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FGM: When The Deeply Personal Is Fundamentally Political

March 9, 2013

globe This post, first published in the Morning Star, is in response to the Prime Minister’s announcement on International Women’s Day 2013 that the UK will donate £35 million towards the United Nation’s work (research and delivery) on eliminating female genital mutilation.
Political and policy aspects of this commitment are examined, along with some suggestions about how the issue can be brought into focus in Britain, where top-level formal responses to FGM until now have been very slow.

There’s no easy or nice way to introduce the topic of female genital mutilation.

FGM is a truly hideous, cruel practice; and it’s happening now, in the UK, to possibly 50 babies and girls every day (yes, averaged over the year…. every day).

Cases of FGM in Europe, North America and Australia have increased as more people from the African and Middle East/ Southern Asian diasporas travel West.  About half a million women and girls in Europe have been subjected to FGM, and around 180,000 more girls are at risk annually, perhaps 24,000+ of them in the UK.

Just one little girl mutilated is infinitely too many.  People don’t like to think of such things.  Mass barbarism on this scale is more than most of us can credit.

But make no mistake.  Whilst there’s also legitimate cause to question non-medically required male circumcision, FGM is different.  Both are human rights issues, but FGM is rarely ‘just a nick’. It often entails removal of the external female genitalia – usually in grossly unhygienic conditions, without pain relief.

Mortality rates for FGM are uncertain.  Perhaps 10-30% of victims die from immediate or later (obstetric) impacts.  It also permanently damages health and well-being – everything from post-traumatic conditions to kidney failure and obstetric fistula. (This link provides further information about FGM.)

Small wonder that in practising countries charitable refuges now exist where girls old enough to anticipate the (often unannounced, secretive) ‘procedure’ flee to avoid the unspeakable pain, inflicted with their parents’ consent by force, and the horrors which follow FGM.

So why-ever does FGM occur?

The answer is patriarchy.  Whilst FGM has been connected at some level with religions and customs for hundreds of years, at base it is a way for men to control ‘their’ women.

FGM mythology around female sexual organs and sexuality involves beliefs variously that if a male sexual partner, or a baby during birth, touches the clitoris, s/he will die – and sometimes also that this organ will grow to become a ‘third leg’ if not removed.

Then there’s fear that teenage girls will become sexually rampant if their clitoris remains and/or, if not infibulated – a belief serving economic requirements for a good price for a ‘pure’ bride whose tightened anatomy will also, it’s said, enhance her husband’s pleasure.

Grand/mothers often arrange the mutilation, but daughters are property passed very young from father to husband. Unmarried – and / or without FGM – adult women in traditional communities are ‘unclean’, sometimes forbidden even to collect water or prepare food.  They may not survive.

This is a far cry from contemporary Western ideals of sexuality, marriage and individual rights; but residual customs may persist, especially in isolated diaspora communities.

FGM rates globally are slowly diminishing, especially amongst younger and more educated women.  Nonetheless,  despite the landmark UN Declaration of December condemning FGM, children continue to be tortured because of ‘tradition’, (misplaced) religious observance and economic patriarchy.

The UK can help stop this.

We have one of the largest European FGM-vulnerable diasporas, and legislation unequivocally forbidding female genital mutilation, whether in the UK or procured elsewhere by or for British residents and citizens.

Nonetheless, not a single person from the hundred-thousand or more in the UK who have probably been involved in delivering FGM to British children has been prosecuted. Dedicated policing is almost non-existent.

But in late 2012 Keir Starmer, UK Director of Public Prosecutions, announced he will spearhead legal action, and various Government bodies revisited their directives and guidelines on departmental websites.

And now the Prime Minister has appointed International Development Minister Lynne Featherstone to lead an international initiative, announced on International Women’s Day 2013, to make FGM history.

If Lynne Featherstone knows how to abolish FGM and has resources to achieve this, she must have full backing.

But inevitably there are concerns, not least because in 2011 the Coalition Government abolished the national FGM Co-ordinator role which the previous administration had just established.  Will they get it right this time?

We must watch and wait, but for now some thoughts:

  • Let’s stop agonising over current UK FGM legislation and just use it.  Other child abuse, honour killings, rape, breast ironing and domestic violence are similar policing challenges.  Consider gross bodily harm (GBH) charges, on the statute book since 1861, if it helps.
  • Focus absolutely on (potential and actual) child victims.  That means proper health care, education and realistic opportunities for future economic independence, as well as safeguarding.
  • Remember, FGM’s root cause is patriarchy – thriving still in mainstream British society, too.
  • Acknowledge that if we isolate diaspora communities they may adhere to traditional ways. To eradicate FGM globally we must validate the message that open societies, fostering good health, well-being and economic independence, don’t and won’t countenance (or ‘need’) such desperate measures
  • Be vigilant against racialist ‘overspill’.   Avoid talk of FGM-linked deportation: deportation can apply to all non-national serious criminals.  Some FGM perpetrators are UK citizens.  And most UK Muslims, like followers of other religions and none, abhor it.
  • Understand that FGM will stop only when professionals on the ground know what to do.  Teachers, medics, legal practitioners and the rest need proper training (not just website ‘Guidance’) and the assurance they will be supported in testing circumstances.  Currently, many are poorly informed and fear being hung out to dry if things get difficult.

This is a beginning, not an end.

Life doesn’t stop in the absence of proper policy.  Thousands more British girls have been harmed since the FGM Co-ordinator role, eventually established by the previous Government, was abolished.   The new Coalition initiative must make up rapidly for that awful loss of impetus.

And, finally, female genital mutilation is the ultimate in personal politics.

Let’s strengthen public pressure towards eradication.

A version of this article, Deeply Personal, Fundamentally Political, was first published in the Morning Star on 9 March 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

6 Comments leave one →
  1. March 11, 2013 00:56

    This article, which includes a brief quote from me, also covers the new UK initiative against FGM: David Cameron’s Ambitious Plan To End Female Genital Mutilation (Lizzie Crocker, NY Daily Beast, 6 March 2013). It seems the world is watching – which can only be good news.

  2. March 11, 2013 01:05

    Dear Hilary

    Thank you for writing a compassionate and strong piece on FGM. Like you, I have dedicated my time and effort to end FGM, but I work equally hard to end MGM and I must admit I find it very problematic, that you chose to belittle male genital mutilation in your effort to promote the work to end FGM.

    I’m sure it must be a case of simple ignorance and that you would never belittle male circumcision if you truly knew about the facts of the procedure.

    When boys are born, their foreskin is fused to the glans, the head of the penis, with the same type of tissue as a nail attached to the finger. In order to perform circumcision, the skin has to be peeled of the glans, afterwards the foreskin is cut off.

    In an average circumcision approximately half of the skin protecting the glans and the shaft of the penis is removed. The foreskin is by far the most fine pressure sensitive part of the penis, up to 5 times more sensitive than the rest of the penis. 10.000-40.000 sensitive organs (nerve endings etc.) are excised during the circumcision and studies show that a circumcision causes reorganising of the brain corresponding to the ones seen if a limb is amputated.

    I must ask you to please watch Ryan McAllister, Ph.D.s excellent video “Circumcision: An elephant in the Hospital” as I’m sure it will change your mind on the procedure. )

    I find it immensely tragic when the gender are pitted against each other when it comes to circumcision; when some people will call FGM horrible, while defending MGM as cleaner or more aesthetic or “just as snip”. I realise you were not defending MGM, but you did belittle it by comparison.

    Genital mutilation is always wrong, genital mutilation is never “just a snip”, genital mutilation must end – regardless of gender, cultural background or parent’s religion.

    Best regards

    Lena Nyhus
    Founder of ‘Just a Snip’ – against genital mutilation and Intact Denmark

    • March 11, 2013 10:20

      Thank you for your response (and support) Lena.

      Just to re-assure you: I would never have permitted any son of mine to be circumcised as a child (adults have choice) unless there was pressing medical reason; and as I said, I agree absolutely that there are fundamental human rights issues here, a well as medical ones.

      So my comment about difference is not based on ‘ignorance’; but it is based on mortality rates.

      NO baby or child should ever be subjected to unnecessary risk of illness or death, or to possible later avoidable problems of a personal / sexual nature, and my assessment (as a non-medic) is that MGM does carry a degree of risk, even though some medical authorities promote it as a requirement for future disease prevention.

      Male circumcision may possibly have been advantageous historically (I’m not at all sure, even then..) in the desert where sand is plentiful and water is not, but there are much, much ‘better’ ways to tackle any disorders of the male sexual organs now.

      Mortality rates for MGM are mercifully very low – though let me emphasise again that even one single child, boy or girl, imperilled is *infinitely* too many – but for FGM, death rates are appallingly high – it amounts to ‘culturally’ imposed regular murder.

      MGM, wrong though it is, is usually – though sadly I know not always – a controlled, sanitized and routinized ‘procedure’; FGM is undertaken in dreadful, unhygienic and very dangerous conditions. That’s the reason I say they are not comparable.

      You have written thoughtfully and courteously, but I am constantly attacked (and it can be really nasty and troll-ish) by those who want to say, ‘What about the men?’, but there is no need for that at all.

      My concern is simply that most people don’t understand how cruelly young girls’ lives are routinely destroyed by FGM: they think FGM is, in their words, ‘just a nick’ and that it’s nothing more. They think too that they know about MGM (they probably don’t) and they almost certainly know a lot of men who had it done and seem unconcerned, but as you say, things are not that simple.

      MGM is I understand the most common surgical procedure in the USA – where doctors are paid to do it directly and there is no NHS – but it is mercifully quite unusual now in Britain, at least outside a few communities, though most boy children in my generation had it done even in the UK, and it diminished as a practice just a few decades ago. I don’t know the data for Denmark, so if you’d like to add further information as Comment under my MGM posts, also on this website, that would be very helpful:

      Female Genital Mutilation: The Difficult Debates

      The Other FGM Debate: Is Male Circumcision Also Child Abuse?

      I don’t think I belittle MGM by pointing out the horrendous mortality / morbidity rates (both for the girls themselves and, later, for their babies)associated with FGM; I certainly don’t intend to!

      Once again, I agree with (and support) you on the subject of MGM and have said so many times, on Twitter and elsewhere as well as here. That is why I have also addressed MGM on this website. My focus for now is FGM because most people won’t / can’t bear even to think about it, and so many little girls die as a result, but I also tweet information from MGM / intactivist organisations in the UK, USA etc to help their cause along.

      As it happens, I have a daughter and no sons, but I would never have allowed any son of mine to be circumcised. I hope that settles your mind about my support for your position on MGM!

      Thank you for your comments, and very best wishes,

      PS Could I ask that, if you – or others – would like to continue this conversation, you do so via the posts above, specifically on MGM? (I will move any further remarks on MGM which appear via this link to the appropriate MGM post, for clarity of the various threads on this website.) Thanks again.

  3. Sarah Curtis permalink
    March 19, 2013 10:53

    Very interesting and informative. Any tips on working with women who are victims of FGM in the course of midwifery care?

  4. 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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