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Female Genital Mutilation: Cultural Versus Human Rights

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Chances are you’ve already heard about Female Genital Mutilation since the international movement against it is so eminent these days, but what gets less attention is the fact that every story has two sides. Some experts are questioning the zero-tolerance approach for FGM and are raising doubts about campaign efforts, while others call for urgent action. Is the UK heading for a safe haven or part of a world that upholds cultural rights more than it upholds human rights?

Nobody knows exactly how FGM originated if it began in one place or many places. However, it is known that this kind of practice has been going on for thousands of years and therefore it predates Christianity and Islam. Today FGM embodies many different things in different cultures. For years, traditions of female circumcision were seen as unproblematic. In 1979 it became a hot topic as the Hosken report attempted to document how many girls were being circumcised and in which countries. When Fran Hosken presented her findings, it made waves. Although the term Female Genital Mutilation was considered controversial, women’s groups began to adapt their terminology. Eventually the United Nations started utilizing the term in their official documentation in 1994, followed by the World Health Organisation who designed a classification system describing different types of FGM covered by the umbrella term. This shift in terminology caused policies to change.

FGM involves procedures that intentionally alter or cause injury to the female genital organs for non-medical reasons. According to the WHO there are four types of FGM. It is carried out for various cultural, religious and social reasons e.g. to ensure virginity before marriage and fidelity afterwards or as a girl’s initiation into womanhood. This invasive procedure is non-medical and there are no health benefits at all. In fact, it’s the other way round. This practice may cause serious health issues, including complications during childbirth, problems urinating or menstruating, repeated infections which may lead to infertility, pain or difficulties having sex, mental health problems and even death. It is typically carried out on girls before the age of 15 and traditionally conducted by a woman with no medical training, without anaesthetics or antiseptic treatments, using knives, scissors, pieces of glass or razor blades.

In the UK, FGM has been a criminal offence since 1985 when the UK-wide Prohibition of Female Circumcision Act, also known as the 1985 Act was passed. The Female Genital Mutilation Act 2003 replaced the 1985 Act in England, Wales and Northern Ireland. The Prohibition of Female Genital Mutilation Act 2005 replaced the 1985 Act in Scotland. Type 1 Clitoridectomy: partial or total removal of the clitoris, Type 2 Excision: partial or total removal of the clitoris and labia, Type 3 Infibulation: narrowing of the vaginal opening by creating a seal formed by cutting and repositioning the labia, Type 4 All other harmful procedures to the female genitalia for non-medical purposes including pricking, piercing, cutting, scraping or burning allegedly to purify them for their husbands. Sometimes it’s done to girls because it was done to their mothers, as a rite of passage or a coming-of-age ritual. FGM is not a religious exercise, it isn’t required in any of the holy books. It happens in Christian, Muslim and Jewish communities, but there are no religious texts that say it should be done.

At the start of 2019 the UK (and England in particular) realized its first successful prosecution of an FGM case. However, up until 2019 there had only been 3 other trials involving FGM, that all ended in acquittal. Clearly, these offences have been a difficult legal area for prosecutors.[footnoteRef:8] Here are some important facts and developments that need to be considered regarding a number of problems:

First, the UK’s first prosecution for FGM was not a case of a backstreet clinic offering illegal circumcision, nor the prosecution of parents who have taken their daughter abroad to be subjected to FGM during the so-called cutting season. A doctor stood trial for carrying out FGM after he had delivered a baby, performing a cut to a woman to assist her giving birth, repairingthe mutilation she had suffered during childhood. He was accused of sewing up the woman’s vagina following the birth in ways that allegedly amounted to the reinstitution of FGM (reinfibulation), therefore this case focused on whether a single stitch used by a doctor constituted FGM. The doctor had never seen a woman who had undergone FGM, had never been given training on the subject and had no experience of how to carry out a deinfibulation procedure to assist women who have undergone FGM give birth safely. He obtained her consent to make a cut and since the cut kept on bleeding, he decided to place a suture to stop the bleeding.

The CPS made the charges public a few days before the DPP was to appear for a committee to be questioned over her failure to bring a single prosecution for FGM, therefore this should be regarded as a show trial. Furthermore, the mother did not support the prosecution and made clear her unease being at the centre of the landmark case, which leads us to the next consideration. Due to the hidden nature of the crime, the true extent of FGM is unknown. The Serious Crime Act 2015 brought in mandatory reporting in England and Wales. This duty applies when, in the course of their professional duties, a health or social care professional or teacher discovers that FGM appears to have been carried out on a girl aged under 18, whether it’s disclosed by the victim or noticed by the professional. The latter has caused great concern amongst medical professionals. Some of these women have taken years to tell someone what has happened to them and reporting any teenager who goes to see a doctor for any reason, without their explicit consent could be thought of as a breach of trust. One must create a safe haven for women to speak, so this measure is believed to be counterproductive and given the young age of the potential victims, it’s difficult relying on a child giving evidence against someone so close to them. A surgery called deinfibulation can be performed to open up the vagina. This treatment is known as a reversal, but the procedure doesn’t replace removed tissue and doesn’t undo the damage caused by FGM.

In summary, the CPS can only prosecute based upon evidence, the police can only investigate on the basis of referral and health professionals do not make referrals due to their lack of training or awareness of this procedure. Hence the key to a far better outcome than any prosecution is prevention? Female Genital Mutilation Protection Orders (FGMPO’s) came into force in 2015, enabling certain courts to make orders to protect a girl against the commission of a genital mutilation offence or a girl against whom such an offense has been committed. Not only the victim, but also the police and local authorities, teachers, social workers, friends and relatives are able to obtain an FGMPO without the victim’s consent. Orders with civil restrictions could include the removal of travel documents whenever the courts believe there is a danger that the girl will be taken overseas to be cut, the requirement to live at a named address so the authorities can check on the wellbeing of a potential victim, a mandatory medical examination etc.

Nonetheless, a 10-year-old at risk of FGM has been refused asylum. Her mother was desperately trying to protect her from facing the same abusive intervention she had suffered as a child. The government’s hostile immigration environment extends to refusing asylum claims on the basis of FGM, leaving girls liable to deportation to countries where this practice is common. FGM is an abuse of human rights and is recognized as a ground for asylum. Yet, the Home Office claims that the risk of FGM in such cases is low. They assume the mother can single-handedly protect her daughter from pressure to undergo FGM, or that just because the mother has been cut, it doesn’t mean that her daughter will be cut. The Home Secretary refused the asylum in 2015 and though both social services and the National FGM centre agreed that the girl was at high risk of FGM, the immigration courts turned down appeal applications as well. Social services then applied for a protection order to stop the Home Secretary from removing her, which the court granted. The Home Secretary challenged the Family Court’s power to issue an order stopping deportation and in the end the Family Court accepted it has no power to stop the government from deporting the girl, even though it believes there is a high risk of FGM. The government exposes a conspicuous double standard. On the one hand it claims to be committed to prosecute minority ethnic parents in the UK over FGM, on the other hand it deports girls at high risk of mutilation abroad.

Moreover, to some women this is still an important social right. It’s a day of celebration and due to the ban, there are some negative unintended consequences we mustn’t forget about. The practice has gone underground, in other words, girls are now much younger when they are circumcised and the concept of celebrating has disappeared, leaving the girl with only the cut and now that’s illegal, it’s much harder to get an experienced circumciser. Furthermore, it can cause a dilemma for relatives when something goes wrong, letting the girl bleed to death or getting arrested in the hospital. It’s clear that working with these communities to find an alternative or a softer approach isn’t given serious consideration and very little research has been done about it.

The UK has put increasing efforts into tackling FGM and it’s clear human rights prevail, but you might have been as caught by surprise as I was when reading the above. Up until a few months ago, I hadn’t heard about FGM, let alone the fact that this is even exists in the UK and throughout Europe. Up until a few weeks ago, I didn’t realize there was so much at stake. I was biased and this was clouding my judgement. Looking into this topic made me understand that changing the law isn’t enough to eradicate this practice. Campaigns are often driven by the West and as a result foreign governments have only paid lip service to the idea of banning FGM. Perhaps world leaders should rethink their perspectives as well, because in the end, that’s what it’s all about.

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Female Genital Mutilation: Cultural Versus Human Rights. (2020, October 31). GradesFixer. Retrieved March 25, 2023, from
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