM is practised is critical to longer-term success.

Likewise, whilst child cruelty and abuse are always very serious matters, prosecution / guilt should not, where other sanctions are more appropriate, mean breaking up family units or destroying parental bonds. Sentencing policy and sensitivity are critical matters here; but so, definitively, is the scandalous professional neglect which every year results in thousands of children being left at risk of unthinkable long-term damage.

FGM is an extremely unpleasant and distasteful business, but the discomfort of those who read about it is absolutely nothing compared to the pain and suffering, inflicted in defiance of the law, of defenceless young girls who are compelled by force to endure the real thing.

Campaigns in the UK against FGM can and will stop only when desperately vulnerable children are safe and the professionals whose task is to protect them have demonstrated that they are doing their job.

~ ~ ~

For further information, and for links to original data / material discussed in this post, please visit

#NoFGM: A Listing For Action & References On Female Genital Mutilation.

HM Government e-petition on FGM rejected

FGM: The Difficult Debates

FGM In Britain: Professional Culpability, Public Responsibility, Private Peril

FGM – Professional Neglect; Legitimate Moral Panic

FGM is a universal horror, not just in Britain

Women under threat world-wide (still); demand action now.

FGM (female circumcision) is illegal and cruel – and culturally challengeable everywhere

10 Comments leave one →
  1. May 14, 2012 11:21

    I’d always thought the purpose of FGM was to protect ‘honour’, partly through ensuring women don’t get any pleasure from sex and thus ensuring faithfulness! I can’t see why anyone should feel embarassed about discussing this. Patriarchy has many forms in many religions and I think the underlying issue is that of women (and men) being able to develop as autonomous human beings, rather than being seen as being ‘owned’ by their family/tribe/culture. After all Jesus rescued the woman found in adultery from being stoned!

  2. May 14, 2012 22:27

    Thanks for this very informative and clear article. Hard to take in the reality for those forced to experience such mutilation. The sheer horror makes you want to put up a mental brickwall to hide behind. At least, that’s what I’m feeling at this moment. Which of course helps no one… I’ll come back again to re-read.

  3. Frank OHara permalink
    May 26, 2012 22:03

    Hilary, thank you so much for taking the time to address these subjects. Living in The US, I had no idea the practice of FGM was so common in GB. We’ve had a few incidences of it here in the States but they have been quickly and strongly addressed. In one incidence in my (nearby) area, a doctor discovered the violation and reported it to the authorities. The man (the father) was tried and sentenced to 5 years in prison. I can’t remember the details of the other case but it was handled quickly, efficiently and decisively. I guess it’s fortunate that we don’t have a large population of those who do this or the numbers would probably be much higher.

    However, we do have a significant problem with infant male circumcision. At one point, more than 90% of infant males were circumcised here. As recently as 6 years ago, 65% of infant males were circumcised. However, by 2009, that rate had dropped to 32..5%. This has been the result of a large contingency of citizens and their work. The medical profession and the Federal government have offered no help at all.

    A small group of “intactivists” have managed to get the procedure removed from the government sponsored health scheme, Medicaid in 18 states. In each of those states, the rate has fallen almost instantly by 20% or more. We’ve still got a long way to go but we can see the end at the horizon. Most Europeans aren’t aware of this bit of dirty laundry but are becoming more aware of it. We can use all the help we can get from “across the pond.” You are certainly helping. Thank You!

  4. May 26, 2012 22:53

    Thanks Frank, very helpful.
    I think you’ll find the ‘intactivists’ you mention are quite active on the @NoFGM1 Twitter account (which I run)…. Will be sharing news of more #NoFGM lobbying there shortly.

  5. Frank OHara permalink
    June 6, 2012 16:34

    Hilary wrote: “I think you’ll find the ‘intactivists’ you mention are quite active on the @NoFGM1”

    Yes, the common perception of intactivists is that they only address male circumcision. In fact, they fight against all forms of genital surgery for both sexes. Equal Rights for all!

  6. June 24, 2013 09:58

    Breakthrough! >> *NSPCC FGM HELPLINE* set up today, 24 June 2013

    Call: 0800 028 3550

    Female Genital Mutilation is child abuse. If you are worried a child may be a victim, or at risk of female genital mutilation don’t wait until you’re certain, contact the NSPCC immediately.

    In the UK, people from the following communities are most at risk of FGM:
    Bohra-Dawoodi (Pakistani and Indian)
    Sierra Leonean

    Don’t let socio-cultural pressures get in the way of protecting children.

    FGM is a harmful “cultural” practice, but it is not a religious one. Carrying out this practice has been a criminal offence in the UK since 1985. However, there has not been a single prosecution to date.

    As with other forms of child abuse, these crimes often remain hidden and unreported, as children are too ashamed or afraid to speak out.

    You can call the NSPCC helpline on 0800 028 3550 and send emails to, text on 88858 or use the NSPCC Helpline online form:

    More information on female genital mutilation here:

  7. feministintactivism permalink
    October 26, 2014 05:46

    “Male circumcision (MGM: male genital mutilation) is normally a minor procedure carried out on new-born babies, under informed supervision and with well-established modes of after-care. It is a ‘hygiene’ ritual which has been part of some faiths for millennia and is not seen as subjugating those on whom it is performed.”

    This only accounts for how it is performed in the West. 1.2 billion men are circumcised. Aside from Americans and Jews, the vast majority of circumcised men are in Africa and the Muslim world where they are cut in unsanitary conditions, by untrained practitioners, at puberty or just before. There have been half a million hospitalizations and over 400 deaths in the last decade in Africa.

    Unlike the female reproductive system, the entire male reproductive system is external and can easily be destroyed by accident or infection. We’re talking about a similar amount of tissue (with functions unique to males) being removed from a smaller, less durable system. In the adult male, the foreskin has as much surface area as both sides of a 3×5″ index card and functions both as protection for the glans and as the male equivalent of lubrication. The male reproductive system has to change shape and size in order to function. Removal of too much skin (of course, any is too much) can restrict the movement of the scrotum and cause circulatory problems in the testicles such as varicocele.

    The unspoken assumptions behind the downplaying of damage by male circumcision is that boys are ‘tough’ and that we know what the effects are. We don’t even know what is being removed – most Americans don’t even know about the frenulum, which can cause orgasm by itself and is usually destroyed by circumcision. We also assume that circumcised men are able to orgasm because they ejaculate. Orgasm and ejaculation are not the same thing.

    “Female cutting (FGM: female genital mutilation) is performed on girls whose ages range from very young to teens (average age ten years); it is usually a more severe – sometimes extremely severe – process undertaken clandestinely in the UK (where it is illegal) or as part of traditional ritual somewhere else which takes little if any account of pain reduction, hygiene or sheer human fear. Its express purpose, however stated, is the subjugation of women in favour of men.”

    I think it’s more dangerous than that. The feminist understanding of gendered oppression as unidirectional is based in the white liberal understanding of how racism works. But gendered oppression cannot function exactly the way racism does for the simple fact that men cannot and do not wish to remove women from their society. White racists do seek to eradicate nonwhites.

    Intactivists make the same mistake that Western feminists make – we all assume that bad results come from bad intentions. All of the greatest atrocities in history and all of the worst dystopias humanity has ever created all started out as someone’s idea of paradise. Women cut their daugters a) because circumcised men want ‘tightness’ and b) because they honestly believe that they would be harming their daughters socially and medically (on their terms, at least) by NOT doing so. That is more dangerous than hatred – they believe that the hateful act would be to leave their daughters intact.

    As for subjugation, we forget that the human race is a self-replicating machine, that our very thoughts are part of a mathematical progression. Women and men are being subjugated by reproduction itself. Society was not invented – it evolved. Not in the evolutionary psychology sense where patriarchy is in our DNA or anything like that. Ideas evolve, with us as little more than a growth medium (and now that growth medium is half-electronic). They too are subject to selective pressures. The idea that everything was planned is another manifestation of creationism.

    It is not just that men oppress women (and they do), but that both men and women participate in the perpetuating of gender roles that harm both men and women. When we talk about oppression we are assuming that those perpetrating these acts are aware of patriarchy and are enforcing it deliberately. It’s the species’ combined intelligence that has that awareness, not individuals. And the species has no more regard for males than for females – it is no more aware of individual suffering than you are of the state of a blood cell in your finger.

    • October 26, 2014 19:03

      Well, yes. Of course MGM is much more dangerous (still…) in places where it’s practised in generally unhygenic conditions; and it’s often reported that dozens of teenage boys can die following ceremonies in eg Africa; it’s tragic when even one child, boy or girl, is hurt or dies. This is absolutely unacceptable. I like many others am opposed to all cruelty to children, anywhere.

      So why do you suppose I (or many others) don’t care about, or even support, MGM? I have stated many times that I am opposed to it (NB the post you are referring to here was written some while ago and is clearly marked up as a ‘debating point’, not my personal position); AND I’m a committed feminist.

      You might like to consider this broadcast by my friend and colleague Dr Tobe Levin and see how it fits (or not) into your current analysis.

      I am consistently puzzled by the apparent lack of enthusiasm for proactive campaigns by intactivists, perhaps such as yourself. Why do many intactivists hide their names? Why don’t they start big petitions and ask others to support? I’d sign, if the demand was simply to stop MGM (and if I knew who’d actually started it, by name), just as I’ve signed, with my own name, several petitions simply to stop FGM.

      PS Your comments about ‘female intactivists’ assumptions’ relate to views which may have been held by some a couple of decades ago, but to my mind they bear almost no relation to the many other aspects of FGM which have been explored at least on this website. There is a considerable body of evidence, mentioned time again here, that the ‘assumptions’ you cite are not made by me or many with whom I work. But I think you may be Stateside, or using older texts from there? and I very evidently am not.

      To reiterate, I and many others oppose ALL hurt and harm to children; and we do so using our real names.

    • October 26, 2014 20:12

      “I am consistently puzzled by the apparent lack of enthusiasm for proactive campaigns by intactivists, perhaps such as yourself. Why do many intactivists hide their names?”

      Some people use handles online. Some people don’t. It hasn’t got anything to do with being an intactivist. Lots of people use handles because they’re transgender, or have abusive people in their lives, etc.

      I also know plenty of people who have run into problems in their personal lives for opposing circumcision. I’ve even seen people get fired over it after bosses searched for their names. Of course that applies to political views in general.

      I do support the organizations and petitions fighting MGM, within very limited means and a very hateful culture. But as someone very badly affected it takes a lot out of me to talk about it at all. Imagine having to debate the ethics of rape with rapists, in a country where 3/4 people think NOT being raped is bizarre.

      It is actually quite unhealthy for me to discuss it at all, and as a black American I can tell you that this country does not inspire hope. It’s hard to muster energy to educate people who are evil in so many other ways. “Congratulations – the next generation of racists and warmongers will have foreskin.” What’s really sick is that it’s easier educating whites than educating my own people.

      I’ll admit that some of this was processing – your description of MGM vs. FGM took several aspects of both practices (pain, subjugation, hygiene, age range, fear, “severity”) and ascribed them only to FGM. Losing all lubrication, half the nerves and being denied the ability to do certain acts at all is quite ‘severe.’ And the description of MGM was clearly limited to Jewish or Western MGM, which is a minority of cases.

    • October 26, 2014 22:36

      Thanks for responding. V quickly:
      You are by no means the only man in the States who has told me he fears for his job if he openly opposes MGM. And this is the Land of the Free….??? Whatever is one supposed to think of that? Maybe some of those who have been affected need to find a pro bono lawyer, or an interested journalist? (Just asking…)

      You obviously missed my references above (and in several other posts, if you take a look) to the issues around MGM in non-Western societies, eg, African traditional communities. One can’t align all instances of MGM (Jewish, Muslim, animist…) and approach them in the same way, any more than one can those of FGM.

      I understand and respect your concerns re MGM and the black American society; the same issues actually arise re some of those communities in regard to FGM (I work with some people involved in the USA and FGM). I think you might like to consider that and see where your interests and the FGM activists’ interests could align. Why attack NoFGM activists when you could instead seek common cause with some (if not all) of them? What does that achieve?

      Please remember money is important here:
      (a) MGM is a money-spinner for doctors in private medicine; it’s no accident that there is less of it in the UK, with the state-funded NHS; and
      (b) Horrifically, FGM is done to ‘ensure’ women are virgins until they are married off, often when still young girls, to men who buy them for bride price; and it actually kills between 10 and 30% of the girls affected. So some of us will continue to focus on that terrible affliction, although we agree with you that MGM is unacceptable as well.

      And finally for now, I have just created a Twitter account entitled @StopMGM. It costs virtually nothing to set up such lobbies. By all means follow, if you wish.

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