FGM and breast ironing
Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) is a form of child abuse and is an act of violence against women and girls. It is sometimes also known as female circumcision. Other local terms are:
The term FGM is used to refer to the removal of part or all of the female genitalia for cultural or other non-therapeutic reasons. This is extremely painful and has serious consequences for physical and mental health. It can also result in death.
It is illegal to practice FGM in the UK. It is also illegal to take a child abroad for FGM even if legal in that country.
FGM is sometimes incorrectly believed to be an Islamic practice. This is not the case and the Islamic Shari’a Council, the Muslim College and the Muslim Council of Britain (MCB) have condemned the practice of FGM.
FGM is classified into four categories:
- Clitoridectomy: partial or total removal of the clitoris and, in very rare cases, only the prepuce
- Excision: partial or total removal of the clitoris and the labia minora, with or without excision of the labia majora
- Infibulation: narrowing of the vaginal opening through the creation of a covering seal. The seal is formed by cutting and repositioning the inner, or outer, labia, with or without removal of the clitoris
- Other: all other harmful procedures to the female genitalia for non-medical purposes, e.g. pricking, piercing, incising, scraping and cauterizing the genital area
The age at which girls undergo FGM varies enormously according to the community. The procedure may be carried out when the girl is newborn, during childhood or adolescence, just before marriage or during the first pregnancy. However, the majority of cases of FGM are thought to take place between the ages of 5 and 8 and therefore girls within that age bracket are at a higher risk.
Free on-line training in FGM awareness is available at: www.fgmelearning.co.uk
The National FGM Centre has developed a Direct Work Toolkit to help social workers carry out direct work with families and girls at risk of FGM, or who have undergone FGM. The toolkit provides plans for sessions aimed at children aged seven and older with separate activities for parents, carers and young people. The Centre has also published Guidance for Schools and Colleges that outlines what schools and colleges should consider and the action they should take when concerns are raised regarding a range of issues, including harmful practices such as FGM.
The Home Office has also produced a FGM Resource Pack that includes:
- case studies where FGM has been experienced by girls and women in the UK
- information on what local authorities and others can do to raise awareness of FGM in their local area
- links to support organisations, clinics and helplines which can help people who think they might be at risk
The Serious Crime Act 2015 in England and Wales introduced a requirement for all regulated health and social care professionals (registrants) to report FGM found in girls under the age of 18 years.
If you are concerned that a child may be at risk of FGM:
- In an emergency contact the Police
- Or contact Portsmouth Multi-Agency Safeguarding Hub (MASH)
For contact details go to: What to do if you are worried about a child
The ‘Ending Female Genital Mutilation’ short film gives a first-hand account of a woman’s experience of FGM and health professionals talk about the physical and psychological effect.
Further information and resources:
- 4 LSCB guidance: Female Genital Mutilation
- National Guidance: Multi-agency statutory guidance on female genital mutilation (updated October 2018)
- FGM factsheet
- NSPCC: Information on the signs and indicators that a girl may be at risk of FGM, as well as lots of helpful resources for your organisations
Breast ironing is a practice whereby the breasts of girls typically aged 8-16 are pounded using tools such as spatulas, grinding stones, hot stones, and hammers to delay the appearance of puberty.
Breast ironing is often carried out by the girl’s mother with the belief that she is:
- Protecting her daughter from sexual harassment and / or rape
- Preventing the risk of early pregnancy by “removing” signs of puberty
- Preventing her daughter from being forced into marriage, so she will have the opportunity to continue with her education
Breast ironing is often a well-kept secret between the girl and her mother. This can make it difficult for professionals to identify. Care must be taken to navigate the deep-seated cultural belief and familial sensitivity of this practice. Many girls will not disclose that they are a victim of breast ironing for fear that their mother will get into trouble; or they believe it is being done for their own good.
Some signs that a girl is at risk from breast ironing include:
- Unusual behaviour after an absence from school or college including depression, anxiety, aggression, becoming withdrawn
- Reluctance in undergoing medical examinations
- Some girls may ask for help, but may not be explicit about the problem due to embarrassment or fear
- Fear of changing for physical activities due to scars showing or bandages being visible
Like other forms of FGM, breast ironing is an extremely painful process for the victim. The process of breast ironing combined with insufficient aftercare leaves young girls exposed to significant health risks, such as:
- Cysts and lesions
- Breast cancer
- An inability to produce breast milk
- Complete or partial eradication of single or both breasts
The practice of breast ironing is not explicitly covered under legislation. However, it is understood by the Government to be physical abuse.
If you are concerned that a child you know is at risk of breast ironing:
- In an emergency contact the Police
- Or contact the MASH on 0845 671 0271