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By Senani P

Secret Scars: The Hidden Issue of Female Genital Mutilation


Whilst the age at which FGM is carried out can vary with local tradition and customs, it is most commonly performed on girls between birth and age 15[7]. Traditionally, the procedure is carried out by women with no medical training and often without the use of anaesthetics or antiseptic treatment. It is associated with a wide range of health risks and physical short-term and long-term complications. The mortality rate of girls undergoing FGM is unknown, but studies suggest that it could be as high as 1%[8]. Complications vary depending on the type of the procedure and the age of the girl at the time of the cutting, but they tend to be more severe the more extensive the procedure is. Short-term consequences include severe pain, shock, excessive bleeding and infection. In the long-term FGM may lead to chronic pain conditions, infections, and scarring. WHO findings have also shown that women who have undergone FGM carry a significantly higher risk for adverse events during childbirth. Besides the physical consequences, the procedure has also been linked to an increased likelihood of post-traumatic stress disorders, as well as depression and anxiety[9].

It is estimated that world wide between 100 and 140 million girls and women have undergone some form of FGM and another 30 million are at risk of being cut in the next decade.[10] The practice is most prevalent in 29 countries across Africa and the Middle East, however this does not mean that it is entirely absent in other parts of the world. Due to increased international migration FGM is no longer restricted to the traditionally practising countries. 66,000 women in the United Kingdom are said to live with the consequences of FGM and it is estimated that up to 20,000 girls could be at risk, thus making the UK the country with the highest levels of FGM in the whole of Europe[11]. Nevertheless, the true extent of the issue remains unknown due to the ‘hidden’ nature of the crime and actual figures could in fact be much higher. There are real concerns that girls at risk could either be forced to undergo FGM in the UK, or be taken back to their country of origin for the procedure to be carried out during school holidays.

Genital Mutilation in the UK

This raises the question of what is being done in the UK to protect women and girls at risk of being mutilated. A first glance at the law seems to paint a largely positive picture. FGM was first outlawed in the UK almost 30 years ago by the Female Circumcision Act 1985. The Act made it an offence for anyone to “excise, infibulate, or otherwise mutilate the whole or any part of the labia majora or labia minora or clitoris of another person” or “to aid, abet, or procure the performance by another person of any of these acts on that other person’s own body.” In 2003 the Female Genital Mutilation Act extended the previous legislation, increasing the maximum penalty from five to 14 years also making it an offence for a UK national to aid, abet, counsel or procure another person to perform an act of female genital mutilation, even if carried out beyond the borders of the United Kingdom.

Despite the fact that the legislation seems to provide sound protection in principle, 28 years after its original enactment there has not been a single prosecution for FGM in the UK.  That is to say not only has there never been a conviction for carrying out the procedure, but no attempts have been made to try anyone suspect of carrying on the practice. Arguably, this sends an unintended message to perpetrators that whilst not lawful, the UK will at least turn a blind eye on the crime. Evidence suggests that due to the lack of enforcement some communities in the UK have developed the belief that it is unlikely for individuals to be prosecuted[12].

Recently, the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) announced it was considering whether to bring charges in five cases. Confronted with the issue, Keir Starmer Director of Public Prosecutions has recently denied any failures in addressing the problem. Instead he explained the lack of prosecutions as due to the victims’ reluctance to come forward and their unwillingness to give evidence.

About Eva Brockschmidt

Eva Brockschmidt is a former Junior Fellow at the HSC. She is currently studying for a Law degree at University College London, having previously studied International Relations and Psychology at the University of Otago in New Zealand. Her research interests include the Middle East and Sub-Saharan Africa, as well as counter-terrorism strategies, good governance and gender issues in the developing world.