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FGM-iimageImage: Hilary Burrage

By Hilary Burrage. February 2014.

There’s very properly a growing moral outcry about FGM as an abuse of fundamental human rights. But that alone won’t eradicate it.  It’s ultimately money which motivates most crime, including FGM.  Those who promote it may be unaware of the economics of FGM around the world, but, as I argued today in an article (reproduced below) for The Morning Star, campaigners must not ignore this crucial factor. FGM globally is big business, and it surely has big impacts on economies as well as on the bodies and rights of women and girls.

Thursday 6 February 2014 was the 11th annual celebration of International Zero Tolerance Day.  This date marks the historic event when, on February 6, 2003, Stella Obasanjo, then First Lady of Nigeria and spokesperson for the Campaign Against Female Genital Mutilation, made the official declaration on “Zero Tolerance to FGM” in Africa, during a conference organized by the Inter-African Committee on Traditional Practices Affecting the Health of Women and Children (IAC).  Subsequently the UN Sub-Commission on Human Rights has adopted 6 February as an international awareness day for the approximately 130 million women and girls globally who the World Health Organisation (WHO) believe to be living with FGM .

This strategy has had some success.  It has nonetheless shocked many to learn that FGM occurs in Britain (and other western countries) – and that here numbers of girls and women are probably rising.  Indeed, the UK is the ‘European centre’ for FGM, not least because (unlike elsewhere) we have never to date had a successful prosecution for this child abuse.

In 2007 it was estimated that perhaps 20 to 25 thousand British girls were at risk annually of FGM.  In January 2014, using the 2011 Census figures, that estimate has almost trebled: a new report suggests that the number of women and girls living with FGM in the UK is possibly around 170,000, and that 65,000 girls aged 13 or under are at risk of mutilation.

But 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, the UK Government has pledged £35 million to international NoFGM programmes, there is a national FGM Helpline  [0800 028 3550, or email: ], and some national media have embraced the issue.

We now know quite a lot about the cultural and social pressures which drive FGM, whether in traditionally practising countries and communities, or in modern western nations.  With estimates still rising (for the UK, though not everywhere), and there is however increasing concern that ‘alternative’, semi-legitimised and / or ‘medicalised’ forms of FGM, akin to ‘designer vagina’ operations, are replacing the traditional, dreadful ways of mutilation.

But one (largely) missing element in the campaigns to stop FGM is economic analysis.

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

Consider these different levels of FGM impact within an economy:

** Daughters in most FGM practising communities are the property of their fathers until, often at obscenely young ages, and sometimes also as one of several wives, they are purchased by their husbands.  With no alternative provision, in selling their daughter (bride price, perhaps child- and forced- marriage) her parents may also procure the means to a pension; the girl’s new husband may be expected to attend to that matter also in due course.

Once the nature of likely 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 entrée to adult life which it permits (or, if not performed, denies) to young women, is a financial investment by fathers to procure a degree of economic security for both the girl herself, and perhaps also for her parents in old age.

An ‘uncut’ girl child may be accorded not adult status, but rather anomic non-status, pronounced unclean and refused permission even to handle food and water, let alone to marry; and in that case the investment of her parents in bringing her up will have been squandered.

** Family finance aside, for the ‘cutters’ this is core business.  These operators, traditionally older women with no medical training, but chillingly now quite likely clinicians, have a lucrative and high status line of work which, pitched in aeons of culture, myth and / or secret societies (eg the Sande and Poro) and sometimes witchcraft, they cannot be expected to relinquish willingly.

** Nor is FGM simply a matter of good earners for some.  Tragically, another outcome is that a significant proportion of the community’s adult working population will suffer permanent ill-health and therefore also sub-optimal economic performance.  At best, this amounts to low-grade resistance to infections, back pain etc; 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 – perhaps, for instance, because she has experienced haemorrhage or the unspeakable nightmare of obstetric fistula. Local economies as well as individual human beings pay a price for FGM.

** Then there’s the cost to the community and the nation state.  Women who through trauma and ill-health cannot work optimally not only produce less, but cost more to ‘keep’. They need medical attention (by qualified practitioners, if they’re very lucky), their children need a wider network of care, their psychological state may be fragile… the list goes on.

There is evidence that some communities are turning away from FGM; but it seems to that others, especially those with clinically trained practitioners, are adopting it with more certainty. Why does female genital mutilation continue?

Answers vary, but they include eg 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 and driven 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 stretching out ahead.  Mutilation may be perceived as insurance against uncertainty, an ascribed route to the ‘security’ of marriage regardless of educational or other potentially achieved status.

The tragic truth, however, 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 early school-leaving and a life of dependency on male kin.  FGM therefore hands economic power very effectively to the men.

Along with the horrifying human damage, FGM surely has impact on many economies of communities and nations around the globe.

So why-ever is the economic cost of FGM also not central to thinking on international development and national policies?  None of us, in practising communities or not, can afford to countenance this waste of human life and livelihoods one minute longer.


Scandalously, there is yet to be a single successful prosecution for female genital mutilation in Britain.  This omission, after some thirty years of UK legislation on FGM, is to be examined over the next few months by the Parliamentary Home Affairs Select Committee (submissions on the subject must be received by 12 February 2014).

In the meantime, please sign and promote as widely as possible this e-petition to the British Home Secretary and her Shadow counterpart:


UK Government: Enforce the UK law which forbids FGM (Female Genital so-called ‘Cutting’)

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Also Read: Cutting the Ribbon - Working to End FGM in Kenya


hilary-burrageHilary Burrage is a researcher, freelance sociologist, writer and lobbyist and is currently writing a book about eradicating FGM in the UK.

Previously a college Senior Lecturer, Hilary now owns a consultancy focusing on social policy issues. She is also Executive Chair of the Samuel Coleridge-Taylor Foundation.

Follow Hilary on Twitter: @HilaryBurrage