FGM: the reality refuses to live up to the scaremongering

Brid Hehir

Topics Politics

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A new dataset on female genital mutilation (FGM) in the UK, released by the Health and Social Care Information Centre (HSCIC), created a flurry of media excitement recently. ‘More than 1,200 FGM cases recorded across England in three months’, proclaimed the Guardian; ‘Two hundred female genital mutilation cases reported every week in England’, shouted the Daily Mail. It was all teed up for the Royal College of Midwives to issue the predictable awareness-raising call, as it urged health workers to remain vigilant and do more to identify further FGM cases.

But what’s interesting about this most recent HSCIC dataset, recorded between January and March this year, is what it tells us about the disparity between the panic about FGM and the reality of FGM.

Take, for example, the headline finding that seven under-18s are reported to have undergone FGM in the UK. Delve a little deeper into the data, and it turns out that one of those seven is identified as having FGM of ‘an unknown type’, and the other six have cosmetic genital piercings. That’s right, cosmetic genital piercings for non-medical purposes are now classified as FGM by the World Health Organisation, a classification that has been adopted, unchallenged, in the UK. As a Department of Health spokesperson admitted, ‘While there are challenges in this area and adult women may have genital piercings… the WHO has quite rightly defined this as a form of FGM’.

But the most striking thing about the figures so far is just how low they are, given the high number of immigrants from FGM-practising countries, especially Eritrea, Ethiopia and Somalia, now living in the UK. Indeed, it was on the basis of the relatively high number of immigrants from FGM-practising countries living in the UK that City University London estimated that there were 137,000 women and girls with FGM permanently resident in England and Wales. So, why, if FGM is as widespread as some claim, have relatively few cases been reported?

And why, if FGM is as widespread as some claim, have so few cases among under-18s been reported? After all, the NHS claimed that 20,000 under-15s in the UK – 6,000 in London alone – are at risk of FGM every year. Yet, from January to March, just 29 cases were reported, of which only 11 involved females born in the UK.

The other interesting aspect about the HSCIC dataset is how few health centres are reporting what is supposedly mandatory information to the HSCIC. There are 257 NHS Trusts and a further 7,875 GP surgeries in the UK. Yet just 82 trusts and 17 GP surgeries have filed reports since April last year. This probably reflects the well-documented, although still ignored, concerns of health professionals over the centralisation of patient-identifiable data, with or without patients’ consent.

What all the data shows, then, is that, despite the media reporting, FGM has still not become the huge problem it was hyped up to be. And as the long-predicted FGM epidemic fails to materialise, a degree of desperation seems to have begun to inform the work of professional leaders, campaigners and the media. Hence the willingness to gloss over the fact that genital piercings are being reported as FGM, or that the figures so far fall well below the figures estimated a couple of years ago, when the anti-FGM campaign was at its peak. But rather than admit they’ve got it wrong, activists and campaigners continue to exaggerate the problem of FGM, while searching out new ways to promote their fear-mongering message to professionals and the public.

Brid Hehir is a writer, researcher and a retired nurse. Visit her blog, FGM/C Shifting Sands.

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Topics Politics


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