Content warning: female genital mutilation

by Lauren Marsh

“Because women and girls are not valued equally as human beings, they are treated as less than such. Female genital mutilation is an example of this that has to be stopped” –Waris Dirie

I have just returned from spending 3 months volunteering in Nigeria with Voluntary Service Overseas (VSO) as part of the ICS programme. International Citizen Service (ICS) is a once-in-a-lifetime volunteering opportunity open to all 18-25 year olds, backed by the UK government.

There is a strong emphasis on guided learning for the volunteers and to engage with this all volunteers had to take part in something called an ACD (Active Citizenship Day) — the aim of which is to present a global issue to the rest of the team to raise awareness and encourage them to instigate change. My Nigerian host home counterpart Bunmi and I presented ours on the subject of FGM (female genital mutilation.)

As February 6th was the International Day for Zero Tolerance of Female Genital Mutilation, here are some of the key facts regarding FGM:

  • FGM (female genital mutilation) or female circumcision is a procedure carried out on female genital organs for non-medical purposes.
  • It occurs usually before puberty, but mainly to girls before the age of 15
  • 140 million girls worldwide have been subjected to FGM (that is over twice the UK population)

(Fahma Mohamed (C) and fellow anti-FGM campaigners deliver a petition to parliament © Christian Sinibaldi)

There are 4 different stages of FGM

  1. Clitorodectamy – the removal of all or part of a girls clitoris and/or pupace
  2. Excision – removing part or all of a girls clitoris and inner lips with or without removal of the outer lips
  3. Infibulation – narrowing of a girls vaginal opening by repositioning the labia to form a seal
  4. All other procedures including pricking and piercing.
  • It’s a cultural, not a religious practice
  • It is NOT the same as a male circumcision which is a health beneficial procedure that extracts REMOVABLE tissue and REDUCES the spread of HIV.
  • FGM INCREASES the risk of HIV as it is often performed using unsterile equipment such as corrugated metal sheets, broken glass
  • FGM can cause many short term illnesses such as tetanus, infections, severe pain and bleeding
  • It can also cause long term illnesses such as pain and discomfort during sex, chronic pain, infection, cysts, abscesses, difficulties with periods and fertility problems.
  • It can cause severe psychological trauma including flashbacks and depression
  • It increases child mortality rates.

(Valentine Nkoyo read out Hana Gibremedhen’s personal account of FGM t a national conference which took place in Nottingham, England © Ben Ireland)

  • There are 66000 cases of FGM in England and Wales with approximately 219 cases in London alone.
  • It is estimated that approximately 60,000 girls aged 0-14 were born in England and Wales to mothers who had undergone FGM
  • An estimated 137,000 women are affected by FGM
  • The summer school holidays are known as the ‘cutting season’ as many British nationals are taken to their countries of origin to be cut and given time to ‘heal’.
  • UK communities that are most at risk of FGM include Kenyan, Somali, Sudanese, Sierra Leonean, Egyptian, Nigerian and Eritrean. Non-African communities that practise FGM include Yemeni, Afghani, Kurdish, Indonesian and Pakistani.

FGM is a term that we don’t really hear about in the UK. A term that is often associated with Africa, the Middle East and the developing world at large, but the truth is it happens here in the UK more frequently than any of us would want to believe. According to the NSPCC website, there could be as many as 23000 girls under 15 years old at risk of being subjected to FGM in the UK alone.

FGM is a pretty heavy subject matter, but I did not anticipate the response we got from our fellow team members during our ACD, many of whom were learning about FGM for the first time. I noticed that most of the Nigerian volunteers had more knowledge of FGM and had all heard of it, whereas some of the UK volunteers had absolutely no idea that this kind of practice occurred, let alone in the UK, or to so many women globally. After our presentation, many of the group were visibly upset and horrified that they were unaware that this issue was happening on their doorsteps. It wasn’t just ‘yet another global third world issue’.

Sometimes education is the best key. If you’re reading this and you’d never really heard of FGM or didn’t know that it happens at an alarming rate in the UK, hopefully now you’ve gained some knowledge to spread the word. Maybe even persuade people to adjust their perspectives. Who knows, spreading the word might generate the action we need to end this barbaric practice forever.

For further information:

Featured image: In Mauritania, girls participate in an awareness-raising campaign rally to end FGM/C, facilitated by UNICEF implementing partner CORDAK, a Consortium of 54 NGOs which implement UNICEF’s child protection programmes in Assaba district © UNICEF/UN05212/Dragaj


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