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Female genital mutilation (FGM)

Female genital mutilation (FGM), sometimes also called female circumcision or cutting, is a procedure carried out on girls and young women which involves removing some or all of their external genitals.

In 1997, the World Health Organization (WHO), UNICEF and UNFPA defined FGM as “all procedures involving partial or total removal of the external female genitalia or other injury to the female genital organs whether for cultural or other non-therapeutic reasons.” The UN has recognised FGM as a form of torture, and has called for it to be eliminated.

FGM is illegal in the UK, and it’s also illegal to take someone out of the country to make them have FGM in a country where it isn’t against the law. The maximum sentence for carrying out FGM, or helping it to take place, is 14 years in prison. Read the government’s statement opposing FGM.

Despite this, the charity Equality Now estimates that 137,000 women and girls who live in the UK have been affected by FGM, while the UK government says that 60,000 girls aged under 15 are thought to be at risk – find out more information. Globally, over 130 million girls and women around the world have had FGM, according to UNICEF.

Speak to someone

If you are worried that you might be at risk of FGM, or that someone you know might be, it’s really important to speak to someone you trust, like a teacher or a doctor. There are also lots of organisations which can help and you will always be taken seriously. Call the NSPCC’s FGM helpline on 0800 028 3550 or email fgmhelp@nspcc.org.uk

Why is FGM carried out and who is most at risk?

FGM is practiced in 29 African countries, the Middle East, South East Asia, and rural communities in Southern Asia and Southern America. It’s a global practice that differs in the way it is done according to the communities and their traditions. Many people who carry out FGM believe it brings health benefits, even though the WHO says that it has no health benefits, and in fact the short term and long term consequences of FGM can be very severe and harmful.

Some people think that making girls have FGM is required by their religion, but this isn’t true. People from lots of different religions practise FGM even though it is not encouraged or promoted by any religious text.

FGM is also seen as making girls and women ‘clean’, or ‘worthy’; lots of parents make their daughters have FGM because they worry that no one will want to marry her unless she has been ‘cut’.

In communities where FGM is seen as traditional and necessary, there can be a lot of pressure put on girls, and their families, to have FGM. This makes it hard for girls and young women who are at risk to speak out, and to seek help.

The people most at risk of FGM in the UK are girls and young women who come from or who have strong family links to countries where FGM is common. They might have been born in another country and have come to live in the UK, or they might have been born in the UK and have parents who are originally from another country. It doesn’t matter where someone was born, though – no one has the right to force anyone to have FGM. If you’re even the smallest bit worried, about yourself or about another person, please talk to a trusted adult or contact a specialist organisation (see the list at the bottom of this page). Alternatively you can contact the NSPCC’s FGM helpline on 0800 028 3550 or email fgmhelp@nspcc.org.uk.

The different types of FGM

All types of FGM are illegal in the UK, and in many countries around the world – if you or someone else you know is at risk, it doesn’t matter which type it is, you should talk to an adult you trust, like a teacher or nurse, as soon as possible. You can also contact the NSPCC’s FGM helpline on 0800 028 3550 or email fgmhelp@nspcc.org.uk.

labelled diagram of vulva

The World Health Organization (WHO) has come up with the following system for naming the different types of FGM:

Type 1
This involves the removal of the clitoris – either all of it or some of it – and/or the clitoral hood, the fold of skin which usually surrounds and protects the clitoris.
Type 2
The removal, in full or in part, of the clitoris and the inner labia. Sometimes the outer labia are cut away, too.
Type 3
The opening to the vagina is made narrower by stitches. This is also called “infibulation”. The inner and outer labia may also be cut away, either totally or in part. This type of FGM often causes huge problems with peeing and having periods, as there is only a tiny hole for liquids to flow through.
Type 4
The WHO says this is ‘All other harmful procedures to the female genitalia for non-medical purposes, for example: stretching of the labia, pricking, piercing, incising [cutting into], scraping and cauterization [burning with a hot object such as a knife]’.

See the WHO site for more information.

How and when FGM is carried out

FGM is carried out on girls and young women ranging in age from just a few days old right up to their teens. It often happens between the ages of five and eight, but older girls and teenagers are also at risk.

It is known that FGM is sometimes carried out in the UK and sometimes, girls are taken back to where their family is from during the summer holidays for FGM to be carried out. In either case, FGM is illegal.

The way that FGM is carried out changes country by country, and community by community. Usually though, the person doing the procedure is an older woman, and it may be done on one girl at a time or several from the same village or community as part of a group.

In lots of cases, and especially when the person carrying out the FGM is not a doctor or nurse, no painkillers are used. Traditional tools for FGM may include knives, razors, glass, rocks, scissors, or fingernails. If tools like this are used, the risk of infection is much higher, especially if lots of girls are cut using the same item. In some countries, like Egypt, where over 91% of women undergo FGM, medical professionals (doctors and/or nurses) are often the ones doing the cutting. But even when FGM is carried out by a doctor or nurse, it is still wrong, and still causes pain and suffering for the people who have it done to them.

The effects of FGM

FGM has a huge range of consequences, and causes great damage to physical and emotional health.

Depending on the type of FGM that was carried out, short term consequences can include uncontrollable bleeding, being unable to wee, and many different kinds of infections – any or all of which can be fatal.

The long term consequences are just as severe. The scars left by FGM are physical and mental, and can last for a lifetime. Women who have had FGM are often at greater risk of infection and nerve damage. Some women and girls find they have frequent urinary tract infections so that it burns when they wee. Your period can be extremely painful or may take longer than it should, and having sex is often made really difficult and uncomfortable. Before having sex for the first time, lots of women who have had Type 3 FGM have to be ‘cut open’ to allow the penis access to their vaginas, meaning another painful and intrusive operation. FGM can sometimes cause infertility (not being able to get pregnant and have a baby), and it also makes pregnancy and childbirth more risky, for both child and mother.

If you have had FGM and would like any kind of advice, go to FGM charity Daughters of Eve. You could also talk confidentially to a doctor or nurse. Read more about FGM health services.

If you’ve had FGM, you don’t need to be embarrassed or scared about looking for help. You won’t be in trouble, and you won’t be forced to say who did it to you, either, if you don’t want to. It’s your right to get the proper treatment for it, and it can be really important for your health and wellbeing.

Many of the physical side effects of FGM can be made less severe by treatment from doctors and nurses. Surgery can be performed to open up the lower vagina, although if sensitive tissue has been removed during FGM, this cannot be restored.

Mental health can also be affected by FGM, with some people reporting they feel depressed and anxious afterwards – flashbacks can be another consequence. Seeing a counsellor or a therapist can really help. See our useful links at the bottom of this page.

Women discuss their personal experiences of FGM

In this NHS video, journalist and broadcaster Susan Bookbinder talks with four women about how they would like to see professionals hold sensitive conversations about female genital mutilation (FGM), including what actions to take to safeguard vulnerable girls.

Trigger warning

This content contains a description of female genital mutilation.

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