1. What is Female Genital Mutilation?

Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) is a procedure where the female genital organs are deliberately cut, injured or changed and there is no medical reason for this. It is often a very traumatic and violent act and can cause harm in many ways, including pain and infection, mental health problems, difficulties in childbirth and/or death (see Section 2, Consequences of Female Genital Mutilation).

The age at which FGM is carried out varies according to the community. The procedure may be carried out on new-born infants, during childhood or adolescence or just before marriage or during a woman’s first pregnancy. There is no religious reason, in the Bible or Koran for example, for FGM and religious leaders from all faiths have spoken out against the practice. The exact number of girls and women alive today who have undergone FGM is unknown; however, UNICEF estimates that over 200 million girls and women worldwide have had FGM procedures.

FGM has been classified by the World Health Organisation (WHO) into four types:

  • type 1 – clitoridectomy: part or total removal of the clitoris (a small, sensitive and erectile part of the female genitals) and, in very rare cases, only the prepuce (the fold of skin surrounding the clitoris);
  • type 2 – excision: removal of part or all of the clitoris and the labia minora, with or without excision of the labia majora (the labia are the ‘lips’ that surround the vagina);
  • type 3 – infibulation: narrowing the vaginal opening by creating a covering seal. The seal is formed by cutting and repositioning the inner, or outer, labia, with or without removal of the clitoris; and
  • type 4 – other: all other harmful procedures to the female genitals for non-medical reasons, for example pricking, piercing, incising, scraping and cauterising (burning) the genital area.

Under the Female Genital Mutilation Act 2003, FGM is a criminal offence and a form of violence against women and girls. This chapter, however, only references women. For information about FGM in relation to girls, please see Female Genital Mutilation, LLR Safeguarding Children Partnership Procedures.

2. Consequences of Female Genital Mutilation

There are no health benefits to FGM. Removing and damaging healthy female genital tissue interferes with the natural functions of women’s bodies.

2.1 Immediate effects

The immediate effects of FGM include:

  • severe pain;
  • shock;
  • haemorrhage;
  • wound infections;
  • urinary retention;
  • injury to adjacent tissues;
  • genital swelling;
  • death.

2.2 Long term consequences

The long term consequences of FGM include:

  • genital scarring; genital cysts and keloid (a thick) scar formation;
  • re-occurring urinary tract infections and difficulties in passing urine;
  • possible increased risk of blood infections such as hepatitis B and HIV
  • pain during sex, lack of pleasurable sensation and impaired sexual function;
  • psychological concerns such as anxiety, flashbacks and post traumatic stress disorder;
  • difficulties with menstruation (periods);
  • complications in pregnancy or childbirth (including long labour, bleeding or tears during childbirth, increased risk of having a caesarean section); and increased risk of stillbirth and death of child during or just after birth.

Personal accounts from survivors show that FGM is an extremely traumatic experience, the effects of which remain with them throughout their life. Young women may feel betrayed by their parents, when they are involved in the decision to have the procedure, as well as feeling regret and anger.

3. Law in England, Wales and Northern Ireland

In England (as well as Wales and Northern Ireland), under the Female Genital Mutilation Act 2003, it:

  • is illegal to carry out FGM in the UK;
  • is illegal to take girls who are British nationals or permanent residents of the UK abroad for FGM, whether or not it is lawful in that country;
  • is illegal to aid, assist, guide or arrange the carrying out of FGM abroad;
  • has a penalty of up to 14 years in prison and / or, a fine.

3.1 Female Genital Mutilation Protection Orders (FGMPO)

A FGMPO is a civil order which can be made to protect a woman against FGM offences or if an FGM offence has taken place. Breaching an order carries a penalty of up to five years in prison.

The terms of the order can be flexible, and the court can include whatever terms it thinks are necessary and appropriate to protect the woman, including to protect her from being taken abroad or to order giving up her passport so she cannot leave the country. See also: Making an Application for an FGM Protection Order (FGMPO) – Flowchart.

4. Risk Factors

The most significant factor to consider when assessing if a woman may be at risk of FGM is whether her family has a history of practising FGM. In addition, it is important to consider whether FGM is known to be practised in her community or country of origin.

As FGM is illegal and therefore not discussed openly, women who have undergone FGM may not fully understand what FGM is, what the consequences are, or that they themselves have had FGM. Discussions about FGM should therefore always be undertaken with care and sensitivity.

Other factors which could indicate a woman is at risk of being subjected to FGM include:

  • a woman / family believe FGM is essential in their culture or religion;
  • the family mainly associates with other people from their own culture and has not mixed much with the wider UK community;
  • parents have limited access to information about FGM and do not know about the harmful effects of FGM or UK law;
  • a family is not engaging with professionals (health, education or other professionals).

Signs that FGM may have taken place include:

  • a woman asks for help or confides in a professional that FGM has taken place;
  • a woman has difficulty walking, sitting or standing or looks uncomfortable;
  • a woman spends longer than normal in the bathroom or toilet due to difficulties passing urine;
  • a woman has frequent urine, period or stomach problems;
  • a woman does not want to have any medical examinations.

If you have concerns, do not be afraid to ask a woman about FGM, using appropriate and sensitive language. Women sometimes say that professionals have avoided asking questions about FGM, and this can then lead to a breakdown in trust. If a professional does not give a woman the opportunity to talk about FGM , it can be very difficult for the woman to bring this up herself.

5. Action in Suspected Cases

FGM is illegal in England and Wales, and professionals should act if they have concerns in relation to women who may be at risk of FGM or have been affected by it. The type of safeguarding intervention needed will depend on how immediate the risk of harm is thought to be. The most appropriate course of action should be decided on a case-by-case basis, with input from all relevant agencies. The wishes of the woman should always be respected.

Action should include:

  • making sure the woman receives the care and support she needs, for example by offering referral to community groups for support, clinical intervention or other services as appropriate, such as a referral to an NHS FGM clinic;
  • making enquiries about other female family members who may need to be safeguarded from harm. This should include considering the needs of any unborn child if the woman is pregnant (see Section 6, Safeguarding Other Family Members); and / or
  • considering criminal investigations into the perpetrators, including those who carry out the procedure, to prosecute those who have broken the law and to protect others from harm.

5.1 When an adult has had FGM

Adult women who have had FGM should not be automatically referred to adult social care or the police. All cases must individually assessed.

Professionals should be aware that any disclosure may be the first time that a woman has ever discussed her FGM with anyone, so conversations should always be handed sensitively and the woman’s wishes respected. She should be given the time to speak, receive a non judgemental response and be offered details of local and national support groups.

5.1.1 Adult with Care and Support Needs who has had or who is at risk of FGM

When a woman with care and support needs is identified as having had or being at risk of FGM, adult safeguarding procedures should be followed (see Safeguarding Enquiries section). Where there is an immediate or serious risk, an urgent response may be needed, either an urgent referral to adult social care or contacting the police; a FGM Protection Order and / or an Emergency Protection Order may be necessary.

6. Safeguarding Other Family Members

Whenever a woman is identified as having had, or being at risk of, FGM professionals must consider whether she is at risk of further harm, and whether there are other women in her family or wider social network who may be at risk of FGM – including children.  Local safeguarding children procedures should be followed whenever there are concerns in relation to children under 18 years.

7. NHS FGM Data Collection

NHS England collects the following data from NHS acute trusts, mental health trusts and GP practices if:

  • a patient has had FGM;
  • there is a family history of FGM;
  • a FGM-related procedure has been carried out on a patient.

For more information please see Female genital mutilation (FGM) – NHS (www.nhs.uk).