What is FGM? Something That Must Not Happen.

What is FGM? Something That Must Not Happen.

Girls are getting mutilated. It’s not religious and it’s not legal. It’s everywhere. TW: Brief but medically explicit description of FGM.

FEMALE GENITAL MUTILATION. Now that I’ve got your attention, I want to warn you about an alarming global cultural practice.

What is FGM?

Put simply, female genital mutilation (commonly known as FGM) is cutting off all or part of a girl’s labia and/or clitoris. It is also known as FGC (female genital cutting). In extreme cases the vulva is sewn shut, with only a small hole for urine and periods to pass through.

Logo for the Guardian’s UK campaign against FGM, fronted by 17 year old Fahima Mohamed


It’s done for a variety of reasons, and let me stress this now, IS NOT A RELIGIOUS PRACTICE. It’s mostly carried out in sub-saharan countries and north-east Africa. In some cultures they believe it makes girls more hygienic, encourages them to be chaste or makes giving birth easier. Many men from these communities would not consider marrying an uncut girl. It happens anywhere from birth to late teens and is mostly done without anaesthesia, using a sharp knife or razor blade. Unicef has gathered data showing that most girls are under five when subjected to it.

FGM is cruel, barbaric and totally unnecessary. There are no health benefits, and it leaves girls scarred and traumatised for life. Many find it difficult to give birth afterwards, and unsanitary cutting conditions often lead to serious infections. In some cases girls have died.

The most insidious thing about it is that their own families force girls into this. Mothers and aunts are often the ones who take them to be cut, and hold them down when they struggle. In their eyes, they are doing their daughters a favour. In 2012, Unicef estimates there were 125 million women who had been mutilated in Africa, Yemen and Iraqi Kurdistan.

The Evening Standard published a horrifying interview with someone who openly declared she would be using the razor on her 10-year-old daughter this year. She also explained that some months, she cuts up to 35 girls. While some people would argue this kind of thing shouldn’t be published, I disagree. We need to see this for ourselves. People need to wake up, realise this is happening, and do everything they can to put a stop to it.

FGM as a global problem

You may be thinking ‘but I live in insert lovely Western country here, what has it got to do with me?’. The answer is everything. Cutting happens everywhere. It’s a hideous global problem. And girls in every country are in danger.

Clearly Female Genital Mutilation is not just an African problem. See full infographic from the Orchid Project.

Girls you share a classroom with, pass on the street or see on the bus in the morning could be stolen away tomorrow and mutilated. That’s not an exaggeration. Many girls are told they’re going ‘on holiday’ when really they are taken to Asia or Africa to be cut. This is despite 26 countries in Africa and the Middle East making it illegal. It is illegal in the UK too, and so is taking a British national abroad for the procedure. Both carry a maximum sentence of 14 years in prison.

It’s still happening though. FGM is carried out in secret, behind closed doors. Because it’s usually instigated by family members, victims don’t want to come forward out of guilt or fear. They don’t want their families to be punished. Often they are too young to fully understand that what has been done to them is illegal as well as immoral.

Without testimonies and evidence from witnesses and victims, it is very hard to catch the perpetrators. Despite FGM being illegal in the UK for over 30 years, the first convictions for the crime only happened last year. Another reason it’s still so widespread is that up until recently, it was not on many people’s agenda in the Western world.

What can be done?

Luckily that’s changing. At the recent Girl Summit in London, David Cameron announced that doctors, social workers and teachers must report FGM if they see it. He also stated that parents would be criminalised if they allowed their daughters to be cut.

Channel 4 showed a fantastic documentary last year by FGM survivor Leyla Hussain: The Cruel Cut. It followed her journey to raise awareness of the practice, both among the general public and in parliament.

Support groups and charities such as the Orchid Project have been set up, and campaign for a world without mutilation. Many aim to change cultural perceptions of the practice by working with respected figures in local communities to change public opinion.

The issue is even being portrayed in popular culture: in April the medical drama Casualty ran two episodes featuring FGM. The more we discuss this issue, whether in homes, schools or in parliament, the closer we get to stamping it out. Michael Gove, former education secretary, wrote to every school in England to warn teachers about the practice, and inform them of new guidelines to help keep girls safe. This was after a successful public campaign in The Guardian. Some are calling for lessons about FGM to be part of the national curriculum, possibly for PSHE-type subjects.

But what can I do?

There is plenty that you can do to end FGM. You can raise awareness by sharing articles and research on social media. Good old face-to-face talking is just as important too. Tell your friends, co-workers, parents, anyone who doesn’t know about it. If you think this should be talked about in schools, speak to your headteacher and ask for it to be included in lessons.

If you or anyone you know is at risk of FGM, PLEASE contact the police immediately. Female genital mutilation is cruel, unnecessary and is an abuse of human rights.

If you don’t want to speak to the police (although I would urge you to if you have even the slightest suspicion), the NSPCC runs a 24-hour, free helpline for anyone who is worried on 0800 028 3550. If you think a girl may have been taken out of the country already to be cut elsewhere, call the Foreign and Commonwealth office on 020 7008 1500.