What’s Going On With FGM?

'Consent' is the key word separating labiaplasty from FGM

Having failed to secure a single conviction in the UK for the perpetration of female genital mutilation (FGM), have the British authorities been trying to widen the definition of FGM in order to look less foolish?

Female Genital Mutilation has been illegal in the United Kingdom since 1985, and since 2003 any person found taking a child outside of the UK for this practice, faces up to 14 years’ imprisonment. Anti-FGM campaigners believe that the practice is on the rise in the UK, with 24,000 girls thought to be at risk. But so far there have been no convictions.

Either the number of cases is being over-estimated; or the performance of the Crown Prosecution Service has been particularly underwhelming. In this situation, perhaps it has been in the interest of various groups of professionals to expand the definition of the crime.

The World Health Organisation has a notably broad definition of FGM: “Procedures that intentionally alter or cause injury to the female genitalia for non-medical reasons.” This is the definition preferred by anti-FGM campaigners, perhaps because such a broad definition tends to confirm their suggestion that FGM is a growing problem which must be afforded top priority.

But a definition as broad as this would have to include cosmetic labiaplasty, i.e. surgery on female genitalia for non-medical reasons. Just the kind of confusion which you might think a responsible government would be quick to clear up. Not a bit of it.

In 2014, when she was Home Secretary, Theresa May seemed unconcerned that the definition was too wide; rather she was content to warn cosmetic surgeons that by performing labiaplasty they could find themselves on the wrong side of FGM law: “Doctors would have to have a physical or mental justification for carrying out the surgery or risk falling foul of the 2003 Female Genital Mutilation Act.”

A year later, (then) chair of the Home Affairs Committee Keith Vaz also found the broad definition politically expedient. He declared “we can not tell communities in Sierra Leone and Somalia to stop a practice which is freely permitted on Harley Street.”

But what is undertaken in private medical practice in Harley Street is done with the patient’s consent. Women from all walks of life choose to have labiaplasty for any number of reasons: some opt for it after child birth, others because it makes cycling more comfortable – or simply so they feel more comfortable in their own body. This is a world away from a child being forced to undergo a barbaric practice.

Clearing up the confusion requires only one ‘c’-word: consent. But anti-FGM campaigners lose sight of this when they claim that labiaplasty and FGM are essentially the same because they both entail people making money out of the female body. And with an eye on the failure of their legislation (laws which in 30 years have not resulted in a single conviction must surely be regarded as a failure), UK politicians seems to be hoping that if the net remains wide enough someone is bound to get caught in it.

This  situation is far from ideal for the girls who have been mutilated and those who remain really at risk.