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No medical justification for female genital mutilation

3 July 2013

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Female Genital Mutilation (sometimes called female circumcision) is a deeply rooted tradition practiced by specific ethnic groups in Africa, Asia and the Middle East, writes Professor Sarah Creighton of the UCL Institute for Women's Health.

FGM comprises various procedures which remove or damage the external female genital organs for no medical reason.  A variety of reasons for FGM are cited by practising communities but the single underlying and unifying reason is the control of sexuality in women.  FGM is almost always carried out on children and is recognised as a violation of the human rights of girls and women and an extreme form of discrimination against women.

FGM has no health benefits. The procedure is often performed in unsterile conditions and without pain relief. The child is usually forcibly restrained while the external genitalia are removed using a knife, scalpel or other sharp tool such as a razor blade or piece of glass.  Short term risks include death, haemorrhage, sepsis, tetanus, gangrene and damage to other adjacent organs such as the bladder and bowel. 

Medium and long term risks include painful menstruation and intercourse, infertility as well as psychosexual and psychological difficulties. A further procedure may be needed to open the vagina to allow sexual intercourse and vaginal birth. There are increased risks at the time of vaginal birth which include haemorrhage, tearing of the lower vagina and death of the baby.

It is estimated that 140 million girls and women are living with the consequences of FGM and that a further 3 million girls undergo FGM in Africa each year. FGM is increasingly identified in the UK amongst migrants from FGM practising countries.  It has been illegal to perform FGM in the UK since 1985 and in 2003 the law was extended to make it illegal to take a child or woman out of the UK for FGM. 

There are concerns that FGM may be available within the UK but to date there have been no successful prosecutions. It is essential that cultural sensitivities do not hinder the ability to safeguard children against the irreversible physical and psychological damage caused by this abhorrent practice. 

Further Reading

  1. World Health Organisation Female Genital Mutilation Fact Sheet 241. www.who.int/mediacentre/factsheets/fs241/en/WHO
  2. www.forwarduk.org
  3. www.equalitynow.org