Female Genital Mutilation: The Difficult Debates
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.
But still an estimated 50+ small girls in the UK are daily at risk of abuse.
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. An estimated 20-24,000 children are at risk of FGM annually in the UK – averaging some 50+ on any given day, or almost 400 every week – 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: Some 22,000 children in Britain are thought to be at risk of FGM annually. That’s more than 50 every day of the year, or 2+ every hour.
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 more than 20,000 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.
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For further information, and for links to original data / material discussed in this post, please visit
FGM: The Difficult Debates
Please sign and forward this e-petition (for UK citizens), posted 25 June 2012 on the HM Government website:
If you have a Twitter account and would like to draw more attention to this issue, please use the hashtag #NoFGM and follow @NoFGM_UK. Thank you.