Illustrations by Hannah Robinson
Having been told that it was just ‘something that girls do’, Nazia Mirza, aged 8, was taken by her mother to have her genitals cut. Being held down by two women, Nazia remembers the sharp pain she felt when a third removed her underwear and cut her clitoris – in a medical clinic in Houston, Texas.
Though female genital mutilation (FGM) is commonly primarily associated with less economically developed countries like Guinea or India, approximately 600,000 women are believed to be living with FGM in the European Union alone. Whilst much of Western society considers FGM to not affect women in the Western world, the NHS estimates that around 137,000 women in the United Kingdom are currently living with a form of FGM. In London, roughly 2.1% of women are affected, making it the city with the highest national prevalence.
With every local authority in England likely to include women who have experienced FGM, the lack of education which surrounds it is particularly striking. Not only do schools not include the subject of cutting in their biology or sex education curriculums, but even health care professionals have reported receiving inadequate training. Conceivably arising from our society’s assumption that the West and cutting are mutually exclusive, FGM is added on to the list of topics neglected by Western governments and the political system.
Though it might be argued that the United Kingdom, along with the European Union, is actively commiting to eliminating cutting by having outlawed FGM, this de facto ban lacks in effect. The UK made FGM illegal in 1985 and a further law came into place in 2003; this meant anyone taking a girl abroad to be cut would face 14 years in prison. However, as of yet, no one has been convicted.
But this is not due to the lack of FGM happening in the United Kingdom. There have been reports of people performing FGM in private clinics all over the country, including in Bristol, Birmingham, and London. Similarly, even though the US reports around 560,000 girls and women living with FGM, when a Detroit doctor was charged with performing cutting on minors, this was the first case of its kind.
Seeing as FGM is not only prevalent but also being performed in the West, how is merely outlawing the practice justifiable? This is certainly a fundamental necessity, but what is needed is widespread education on cutting, including the lifelong physical and mental impact it has on its victims.
Today, this lack of education means that society still viewing FGM as a mainly foreign practice, so much so that health care professionals admit to being unable to adequately identify FGM and support its victims.
It is imperative to not only educate young girls and boys, teenagers, and adults on the effects FGM can have, but also on its underlying motives, for example diminishing a woman’s sexual pleasure. Posing as a cultural practice, FGM is rooted in gender inequality.
With education claiming the increased closing of the gender equality gap, a decrease in the performance of FGM could be a natural outcome. However, a change in mindset must precede the implementation of education. It is crucial for society to accept and understand the prevalence of FGM in the West specifically, to be able to counteract not only cutting but gender inequality for good.