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Writing About FGM Online: What Are The Critical Issues?

May 3, 2016

P1100621 (2)It was good to be invited to contribute to The Body Issue (17) of the online magazine Her Edit. The brief was to write an article about FGM, explaining why it continues, and what can be done to stop it.  I chose to emphasise the frequent lack of understanding in practising communities about the harm of FGM, and the requirement on us all to keep the issues in the public mind. Below is my article, published by Her Edit under the heading ‘FGM: Patriarchy incarnate‘.  What would others have elected to share with new readers about this tragic abuse of human rights?


The myths and methods are many, but the reality doesn’t change. Every instance of female genital mutilation (FGM), whoever does it and for whatever claimed rationale, is an act of violence against the person and against their human rights*; and in almost every country in the world FGM is now illegal under national as well as international law.

To many people the continuing practice of FGM is incomprehensible; and that there are now estimated to be at least 200 million women and girls alive today with the condition is beyond belief.

How can women who know the pain it brings permit their own daughters – infants, small children or adolescents – undergo the same grim ‘procedure’?  But the truth is, that whilst women know from personal experience that FGM brings pain, they often don’t know it is the cause of much ill-health in adulthood.  Rather than (as is often believed) enabling fertility, it can cause many problems ranging from period pain and difficult conception and pregnancies / deliveries, to the death of neo-nates and the unending nightmare of obstetric fistula.

The eradication of FGM is therefore nothing to do with respect for ‘cultural practices’ and everything to do with the health, happiness and human rights of women and children (baby boys as well as girls).  Indeed, many in traditional communities now insist that we understand the difference between traditions, sometimes harmful, and culture, positive and good.  Dr Morissanda Kouyate, Guinean physician and Executive Director of the Inter-African Committee on Harmful Traditional Practices, is amongst those firmly of this view.

So FGM has to stop.  But whilst programmes to achieve this end are now having some success, UNICEF (2016) affirms in its latest information sheet that ‘current progress is insufficient to keep up with the increasing population growth.  If trends continue, the number of girls and women undergoing FGM/C will rise significantly over the next 15 years.’

There is no single solution to this grim challenge.  Each element of the equation requires careful and consistent attention.  Work to shift and enlighten community and family understandings; education to enable women (and men) to have adult autonomy and financial security, unbound by hardened traditions; learning, for some of both genders, that women are not chattels owned by men; determined moves away from early and forced marriage; respect for human rights – sometimes barely understood or acknowledged – as well as for established social mores; enforcement of the law everywhere…. all these aspects of FGM eradication are critical.

We in the UK have moved in the right direction to a degree, but there is so much still to do – and many considerations still to be taken on board – if we are to make FGM even in our own land history.  As yet there has not even been a successful prosecution in Britain – where 140-170 thousand women and girls are thought to have experienced or be at serious risk of FGM.

Despite the enormity of the issue, however, each of us has a part to play.  Wherever we are, we can stay informed (The Guardian has an excellent #EndFGM website: ), we can ask questions about the provision of child safeguarding, support for providers, and education in schools, and we can make sure our politicians and policy makers keep their eye on the ball.  We can even help to fund the various charitable bodies that tackle FGM and other abuses, if we wish.

But the most important thing of all is not to do what we all dearly wish we could do, and simply put these matters aside.  Please keep talking and asking questions. Even one child spared is a child who can live her life intact. It is perseverance on multiple fronts which will eventually and finally mean that no child need fear ever again the awful blight of female genital mutilation.

(*We might add that men and boys are also not infrequently damaged by circumcision, most especially when performed on adolescents in public ceremonies; and the medical imposition of male circumcision to control HIV infections has in some places resulted in the women demanding back their ‘right’ to FGM in the name of ‘fairness’.)

Read more about FGM as Patriarchy Incarnate

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Books by Hilary Burrage on female genital mutilation

For more detail and discussion of female genital mutilation please see my textbook, which considers in some detail the situation globally, but also explores the issues relating specifically to Western nations:  Eradicating Female Genital Mutilation: A UK Perspective (Ashgate/Routledge, 2015). My second book, Female Mutilation: The truth behind the horrifying global practice of female genital mutilation (New Holland Publishers, 2016), contains narrative ‘stories’ (case studies) from about seventy people across five continents who have experienced FGM, either as survivors and/or as campaigners and activists against this harmful traditional practice.



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

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

Also available to follow at no cost or obligation is the #NoFGM_USA Daily News.

Twitter accounts:@NoFGM_UK  @NoFGMBookUK @FemaleMutlnBook  @FGMStatement  @NoFGM_USA @NoFGM_Kenya  @NoFGM_France  @GuardianEndFGM [tag for all: #NoFGM] and @StopMGM.

Facebook page: #NoFGM – a crime against humanity

More info on FGM here. Email contact: NoFGM email

[NB The Inter-African Committee on Traditional Practices Affecting the Health of Women and Children, which has a primary focus on FGM, is clear that in formal discourse any term other than ‘mutilation’ concedes damagingly to the cultural relativists – though the terms employed may of necessity vary in informal discussion with those who by tradition use alternative vocabulary. See the Feminist Statement on the Naming and Abolition of Female Genital Mutilation,  The Bamako Declaration: Female Genital Mutilation Terminology and the debate about Anthr/Apologists on this website.]

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This article concerns approaches to the eradication specifically of FGM.  I am also categorically opposed to MGM, but that is not the focus of this particular piece.

Anyone wishing to offer additional comment on more general considerations around infant and juvenile genital mutilation is asked please to do so on the relevant dedicated thread, originally developed in June 2012:

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

Pending further notice (of a planned new blog, sometime after February 2016), discussion of the general issues re M/FGM will not be published unless they are posted on this dedicated page.  Thanks.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. Tobe Levin von Gleichen permalink
    May 3, 2016 15:43

    Hearty congratulations, Hilary! I’ll have a thought or two to add to the conversation….

  2. May 3, 2016 17:23

    So wonderful that this magazine published your excellent article on FGM! We just need to keep spreading the word. Thank you for all you do!

    [And thank you too, Karen!]

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