What is FGM?

Female Genital Mutilation (often referred to as FGM) is a destructive operation, during which the female genitals are partly or entirely removed or injured with the goal of inhibiting a woman’s sexual feelings. Most often the mutilation is performed before puberty, often on girls between the age of four and eight, but recently it is increasingly performed on nurslings who are only a couple of days, weeks or months old. It has no health benefits or religious basis.

The World Health Organisation (WHO): types of FGM

The WHO classifies Female Genital Mutilation into four major types:
1. Clitoridectomy: partial or total removal of the clitoris and, in very rare cases, only the prepuce.
2. Excision: partial or total removal of the clitoris and the labia minora, with or without excision of the labia majora.
3. Infibulation: narrowing of the vaginal opening through the creation of a covering seal. The seal is formed by cutting and repositioning the inner, or outer, labia, with or without removal of the clitoris.
4. Other: all other harmful procedures to the female genitalia for non-medical purposes; e.g. pricking, piercing, incising, scraping and cauterizing the genital area.

Why does FGM happen?

Female genital cutting is a social norm. This means that it is held in place by the entire community. One individual acting alone cannot shift a social norm – the entire community must work together collectively. Men and women often support FGM without question because it is a traditional practice that has existed in a community for generations. Many communities believe that a girl needs to be cut in order to marry well. Despite the fact that it is harmful to women, FGM is sometimes seen as an issue that women confer onto other girls. Even if a mother does not want her daughter to be cut because of her own painful experience, she is unlikely to forego the practice because of the social sanctions in place.

FGM and religion

FGM has been reported to be practiced by followers of many different religions: Muslims, Catholics, Jews, Animists and Christian Coptics. It is important to stress that there is no basis in any of the various religious texts for FGM, and FGM predates most modern religions – including Christianity and Islam. The association between FGM and religious obligation is assumed to be the result of historic concurrence and incorrect interpretation and teaching of religious texts.

One commonly held misconception about FGM is that it is prescribed within the Islamic religion. Whilst it is practiced by many Muslim communities in the genuine belief that it is demanded by Islam, there is no sustainable evidence to suggest that it is an Islamic religious requirement.

The role of circumcisors

Another significant factor in the continuation of the practice of FGM is the status and vested interests of circumcisors within affected communities. The role of circumcisors varies within the ethnic groups practising FGM. In Somalia for instance, they have no special respect, while in West Africa they wield much power and have considerable status within traditional power structures. In Sierra Leone, the circumcisors are considered to be priestesses by their followers – they control the ‘secret societies’ and commonly have extended roles as counsellors and consultants in mother and child care. In Mali, they are often the gatekeepers of traditional power bases for women, feared and respected by women and the community at large. FGM is an irreplaceable source of revenue for the circumcisors and any challenge to FGM not only threatens this revenue, but is also perceived as an attack on the respected older women of the community.

Main FGM complications

Childbirth complications: There are a range of childbirth complications that can be associated with FGM, particularly with Type 3 FGM (infibulation). The extent of the complications varies depending on factors such as the type of FGM, parity, and the nature of the scar tissue.

Psychosocial complications: There is very limited research on the impact of FGM on psychological health. The research that has been conducted is sparse and as FGM is condoned in many of the countries where it is practiced, research is likely to have been limited by social and cultural restrictions on the exploration of any negative impacts of the practice.
Some of the negative psychological effects that have been reported include feelings of anxiety, fear, bitterness and betrayal, loss of trust, suppression of feelings, feelings of incompleteness, loss of self esteem, panic disorders and difficulty with body image. When considering the psychosocial consequences of FGM, it is important to balance the traumatic impact of the initial FGM procedure and its long-term consequences, against the social and cultural benefits that FGM brings to young girls in the communities where it is practiced.

UK Law and FGM

FGM is illegal in the UK. It’s also illegal to take a British national or permanent resident abroad for FGM or to help someone trying to do this. The maximum sentence for carrying out FGM or helping it to take place is 14 years in prison.

For confidential advice and support or for further information, please contact Sagal and her team.