Female genital mutilation: abuse unchecked Contents


Background to this report

1.Our predecessor Committee published two reports on female genital mutilation (FGM) towards the end of the last Parliament. Its over-riding conclusion in July 2014 was that “FGM is a severe form of gender-based violence, and where it is carried out on a girl, it is an extreme form of child abuse. Everyone who has a responsibility for safeguarding children must view FGM in this way. While welcoming action taken by the Government and the impressive work undertaken by campaigners, the follow-up report, published in March 2015, concluded that insufficient progress had been made in tackling this pernicious problem, particularly in relation to prosecutions.1 We therefore decided it was right to revisit this issue to assess whether further positive developments had taken place.

2.In July 2016 we hosted a roundtable discussion on FGM that brought together survivors, grassroots organisations, clinicians, representatives from the criminal justice system and educationalists. In recent years the profile of FGM has risen significantly across Parliament, the media and the public, largely as a result of the tireless efforts by campaigners and public servants including those who attended the roundtable.2 We would like to thank all those who contributed to the discussion as well as those who attended the event as invited guests in the audience. The roundtable informed an evidence session with Karen Bradley MP, the then Minister for Preventing Abuse, Exploitation and Crime, on 12 July 2016.3

The nature, scale and geographical spread of FGM

3.The World Health Organization (WHO) defines female genital mutilation as “all procedures involving the partial or total removal of the external female genitalia or other injury to the female genital organs for non-medical reasons”.4 There are four main types:

International bodies such as the United Nations and the WHO are unanimous that FGM has no health benefits and leads to short- and long-term physical and psychological harm. In the short term, FGM can result in severe pain, excessive bleeding, fever, urinary problems and even death. Longer-term effects include menstrual problems, difficulties in childbirth, sexual problems and psychological trauma.6

4.FGM is practised in more than 29 African countries and by certain ethnic groups in the southern part of the Arabian Peninsula and along the Persian Gulf. It is concentrated in the Horn of Africa but it is also highly prevalent in other countries in North, East and West Africa.7 The WHO has also reported FGM in India, Indonesia, Iraq, Kurdistan, Israel, Malaysia and the United Arab Emirates.8 It has been estimated that more than 200 million women worldwide have been subjected to FGM and three million girls are believed to be at risk each year.9 The map below shows the percentage of women and girls aged 15 to 49 years who have been subjected to FGM in countries where it is most prevalent.

Figure 1: Percentage of girls and women aged 15 to 49 years who have undergone FGM/C, by country

Source: Unicef, Female Genital Mutilation/Cutting: a statistical overview and exploration of the dynamics of change, July 2013, page 26

5.Worldwide, the incidence of FGM is falling. Girls are a third less likely to be subjected to it today than they were 30 years ago. In part, that is the result of a surge in activity over the last 25 years to eradicate FGM, with efforts to collect more useful data to enhance understanding of the practice and its prevalence.10 Unfortunately the pace of the decline is not spread evenly. Low prevalence countries have reduced the practice faster than high prevalence countries; in Egypt, Djibouti and Somalia, for example, FGM remains almost universal. Furthermore, the current rate of progress in eliminating FGM is not sufficient. Population growth, particularly in Africa, means that on current trends the number of girls subjected to FGM will grow from 133 million now to 196 million in 2050.11

6.The reasons FGM is performed vary from one region to another as well as over time. There is a common assumption that FGM has a basis in religion; that is false. Religious leaders take different positions on the practice—some promote it, some consider it irrelevant to religion, and others contribute to its elimination. In some ethnic groups, FGM can be seen as a rite of passage to adulthood and a prerequisite for marriage. It is often motivated by beliefs about what is considered acceptable sexual behaviour in that sometimes it is done to ensure premarital virginity and marital fidelity. For some African women, marriage and reproduction are the only means of ensuring economic security and social status. Where it is believed that being cut increases the opportunity to marry, it is more likely to be carried out.12

7.FGM is usually carried out on girls between infancy and the age of 15, with the majority of cases occurring between the ages of five and eight. In most countries it is carried out by a traditional practitioner with no formal medical training, without anaesthetics or antisepsis. Knives, scissors, scalpels, pieces of glass, or razor blades are used. In some countries FGM is now carried out by health professionals but that does not necessarily reduce risk. Inexperience can lead doctors to cut more severely than traditional practitioners. In Egypt a 17 year old girl died during an FGM operation at a private hospital in May 2016.13

FGM in the UK

8.In the UK, the existence of women and girls living with the effects of FGM is almost wholly the result of migration from practising countries. Some have questioned whether FGM can be eradicated in the UK before it is eradicated in Africa.14

9.The practice has been illegal in the UK since 1985 but the covert nature of the crime has made it difficult to prosecute. It took 29 years before the first FGM-related prosecution was brought to trial in the UK. The defendants were found not guilty.

10.The Government has made significant efforts to raise the profile of the dangers of FGM and to identify ways to eradicate it within a generation. In July 2014, the then Prime Minister, Rt Hon David Cameron MP, hosted the UK’s first ever Girl Summit. At the Summit, the Government announced a range of measures to help eradicate FGM which have now been implemented. Those included lifelong anonymity for survivors, legislation to enable parents to be prosecuted if they failed to prevent their daughter being cut, FGM Prevention Orders and a specialist FGM Unit to identify and respond to FGM.15

11.This report provides a further update on the extent to which these measures have been effective in tackling FGM, since our predecessors last reported on this subject in March 2015 and points to the additional action we regard as necessary to combat this criminal activity.

12.FGM is not a religious or cultural rite of passage that deserves protection. When it is inflicted on a woman, it is a horrific crime. When it is inflicted on a girl, it is violent child abuse. It involves young girls’ genitalia being cut with scissors, a razor, a knife or even glass, usually with no anaesthetic or antiseptic. It causes severe physical and psychological pain and leaves survivors with lifelong health consequences. Everyone involved in protecting children needs to be aware of, and prevent, this specific form of abuse. This responsibility also extends to the wider community and to all professionals whose roles bring them into contact with children.

1 Second Report of Session 2014–15, Female genital mutilation: the case for a national action plan, HC 201, para 8; and Sixteenth Report of Session 2014–15, Female genital mutilation: follow-up, HC 961

2 Home Affairs Select Committee, Roundtable Discussion on Female Genital Mutilation, 6 July 2016

3 Oral evidence taken on Female Genital Mutilation, 12 July 2016

4 World Health Organization, Female genital mutilation, Factsheet No. 241, February 2014

6 World Health Organization, Female genital mutilation, Factsheet No. 241, February 2016

9 World Health Organization. Female genital mutilation, Factsheet No. 241, February 2016

13 Guardian, Egyptian girl does during banned female genital mutilation operation, 31 May 2016. FGM has been illegal in Egypt since 2008 but social norms mean the practice is still endemic.

14 Department for International Development, The UK announces a range of measures to end Female Genital Mutilation/Cutting, 6 February 2014

© Parliamentary copyright 2015

13 September 2016