What is FGC?
Female Genital Cutting (FGC), also known as female circumcision, or more popularly, as female genital mutilation (FGM) is a practice that consists of removing part of, or the total removal of, the external female genitalia. The World Health Organization has identified four different forms of FGC:
- Clitoridectomy, which consists of removing the clitoris (this is also considered the least harmful form of the practice).
- Excision, which comprises of removing both the clitoris and labia minora.
- Infibulation, which is the removal of the clitoris, and cutting of the labia minora and majora. This is the most harmful of all four: it can cause shock from pain whilst the girl is being cut, and long-term effects such as severe pain during her menstrual cycle, as well as during childbirth.
- The fourth form includes pricking or piercing the vagina for non-medical reasons.
This practice has a high prevalence in many African countries, but also in India and Malaysia. Due to migration movements it is now also practiced in Europe amongst the diaspora. Reasons for its continuance include rite of passage, aesthetically pleasing, morality and sexuality. Whilst religion is often used to justify the practice, FGC is thought to predate Islam and Christianity.
Women’s Rights or Child’s Rights? – The Case in Britain
The UK legislation regarding FGC is in the 2015 Serious Crimes Act, and applies to England and Wales. It treats FGC as a crime and a form of child abuse. The law can be found under the section ‘Protection of Children and Others’, amongst laws on child sexual exploitation and domestic abuse. By showcasing the anti-FGC legislation as a matter of child protection, the government had a stronger mandate to pass such legislation that would allow not only early intervention, but also punitive measures.
Presenting FGC as a form of breaching the rights of a child is relatively new – normally FGC is seen as a women’s rights issue. However, most people tend to shy away from standing against the practice because whilst it does harm the women, it also is a deeply ingrained tradition; so before the current legislation has been enacted, NGOs and governments may have felt that they were out of their depth, especially when campaigning for stricter laws or raising awareness. In The Cruel Cut, Leila Hussein uses ‘fake petitions’ for keeping FGC legal; many British people on the street sign her petition, agreeing with her that Britain should not get involved in cultural traditions because it is not our place.
The UK’s decision to present FGC as a child’s rights issue takes the cultural barrier away, as child protection is more widely accepted. With regards to human rights, a child is seen as having less agency than a woman has, and so it is widely accepted that a child requires more protection and intervention to safeguard its rights. The government’s message is clear: the practice is harmful to the child, and so tradition is no longer an acceptable reason to continue it. Simply, the practice will not be tolerated in a society that holds high regard for individual rights.
The 2015 Act addresses FGC in a more explicit and punitive manner than the 2003 Female Genital Mutilation Act, which has been regarded as a failure by the government and campaigners for not resulting in a conviction. The 2003 Act was brief, merely stating that to practice FGC was illegal in the country. Basically, it seemed to be a legislation on paper, with no real accountability or care for the situation.
The new Act addresses these lacunae. Firstly, the law makes parents or guardians responsible for protecting the child from FGC. Secondly, the state has the right to intervene if the girl has been, or is at risk, of being cut. Lastly, the welfare services are now accountable and must protect the child. Welfare services include health professionals, teachers and Welsh social care workers. They have up to 1 month to report the crime to the police. If they fail to do so, they will be prosecuted.
Another section also addresses the responsibility of the parent more explicitly. In the case that the girl is away from her parents/ guardians temporarily, the parents/ guardians are still regarded as being responsible for her well-being and safety. Such a measure has most likely been introduced because many girls are cut during the summer holidays when the parents send their child abroad to their extended family, usually the grandparents, who have them cut. This legislation ensures that the parents must communicate clearly with their family to not harm the girl. The government has a leaflet that has been translated into the languages where FGC is most commonly practiced, stating what the potential consequences would be for the parents if the girl is returned to them after the holidays harmed.
The training of the welfare services has just begun, and so it is too soon to know what the consequences of the legislation will be. It has been criticized for potentially driving the practice further underground, for portraying parents as the criminals as they are most likely to be the offender, and for breaching healthcare confidentiality as now healthcare professionals must report cases of FGC to the police if they come across it. Whatever the consequences may be, for many girls this legislation will be their saviour. There are clear protective measures to safeguard the wellbeing and rights of the girl.
Want to learn more about FGC? Here are some resources for anyone who would like to learn more about the practice:
- Waris Dirie – ‘Desert Flower’, ‘Desert Dawn’, ‘Desert Children’, and ‘Saving Safa’. Waris Dirie is a formal model, and now a UN anti-FGC activist. She herself was cut around the age of 4/5 in Somalia.
- Aimee Molloy, ‘However Long The Night’. Follow Molly Melching’s journey to Senegal where she built her NGO ‘Tostan’.
- The Guardian’s ‘End FGM’ Campaign. This consists of articles updating the reader with the situation regarding combatting FGC globally.
- ‘The Cruel Cut’ documentary, 2013. Featuring Leila Hussein, this documentary discusses the situation in Britain.
For further information on what is happening in Britain right now, visit:
- FORWARD (http://forwarduk.org.uk) This is the UK organization fighting FGC, child and forced marriage and obstetric fistula.