Skills for the Job: How to spot victims of FGM

Saria Khalifa
Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Female genital mutilation often stays hidden within families, but there are warning signs that practitioners should look out for.

Any suspicion that FGM might occur must be treated as a child protection concern
Any suspicion that FGM might occur must be treated as a child protection concern

What is female genital mutilation?

Female genital mutilation (FGM) is a practice that involves the partial or total removal of a girl's external genitalia for non-medical reasons. FGM is sometimes known as female circumcision, although many communities also use local names such as "tahor" or "sunna".

There are four types of FGM involving removal of different parts of the genitalia or stitching. FGM is performed in many countries as a cultural tradition, a practice passed on from mother to daughter for generations. It is practiced in more than 28 African countries, parts of the Middle East and South East Asia. It also occurs in Europe, the US, and other countries where migrants from FGM-affected communities live. The practice is illegal in the UK and is considered child abuse.

At what age are girls targeted?

FGM is often performed on girls between the ages of five and eight. However, it can be performed on babies, teenagers, and sometimes even on adult women. In many affected communities, FGM is often performed by older women in the community, often without sterilised equipment or anaesthetic.

It is estimated that more than 140 million women and girls have undergone FGM worldwide. An estimated 6,000 women and girls have undergone FGM in the UK, where it is estimated that 24,000 girls under the age of 15 are at high risk.

What is the impact of FGM?

FGM can cause both shortand long-term physical and psychological complications. Short-term complications include severe pain and shock, bleeding, infection, urine retention, tissue damage and immediate haemorrhaging that could lead to death.

Long-term complications include extensive damage of the external reproductive system, uterine, vaginal and pelvic infections, difficulties in menstruation, increased risk of fistula, complications in pregnancy and childbirth, sexual dysfunction, cysts and psychological damage.

How do you know if someone has been, or could be a victim of FGM?

Education professionals are well placed to identify girls at risk of or who have undergone FGM. Risk factors include:

  • A child's parents come from a community that practises FGM
  • The family live with extended family
  • Parents indicate they are taking the child away for a prolonged period, often before school ends
  • Frequent trips to country of origin
  • The mother has undergone FGM herself
  • There are older girls in the family who have undergone FGM
  • The mother is an isolated new immigrant
  • There is a mother-in-law in the household

Those working with children and young people should be sensitive to rumours of a planned circumcision, girls running away from home, truanting from school, requesting to be excused from PE classes or swimming, and girls spending long periods of time in the bathroom.

What action should you take if you suspect someone is at risk?

Any suspicion of FGM must be treated as a child protection concern and the organisation's child protection procedures must be followed. It is essential that any suspected cases are reported immediately to the police.

When dealing with a child who may have been a victim, professionals should respond sensitively, making sure to remain non-judgmental and not make any assumptions. They should explain that FGM is illegal in the UK and protects permanent UK residents abroad and signpost them to specialist services available that offer health and psychological support.

Forward UK can provide guidance on how to respond to FGM, awareness sessions as well as emotional support for girls at risk of or affected by it. Professionals can also refer to the multi-agency practice guidelines on responding to FGM.

Saria Khalifa, youth programme lead at Forward UK


  • Create a safe space within the school or organisation where young people can find out about FGM
  • Put up posters in the school
  • Have information and resources present
  • Have staff training on FGM
  • Arrange FGM awareness sessions for students

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