Home / Europe / Secret Scars: The Hidden Issue of Female Genital Mutilation
By Senani P

Secret Scars: The Hidden Issue of Female Genital Mutilation

Indeed, it is true and in fact unsurprising that very few victims of female genital mutilation are willing to come forward, since this means they would have to speak out against their families and communities. The 1985 Act largely ignored this problem in its unrealistic expectation about children giving evidence against their parents. However, while the silence and secrecy surrounding FGM complicates approaching the issue, it can by no means justify or even excuse the lack of prosecutions. After all, the CPS has had 28 years to devise a more effective approach to the problem.

Furthermore, the example set by France, shows that prosecution and conviction in FGM cases is by no means impossible. Unlike Britain, France has been successful in securing over a hundred convictions in FGM cases since the 1980s by relying on a dual strategy of prevention and prosecution. Whilst it has become commonplace there for doctors to perform routine genital check-ups on babies and small children, Britain has been reluctant to adopt any such compulsory examinations.  More importantly it has become clear that the British healthcare system as a whole lacks a general system for reporting FGM cases, even where they are discovered in the course of other medical examinations. This lack of intelligence is one of the main factors hindering prosecution in Britain[13].

In light of these issues, the past year has seen a range of new developments in the area. The CPS launched a new action plan at the end of last year, which aims to improve prosecutions for FGM and is focused amongst other things on collecting more robust case data, as well as ensuring close cooperation between police and prosecutors from the outset. At the same time the UK Government also launched new Practice Guidelines, which are supposed to increase awareness and improve the cooperation of different government agencies in combating FGM in the UK[14]. In addition, the NSPCC with support from the Metropolitan Police Service has set up a helpline, where anyone concerned about the welfare of a child at risk of Female Genital Mutilation can access advice, information and support. Whilst the CPS has announced its review of four cases, in which prosecution was not originally pursued, it remains to be seen how far the change of policy will be successful in procuring the first prosecution under the 2003 Act.

In the meantime, it is worth bearing in mind that even if successful, criminal prosecution on its own is not enough to combat such a deep-rooted and complex problem. While criminal law enforcement can act as a deterrent, it is questionable whether it is sufficient on its own to promote effective behavioural change[15]. After all, FGM is not a straightforward case of child abuse. It differs in so far as it is carried out with the best intentions for the child’s future welfare and with the approval of at least a section of the community in which it is practiced[16]. Accordingly, the issue necessitates a more holistic approach. An inter-agency strategy involving the co-operation of social services, police, child support agencies, immigration services, the medical profession, schools and other institutions is likely to be more effective than any of these could be in tackling the issue on their own. It is hoped that the Government’s Practice Guidelines may go some way in developing awareness and facilitating overall close cooperation.

Besides this, it is important to work with and educate the communities, which practice female genital mutilation in the UK, as a whole, in particular since these sometimes exert substantial pressure on their members to subject their children to the procedure. Any criticism of the practice is likely to be more successful if put forward by a community member, as they understand the cultural backdrop making it more likely for the community to accept what they have to say. Many mothers will insist on their daughters being cut, despite having themselves undergone the physical and emotional trauma of Female Genital Mutilation, because they genuinely believe to be acting in their children’s best interests.

Hence, it is important to give these parents reasons to believe that the procedure may harm rather than benefit their daughters in the short as well as the long run. Empowering people to speak out against FGM in their communities is an important step towards changing the communities attitude as a whole.

Finally, it is essential not to see Female Genital Mutilation as a purely feminist issue. Such a view is confused as it ignores the dominant role men still play in numerous cultures which practice FGM.  It is of central importance for men to be equally included in the process of addressing issues surrounding the practice since many will insist on the procedure being carried out, seeing it as a fundamental requirement for a wife. Whilst victims as well as the circumcisers are normally women, men play a key role in driving and sustaining the practice, making it desirable for them to see that FGM is not in their daughters, sisters, wife’s and ultimately also not in their own best interests.


To summarise, the practice of Female Genital Mutilation in Britain is one that is largely hidden from view. Owing to this circumstance together with the taboos surrounding the custom, FGM is largely ignored by politicians and the public alike. Its criminalisation in Britain 28 years ago may well have prompted the practice to go underground. However, without a single prosecution to show, a message is being sent that FGM may well be tolerated as British institutions remain reluctant to interfere. It remains to be seen whether actions will follow the announcement of the CPS’s so called new approach to the issue. One can only hope that a change in strategy will finally lead to tangible results, as prosecutions in cases of FGM are indispensable to show both victims and perpetrators that Female Genital Mutilation is not a trivial issue.

[1] WHO, Eliminating Female Genital Mutilation: An interagency statement: 4.

[2] J A Black, “Female genital mutilation in Britain”, BMJ Volume 310, 17 June (1995): 1590.

[3] Alexi Nicole Wood, “A Cultural Rite of Passage or a Form of Torture: Female Genital Mutilation from an International Law Perspective”, Hasting’s Women’s L.J. 347 (2001): 356-358.

[4] Ibid.: 351-352.

[5] WHO, Eliminating Female Genital Mutilation: An interagency statement: 10.

[6] Yoder, Abderrahim and Zhuzhuni, Female Genital Cutting in the Demographic and Health Surveys: 19.

[7] WHO, Eliminating Female Genital Mutilation: An interagency statement: 10.

[8] Bohoussou KM, Anongba s, Djanhan Y, Boni S, Blé B, Sangaret MA. Complications gynécologiques, médicales et obstétriques de l’excision rituelle. Afr Méd 1986;25:160–2.

[9] Whitehorn, 2002; Behrendt and Moritz, 2005; Lockhat, 2006.

[10] WHO, Eliminating Female Genital Mutilation: An interagency statement: 7.

[11] Forward, A Statistical Study to Estimate the Prevalence of Female Genital Mutilation in England and Wales, 2007.

[12] J. Hemmings, TackingFGM Special Initiative PEER Research Full Report, Esmee Fairbairn Foundation, London, UK, 2011.

[13] C Gallard, “Female Genital Mutilation in France”, BMJ Volume 310, 17 June (1995): 1592-1593.

[14] HM Government, Multi-Agency Practice Guidelines: Female Genital Mutilation: 2011.

[15] K Brown, D Beecham, and H Barrett, “The Applicability of Behaviour Change in Intervention Programmes Targeted at Ending Female Genital Mutilation in the EU: Integrating Social Cognitive and Community Level Approaches”, Obstetrics and Gynecology International Volume 2013, Article ID: 3-4.

[16] J A Black, “Female genital mutilation in Britain”, BMJ Volume 310, 17 June (1995): 1591.

Eva Brockschmidt is contactable at:


Please cite this article as:

Brockschmidt, E. (2013) ‘Secret Scars: The Hidden Issue of Female Genital Mutilation’. Human Security Centre, Human Rights and Conflict Resolution, Issue 4, No. 1.

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.