British government to outlaw genital cosmetic surgery under FGM Act

Last week, the home affairs selected committee has called on the British government to expand the Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) Act to cover cosmetic procedures that have no medical purpose. The government has replied that the 2003 act already does not contain any exemption for cosmetic surgery and therefore there is no need to amend the act.

REUTERS/Pascal Lauener
Already in December, Home Secretary Theresa May warned doctors who carry out “designer vagina” cosmetic surgery that they could be committing a criminal offence. Cosmetic genital operations include procedures to reduce the size of the labia, tighten the vagina, and increase the size of the “g-spot”. They have become increasingly popular in the past few years, with official data showing that the number of labia reductions provided on the NHS has risen five-fold in a decade, with more than 2,000 in 2010. While these numbers are for the operations provided for medical necessities, operations for purely cosmetic reasons are generally done in private clinics. Last week the chairman of the committee justified the request of its committee by saying: “We cannot tell communities in Sierra Leone and Somalia to stop a practice which is freely permitted on Harley Street (London)”.

But is genital cosmetic surgery really the same as FGM?

FGM has been illegal in the UK since 1984, and since 2003 anyone taking a child out of the UK for the purposes of FGM faces 14 years in prison. Medical groups, trade unions and human rights organisations have estimated that there were 66,000 victims of FGM in the UK and more than 24,000 girls under 15 were at risk. Victims can be as young as just a few weeks old.

Also last February, the government introduced new measures which makes it a duty for teachers, doctors, and social care professionals to report suspected case of FGM in under 18s. The announcement followed a public consultation seeking views from a range of professionals, community groups, survivors, and the police. However, there is yet to be a successful prosecution in the UK and the selected committee has pointed out that it remains unclear what would happen in the event that professional should fail to make a report. Last February, the NHS doctor Dhanuson Dharmasena, who has been the protagonist of the first ever FGM case to be brought trial, was acquitted in less than 30 minutes, with accusations being made that the Crown Prosecution Service had brought the case just because of political pressure.

Several campaigns are taking place in the country and politicians are aware that this is an issue people feel strongly about. The debate has often been framed in terms of “British value” in opposition to other cultures and traditions. Great noise has been made about the cultural aspect of this practice, sometimes reaching levels of hysteria, with the risk of fostering negative stereotypes among those communities who are unaffected and a sense of attack among those communities that might be affected by it. Some have argued that these efforts, despite moved by the best intentions, might have the counterproductive effect of alienating communities in which speaking of FGM is considered a taboo and adding to the shame of the victims, who would probably feel uncomfortable due to the great attention paid to them.

Many campaigns against FGM in the West present the symptoms of Makau Mutua’s “savages-victims-saviours” construction, with those performing FGM being the savages, the girls going through it being the powerless victims, and the Western values the saviours. This is deeply problematic and counterproductive. As Nadifa Mohamed has noted, “Prejudices regarding Somalis, Islam and "backward African tribal customs" (a phrase that regularly pops up) are conflated to create an image of a dark, brutal, incorrigible mass who, to use Kipling's phrase, are "half devil, half child" and therefore cannot be trusted to even raise their own children decently.” 

Crucially, FGM is first and foremost a health issue. The life-threatening aspect of the procedure should be the main concern, not whether its traditional aspects fit into “British values”. A debate about cultural values of FGM needs to happen, but it should come from within those communities and it should be led by them, certainly not from the British government. What should be a concern of the British government, and other European governments for that matter, is that, for instance, doctors and midwives in the UK and Europe are trained to advice patients on the terrible health consequences of FGM and to deal with these consequences were they to have a patients who present them.

The proposal to make genital cosmetic surgery illegal, there is so far no medical evidence that such operations could pose risks to the health of patients, therefore there is at least one crucial difference from FGM.

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