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To Stop Female Genital Mutilation In The UK, Follow (And Invest) The Money

February 28, 2013

Silver 'coins'To some it may seem heartless, but surely it’s obvious: If we really, seriously want to eradicate female genital mutilation (FGM) we have to move beyond the moralising – essential as it is – and follow the money. And we must understand the market. Yes, female genital mutilation is irreducibly a moral and cultural issue. But, absolutely correctly, no modern western state can leverage, or justify, much in the way of legally imposed moral and cultural determinism.
Culture change on its own is difficult. It’s money which talks.

True there are people, especially on the right of politics, attempting to dictate who may share their lives with whom, or how, for instance, women may control their own fertility; but these interventions are very high-cost both to legislators and to their targets. State control of intimate and personal matters is frequently contested territory and leaches energy and other scarce resources required to serve the wider public good.

A duty to protect
Different considerations apply however if we think about things which actively harm people who can’t defend themselves. Prime amongst these is the genital mutilation of babies and girls: a grim act of physical abuse for which the victim cannot give meaningful consent, imposed within a community because ‘tradition’ and ‘culture’ demand it.

FGM is personal, cultural and moral, but it is also something which the state, acting to protect defenceless citizens, has a fundamental duty to stop.

Reaching the excluded
Evidence aplenty suggests that moral admonition or direct cultural challenge works no better for stopping FGM than for other private and personal matters.

Diasporas may be economically driven, but modern-day rationality – insofar as it exists anywhere – is another matter. UK efforts to overturn dangerous in-coming ex-pat traditions can have the counter-productive effect of reinforcing isolation and determination to continue with long-established cultural actions, however harmful others deem these acts. It’s why some anti-FGM organisations use traditional euphemisms such as ‘cutting’ to refer to even grievous genital mutilation and assault.

This is where following the money and understanding the markets comes in. Different contexts require different responses.

Women as owned objects
The origins of FGM are disparate and unclear. FGM preceded modern-day global religions and was probably connected with controlling slaves specifically as well as women in general. Whatever, the practice developed in such a way that it has become even now in some communities a deeply ingrained tradition which will take a massive amount of effort to dislodge. In this logic FGM is not inflicted on young girls to harm them but rather – horrendously – as a way to make them marriageable (‘pure’, perhaps with a higher bride price, by means of infibulation) and able to participate in adult life. Without FGM an adult female might be anomic: socially outcaste, belonging to no-one, ‘unclean’, perhaps forbidden even to participate in preparing food.

This fundamental threat of unbelonging may have weakened in western diaspora communities, but customs and beliefs remain, long shadows over the expectations and fears for girls’ futures. In that sense parents may continue to believe FGM is in their daughters’ best interests.

Enabling women’s economic independence
Ensuring girls from all our communities have bright futures as independent adults – unimpeded by the blight of FGM-invoked ill-health, and able to support themselves financially in meaningful employment – is critical to eradicating female genital mutilation in modern societies. This is a school and curriculum matter. If all children understand their bodies and can become economically self-sustaining, we challenge the ‘rationale’ for FGM head-on.

But young people and women are the two groups currently most at risk of involuntary unemployment in the UK. Work liberates those who could otherwise find themselves forced inwards, cut off in ex-pat diaspora communities where contact with mainstream society doesn’t happen. Enough jobs for everyone is fundamental to harmonious inter-community life, and critical to enabling the independence of girls at risk of FGM.

Elders’ status and livelihoods
Likewise, as in the traditional FGM communities of e.g. Africa, there needs to be alternative work and status for the older women  (often the grandes dames or matriarchs of their community) who formerly conducted FGM procedures.

Yes, elders must be punished, along with other procurers of the ‘service’, if they mutilate young girls; but how much better if they have alternative, constructive, income-generating activities instead. What are we doing to attend to the education and employment needs of disempowered mature citizens (men and women) who could be ambassadors for a better way?

Segmenting the market and the message
Finally, let us segment our market for the NoFGM message.

In closed traditional communities coded euphemisms like ‘cutting’ may be helpful; but in our wider modern society they are not.

Let’s unfailingly call FGM ‘child abuse’, so that everyone, parents, teachers, medics, lawyers and the police alike, know that we mean this seriously: female genital mutilation is a crime, always. It will not be tolerated. It will have unavoidable legal consequences.

Health and welfare, not ‘culture’
Modern western societies are ill-equipped to be cultural arbiters. But they have an a prioriobligation to attend to the health and welfare of, especially, their most vulnerable citizens.

FGM is a massive challenge for public health, education and the law. Facing up to that challenge requires investment in the modes which public agencies can best negotiate: the worlds of formal regulation and financial enabling.

‘Segmented’ work on behaviour change within FGM-oriented communities will help, but national investment to raise expectations is also essential.

Piece-meal intervention can do only so much. It’s time to get a real grip on enforcing the law, and it’s also time to recognise that people in isolated communities need to be brought into the economic mainstream.

Healthy, independent women
If we invest in education and jobs, people in all our communities – men and women – have hope. Everyone benefits.

No girl in the UK should be at risk, via FGM, abandoning school and enduring ill-health, of an early, enforced or oppressive marriage where she can’t be her own, economically independent adult woman.

Is that really too much to ask, in the twenty-first century?

It’s a question which may be explored in the UK FGM conferences due this week (the FORWARD and IKWRO event funded by the European Union DAPHNE programme in London on 28 February) and next week (the UK FGM National Clinical Group annual conference in Liverpool, on 6 March).

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

A version of this article was also published by the Huffington Post on 28 February 2013.


Readers are invited to support these two FGM e-petitions:

UK Government: Enforce the UK law which forbids FGM (Female Genital so-called ‘Cutting’)    .. and

FGM abolitionists internationally: Support the Feminist Statement on Female Genital Mutilation

[See also HM Government e-petition, No. 35313, to STOP Female Genital Mutilation (FGM / ‘cutting’) in Britain  (for UK citizens and residents – now closed).]

There is a free FGM hotline for anyone in the UK: 0800 028 3550, or email:

The #NoFGM Daily News carries reports of all items shared on Twitter that day about FGM – brings many organisations and developments into focus.

For more on FGM please see here.

Twitter accounts: @NoFGM1  @NoFGMBookUK  @FGMStatement  [tag for all: #NoFGM]

Facebook page: #NoFGM – a crime against humanity

More info on FGM in the UK here.

Email contact: NoFGM email

** Hilary Burrage is currently writing a book, Eradicating Female Genital Mutilation: A UK Perspective

7 Comments leave one →
  1. vera lustig permalink
    March 2, 2013 16:35

    Hello Hilary, Excellent post, as ever. You’re so right about economics. I remember that Nawal el-Saadawi (spelling?) at the 2011 IKWRO conf., said that if we eliminate religion, we also eliminate FGM, but that doesn’t take into account the importance of the bride price in some communities. That, and the whole virginity/fidelity issue. I so enjoyed meeting you at the conference on Thurs. Someone made the point that people coming into the UK for FGM from, say, Norway, should be prosecuted for their apparent intention. Surely that isn’t feasible, if we can’t even get prosecution anyway? It’s shameful, how badly worded the 2003 FGM act is because it was a Private Member’s Bill. But how can a bill get onto the statute book without being checked for ambiguity? It’s time for a new bill. What a shame the organisers had to turn away 150 people from the conf. Best wishes, Vera

  2. Neil Emerton permalink
    March 8, 2013 00:34

    Hilary, I just saw an article where the UK government has allocated 35 million pounds to help eliminate FGM world wide. While this is commendable, one would think they would put more effort into elliminating FGM in the UK firstly. If we cannot eradicate FGM in western countries what hope do we have in non western countries. Like here in Aus, the politicians are too scared of some groups and aim to get the ethnic vote. Meanwhile little girls suffer. Reckon that 35 million will be just chewed up by the UN bureaucrac. Neil Emerton

  3. April 13, 2013 22:50

    Reblogged this on Gogwit's Blog and commented:
    “Let’s unfailingly call FGM ‘child abuse’, so that everyone, parents, teachers, medics, lawyers and the police alike, know that we mean this seriously: female genital mutilation is a crime, always. It will not be tolerated. It will have unavoidable legal consequences.”
    Cogent analysis and well-argued. So refreshing to see argument of this subject a) at all – it is now on the radar and the subject of discussion; b) addressing the issue in terms other than it being ethically and morally wrong.

    • April 13, 2013 23:10

      Thanks so much, and Yes, FGM is indeed called ‘child abuse’ on this website:

      Some go further and simply say it’s GBH, which tells us all (and more) than we want / need to know.

      I find coy references to ‘cutting’ unacceptable in mainstream discussion. It’s ‘mutilation’ and let’s demand that senior politicians tell it like it is, and say so.

      Am focusing hard on the economic analyses (as well as the humanitarian ones). Understanding the market position might seem callous, but it’s also essential if we genuinely want to stop FGM.

  4. June 22, 2013 21:56

    Another harmful and negative activity which follows the money:

  5. June 24, 2013 09:48

    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:

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