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Tolerance for FGM must end

With possibly around 170,000 women and girls affected, a greater urgency in dealing with female genital mutilation is required, writes HILARY BURRAGE

Today marks the 11th annual celebration of International Zero Tolerance Day.

It marks the historic moment on February 6 2003 when Nigeria's then first lady and spokeswoman for the Campaign Against Female Genital Mutilation Stella Obasanjo made the official declaration of zero tolerance of FGM in Africa.

She made the announcement at a conference organised by the Inter-African Committee on traditional practices affecting the health of women and children.

Subsequently the UN sub-commission on human rights has adopted February 6 as an international awareness day for the approximately 130 million women and girls that the World Health Organisation believes live with FGM.

The campaign has had some success. But it has still shocked many to learn that FGM occurs in Britain and other Western countries - and that here the number of women and girls affected is probably rising.

Indeed Britain is seen as a "European centre" for FGM - not least because unlike elsewhere we have never had a successful prosecution for this child abuse.

In 2007 it was estimated that 20-25,000 British girls were at risk of FGM every year.

By January 2014 that estimate has almost trebled. A new report based on the 2011 census suggests that the number of women and girls affected is possibly around 170,000 and that 65,000 girls under the age of 13 are at risk of mutilation.

Public awareness has risen dramatically. Various hospitals, GPs and schools have woken up to the challenge.

The Crown Prosecution Service says it is close to securing a conviction and the government has pledged £35 million to international NoFGM programmes.

There is a national FGM helpline and some national media outlets including the Morning Star have embraced the issue.

We now know quite a lot about the cultural and social pressures which drive FGM, whether in countries and communities that traditionally practise it or in the west.

With estimates in Britain - not everywhere - still rising, though, there is increasing concern that "alternative," semi-legitimised or "medicalised" forms of FGM akin to "designer vagina" operations are replacing the traditional, dreadful ways of mutilation.

There's one element in the campaigns to stop FGM which is still largely missing is economic analysis.

The damage done is deeply personal - but it translates directly into imposed patriarchy. The origins and continuation of FGM over millennia of FGM can be traced through the interests of powerful men.

This personal and sometimes lethal human rights violation is not "only" an exercise in the control of women by men.

It is also an extraordinarily effective means of controlling ownership of resources.

Daughters in most FGM-practising communities are the property of their fathers until - often at obscenely young ages - they are purchased by their husbands (they may become one of several wives of the same man).

Parents who lack alternative provision may, through selling their daughter either in return for a "bride price" or as a more straightforward sale in cases of child or forced marriage, procure the means to a pension, or the girl's new husband may be expected to provide for them at a later stage.

Once the nature of these post-mutilation transactions are understood the sometimes huge costs of "initiation" - in some communities a whole year's harvest, which explains why the "cutting season" follows the local agricultural year - begins to make sense.

FGM and the entree to adult life which it permits - or rather which if not performed is denied - to young women is a financial investment by fathers to procure a degree of economic security both for the girl herself and for her parents.

An "uncut" woman may not be accorded adult status, but rather anomic non-status. She may be pronounced unclean and refused permission to handle food and water, let alone to marry.

In that case the investment of her parents in bringing her up will have been squandered.

And family finance aside, for the "cutters" this is a core business.

These operators, traditionally older women with no medical training but nowadays, chillingly, quite likely clinicians, have a lucrative and high-status line of work based in aeons of culture, myth, witchcraft or the mantras of secret societies such as the Sande and Poro.

They cannot be expected to relinquish the role willingly.

Nor is FGM simply a matter of good earnings for some. Tragically another outcome is that a significant proportion of the community's adult working population will suffer permanent ill health and this will also affect economic performance.

At best, this consists of low-grade resistance to infections and back pain.

At worst FGM is a killer. Both of the victim herself and sometimes of her baby or babies, either during delivery or later when she is unable to care for them properly - for instance because she has experienced haemorrhage or the unspeakable nightmare of an obstetric fistula.

There is evidence that some communities are turning away from FGM. But it seems that others are adopting it with more certainty, especially those with clinically trained practitioners.

Why does female genital mutilation continue? 

Answers vary, but they include community members failing to share their unease, mutilation as a marker of difference to demonstrate community cohesion against outsiders or, in western societies, against the mainstream, and the increasing influence in some quarters of extremist "faith leaders," almost always self-appointed men.

And then there is the simple truth that for many girls in minority ethnic communities, whether in Britain or elsewhere, they and their parents still do not see bright, autonomous futures ahead of them.

Mutilation may be perceived as insurance against uncertainty, an ascribed route to the "security" of marriage regardless of educational or other achievements.

The tragic truth is that the act of female genital mutilation precludes the very futures which, with wider horizons and more support, many girls would seek.

Some girls and young women escape these consequences and succeed but for others FGM results in leaving school early and entering a life of dependency on male kin.

FGM therefore entrenches male economic control.

Along with the horrifying human damage it surely has an impact on the economies of many communities around the world.

So why isn't the economic cost of FGM becoming central to prevention strategies in international and national development policies?

None of us, in practising communities or not, can afford to countenance this waste of human lives and livelihoods one minute longer.


If you or anyone you know is at risk you can call the national FGM helpline on (0800) 028-3550 or email Hilary Burrage is a consultant sociologist currently working on a book Eradicating Female Genital Mutilation: A UK Perspective. She can be contacted via her website at


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