Q&A: What is female genital mutilation?

A wristband advertising a crackdown on female genital mutilationA wristband advertising a crackdown on female genital mutilation
A wristband advertising a crackdown on female genital mutilation
LEEDS and Sheffield have been revealed as UK centres for the outlawed practice of female genital mutilation, with thousands of cases across the country involving girls as young as five.

Genital mutilation is a harmful traditional practice that involves the partial or total removal of the female genitalia, which the World Health Organisation regards as a “violation of the human rights of girls and women”.

• What is female genital mutilation?

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The World Health Organization defines female genital mutilation (or FGM) as “all procedures involving partial or total removal of the external female genitalia or injury to the female genital organs for non-medical reasons.” The procedure is medically unnecessary and irreversible, and many women’s organisations and health bodies say it damages the health of millions of girls worldwide, and violates their human rights.

• Why is it done?

Some communities say the practice is rooted in local culture - a tradition passed from one generation to the next - and is important for the preservation of cultural identity. Others justify it on hygiene grounds, citing women’s supposed roles as “gatekeepers of their family’s honour”. In some societies, the belief is that girls’ sexual desires must be controlled early to preserve their virginity and prevent immorality.

• Is it illegal in Britain?

Yes, the practise has been illegal in the UK since 1985. Yet there were 165 newly recorded cases reported in Sheffield and 125 in Leeds between April last year and this March. Bradford recorded 55, Hull, 45 and Wakefield 35. Of the newly reported cases 43 involved women and girls born in the UK. FGM is also illegal in the United States, Canada and France.

• What are the penalties?

If convicted in the UK, perpetrators can face up to 14 years in prison. But prosecutions are few, and the process complex. Last year, a three year-old girl in South Yorkshire believed to be at risk was made a ward of court after an investigation by police. A non-molestation order prevented her family from taking the child out of the country - a common practice whereby genital mutilation is carried out during the summer holidays, allowing girls time to “heal” before they return to school.

• At what age do girls undergo FGM?

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It can be carried out at any age, but most women and girls undergo the practice between birth and 15 years. In some cultures, it is used to initiate girls into adulthood and to ensure their marital eligibility.

• In which countries is it practiced?

FGM is practiced in more than 27 countries in the African subcontinent, and in communities in Malaysia and Indonesia in Asia. FGM is also common among migrant communities in North America, Europe, and Australia. Although it is practiced in Egypt, which is predominantly Muslim, it is not practiced in many other countries with predominantly Muslim populations, such as Saudi Arabia and Pakistan.

• Does any religion condone the practice?

It is not unique to any religion, and predates Christianity and Islam. However, although some believe the practice is compulsory for followers of Islam, the association has been refuted by many Muslim scholars who say that it is not prescribed in the Koran and is contradictory to its teachings. FGM is practiced among some adherents of the Christian and Jewish faiths.

• What’s the difference between female genital mutilation and female circumcision?

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They are basically terms used to describe the same or similar procedure. Human rights groups have taken to using the first term because they say it emphasises the harm associated with the practice.

• What are some of the effects of the practice?

Physical health implications may include severe bleeding or haemorrhaging, shock from the pain associated with the procedure, risk of infections - especially when unsterile cutting instruments are used or if they are used on several girls at once - and urinary retention. Long-term complications include anaemia, cysts, scarring, difficulty passing urine, menstrual disorders, recurrent urinary tract infections, fistulas, prolonged labour, and infertility. Women who have experienced run a greater risk of complications during childbirth. Pregnant women carry a greater risk of needing a caesarean section or an episiotomy and may experience postpartum haemorrhage.

Mental and emotional health implications may include depression, anxiety, phobias, post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), psychosexual problems, and other mental health problems.