Female Genital Mutilation

1. Definition

FGM is a procedure where the female genital organs are deliberately cut, injured or changed and there is no medical reason for this. It is frequently a very traumatic and violent act and can cause harm in many ways. The practice can cause severe pain, and there may be immediate and/or long-term health consequences, including pain and infection, mental health problems, difficulties in childbirth and/or death.

FGM is a deeply rooted practice, widely carried out among specific ethnic populations in Africa and parts of the Middle East and Asia. It serves as a complex form of social control of women's sexual and reproductive rights.

The age at which FGM is carried out varies enormously according to the community. The procedure may be carried out on new-born infants, during childhood or adolescence or just before marriage or during a woman's first pregnancy. There is no Biblical or Koranic justification for FGM and religious leaders from all faiths have spoken out against the practice.

Under the Female Genital Mutilation Act 2003, FGM is a criminal offence - it is child abuse and a form of violence against women and girls and should be treated as such.

2. What are the Signs that a Child is at Risk?

Signs that a child may be at risk of FGM:

  • A female child is born to a woman who has undergone FGM or whose older sibling or cousin has undergone FGM;
  • The child's father comes from a community known to practise FGM;
  • The family indicate that there are strong levels of influence held by elders and/or elders are involved in bringing up female children;
  • A woman/family believe FGM is integral to cultural or religious identity;
  • A girl/family has limited level of integration within the UK community;
  • The girl talks about a 'special procedure/ceremony' that is going to take place or attending a special occasion to 'become a woman';
  • Parents have limited access to information about FGM and do not know about the harmful effects of FGM or UK law;
  • A parent or family member expresses concern that FGM may be carried out on the girl;
  • A family is not engaging with professionals (health, education or other);
  • A family is already known to social care in relation to other safeguarding issues;
  • A girl requests help from a teacher or another adult because she is aware or suspects that she is at immediate risk of FGM;
  • A girl talks about FGM in conversation, for example, a girl may tell other children about it - it is important to take into account the context of the discussion;
  • Sections are missing from a girl's Red book.

Signs that FGM may have already taken place:

It is also important to consider whether FGM may have already taken place, for example if:

  • A girl asks for help;
  • A girl confides that FGM has taken place;
  • A mother/family member discloses that female child has had FGM;
  • A girl has difficulty walking, sitting or standing or looks uncomfortable;
  • A girl finds it hard to sit still for long periods of time, and this was not a problem previously;
  • A girl spends longer than normal in the bathroom or toilet due to difficulties urinating;
  • A girl spends long periods of time away from a classroom during the day with bladder or menstrual problems;
  • A girl has frequent urinary, menstrual or stomach problems;
  • A girl avoids physical exercise or requires to be excused from physical education (PE) lessons without a GP's letter;
  • There are prolonged or repeated absences from school or college;
  • A girl displays increased emotional and psychological needs, for example withdrawal or depression, or significant change in behaviour;
  • A girl is reluctant to undergo any medical examinations;
  • A girl asks for help, but is not being explicit about the problem; and/or
  • A girl talks about pain or discomfort between her legs.

Remember: this is not an exhaustive list of indicators.

Where there are concerns that FGM has taken place, the foster carer should inform their supervising social worker.

3. FGM Mandatory Duty to Report to Police

Since 31 October 2015, when section 74 of the Serious Crime Act 2015 inserted new section 5B into the Female Genital Mutilation Act 2003, specified regulated professionals (including social workers) must report to the police any cases of female genital mutilation in girls under 18 that they come across in their work. The duty applies where the professional either:

  • Is informed by the girl that an act of female genital mutilation has been carried out on her; or
  • Observes physical signs that appear to show an act of female genital mutilation has carried out and has no reason to believe that the act was necessary for the girl's physical or mental health or for purposes connected with labour or birth.

Reports should be made using the non emergency 101 telephone number.

'Known' cases are those where either a girl informs the person that an act of FGM – however described – has been carried out on her, or where the person observes physical signs on a girl appearing to show that an act of FGM has been carried out and the person has no reason to believe that the act was necessary for the girl's physical or mental health or for purposes connected with labour or birth.

Reports under the duty should be made as soon as possible after a case is discovered, and best practice is for reports to be made by the close of the next working day. A longer timeframe than the next working day may be appropriate in exceptional cases where, for example, a professional has concerns that a report to the police is likely to result in an immediate safeguarding risk to the child (or another child, e.g. a sibling) and considers that consultation with colleagues or other agencies is necessary prior to the report being made.

4. Protection and Action to be Taken

FGM is child abuse and should be treated as such. Professionals should intervene to safeguard girls who may be at risk of FGM or who have been affected by it. The child's social worker or yourself should report FGM as a safeguarding matter.

Where there are concerns that a girl is at risk of FGM:

As soon as a girl is identified as at risk of FGM, information should be shared with other agencies (in accordance with local information sharing protocols and Information Sharing Advice for Practitioners Providing Safeguarding Services to Children, Young People, Parents and Carers - DfE.

All concerns identified and actions agreed should be noted in the child's record.

The level of safeguarding intervention needed will depend on how imminent the risk of harm is. An appropriate course of action should be decided on a case-by-case basis, following a risk assessment, with expert input from all relevant agencies. A victim centred approach should be taken, based on a clear understanding of the needs and views of the child.

If, following Referral to Children's Social Care there is cause to believe that the child has suffered or is likely to suffer Significant Harm, a Section 47 Enquiry will be carried out in conjunction with the Police. A strategy discussion/meeting will be held and this should include relevant health professionals and, if the child is of school age, a school representative.

If the only risk indicator is that a girl's mother has undergone FGM, Referral to Children's Social Care may not be appropriate, but other local multi- agency arrangements may be relevant. In such cases, monitoring is important to ensure that agencies respond appropriately if circumstances change and other risk factors arise. Where there is a specific risk, the case should be referred to Children's Social Care.

When a girl is at imminent risk, legal intervention should be considered, including an FGM Protection Order (FGMPO).

Professionals should remember that FGM can be carried out at any age, so identifying at birth that a girl is at risk of FGM means that safeguarding measures adopted may need to remain in place for a number of years over the course of her childhood.

In this situation, professionals should always take opportunities to discuss and understand changes to the girl's/family's circumstances.

Where there are concerns that FGM has taken place

Children's Social Care will liaise with Paediatric services where it is believed that FGM has already taken place to ensure that a Medical Assessment takes place and the girl receives the care and support she needs. Enquiries will be made about other female family members who may need to be safeguarded from harm. Criminal investigations into the perpetrators can also be commenced (see Section 6, Law in England, Wales and Northern Ireland).

National FGM Support Clinics have been established to offer a range of support services for women over 18 who have undergone FGM. Support for girls under 18 is available from a specialist paediatric service at University College London Hospitals (UCLH). UCLH can be contacted by email at UCLH.paediatricsafeguarding@nhs.net.

Support for children, young people and families is also available from the NSPCC.

5. Issues


Training should be available to enable you as a foster carer to support a child who has been subjected to FGM. Training on FGM could include the following:

  • An overview of FGM (what it is, when and where it is performed);
  • The UK law on FGM and child protection;
  • The potential consequences of FGM;
  • What to do when FGM is suspected or has been performed; and
  • The role of different professionals and the importance of multi-agency working.

See also: E-learning for all professionals is available at Virtual College, Female Genital Mutilation: Recognising and Preventing FGM.

Health Education England offer e-learning, free to access by health and social care professionals.

Consequences of FGM

Depending on the degree of mutilation, FGM can have a number of short-term health implications:

  • Severe pain and shock;
  • Wound infections;
  • Urine retention;
  • Injury to adjacent tissues;
  • haemorrhaging;
  • Genital swelling;
  • Death.

Long-term implications can include:

  • Genital scarring;
  • Genital cysts and keloid scar formation;
  • Recurrent urinary tract infections and difficulties in passing urine;
  • Possible increased risk of blood infections such as hepatitis B and HIV;
  • Pain during sex, lack of pleasurable sensation and impaired sexual function;
  • Psychological concerns such as anxiety, flashbacks and post traumatic stress disorder;
  • Difficulties with menstruation (periods);
  • Complications in pregnancy or childbirth (including prolonged labour, bleeding or tears during childbirth, increased risk of caesarean section); and
  • Increased risk of stillbirth and death of child during or just after birth.

In addition to these health consequences there are considerable psycho-sexual, psychological and social consequences of FGM.

6. Law in England, Wales and Northern Ireland

In England, Wales, and Northern Ireland criminal and civil legislation on FGM contained in the Female Genital Mutilation Act 2003 ('the 2003 Act').

The Act:

  1. Makes it illegal to practice FGM in the UK;
  2. Makes it illegal to take girls who are British nationals or permanent residents of the UK abroad for FGM whether or not it is lawful in that country;
  3. Makes it illegal to aid, abet, counsel or procure the carrying out of FGM abroad;
  4. Has a penalty of up to 14 years in prison and/or, a fine.

As amended by the Serious Crime Act 2015, the Female Genital Mutilation Act 2003 also includes:

  1. An offence of failing to protect a girl from the risk of FGM - A person is liable if they are "responsible" for a girl at the time when an offence is committed. This covers both someone who has "parental responsibility" for the girl and has "frequent contact" with her, as well as any adult who has assumed responsibility for caring for the girl in the "manner of a parent". This could be for example family members, with whom she was staying during the school holidays;
  2. Female Genital Mutilation Protection Orders ("FGMPO"). An FGMPO is a civil order which may be made for the purposes of protecting a girl against the commission of an FGM offence or protecting a girl against whom an FGM offence has taken place. Breaching an order carries a penalty of up to 5 years in prison. The terms of the order can be flexible and the court can include whatever terms it considers necessary and appropriate to protect the girl or woman including to protect a girl from being taken abroad or to order the surrender of passports;
  3. Allowing for the lifelong anonymity of victims of FGM – prohibiting the publication of any information that could lead to the identification of the victim. Publication covers all aspects of media including social media;
  4. Extra-territorial jurisdiction over offences of FGM committed abroad by UK nationals and those habitually (as well as permanently) resident in the UK;
  5. Mandatory reporting which requires specified professionals to report known cases of FGM in under 18s to the police.

(Please note: in Scotland, FGM is illegal under the Prohibition of Female Genital Mutilation (Scotland) Act 2005).

See also: Making an Application for an FGM Protection Order (FGMPO) - Flowchart.

7. Other Harmful Practices

Virginity testing and hymenoplasty can be precursors to child or forced marriage and other forms of family and/or community coercive behaviours, including physical and emotional control. The practices are degrading and intrusive. They can lead to extreme psychological trauma in the victim, and can provoke conditions including anxiety, depression and post-traumatic stress disorder. The practices have been linked to suicide and can be physically harmful.

Women and girls may themselves present to agencies requesting the procedures in an attempt to protect themselves from further harm and abuse, including shaming, disownment, physical abuse and possible honour-killings. Family and/or community members who are unaware of the change in law may also try to contact agencies seeking the procedures for their daughters and female relatives.

See Virginity Testing and Hymenoplasty: Multi-agency Guidance (DHSC) for good practice guidance and indicators that a woman or girl is at risk of or has been subjected to a virginity test and/or hymenoplasty.

It is important to find out if the woman or girl is in immediate danger. In an emergency, the police should be contacted without delay. If it is not an emergency but there is a concern that the individual is at risk, the organisation’s safeguarding procedures and any professional duties should be followed. This may involve a referral to social care services and/or the police should be made.

Virginity testing and hymenoplasty are forms of so called ‘honour-based’ abuse and violence against women and girls. Like forced marriage and female genital mutilation (FGM), the victims of these abuses are at risk of being subjected to further harm, whether that be psychological or physical. The same sensitivity and precautions apply as for other types of so called ‘honour’ based abuse.

Organisations should not involve families and community members in cases involving virginity testing and hymenoplasty, including trying to mediate with family or using a community member as an interpreter. Engaging with families and community members may increase risk of harm to the victim. The victim may be punished for seeking help and arrangements for procedures may be expedited.

The Health and Care Act 2022 has made it illegal to carry out, offer or aid and abet virginity testing or hymenoplasty in any part of the UK. It is also illegal for UK nationals and residents to do these things outside the UK.

In England and Wales and Northern Ireland, the offences will each carry a maximum penalty of a 5-year custodial sentence and/or an unlimited fine. There is a risk that women and girls may be taken abroad and subjected to virginity testing and hymenoplasty (as is often seen with so called ‘honour-based’ abuse offences, such as female genital mutilation or forced marriage). The offences, therefore, carry extra-territorial jurisdiction. This means that UK nationals and residents who carry out a virginity test or hymenoplasty outside the UK also commit an offence in the UK.

Breast flattening which is the painful and harmful practice of bringing a girl's breasts into contact with hard or heated objects (which may vary in nature but may include stones, belts, pestles and heated implements) to suppress or reverse the growth of breasts by destroying the tissue.

Breast flattening is often performed at first signs of puberty, usually by female family members professing to make a teenage girl look less womanly to avoid sexual interest, prevent pregnancy and rape, deter from sexual relationships outside marriage and dishonouring the family/community. Due to the type of instruments, force and lack of aftercare, there are significant physical and psychological consequences and risks related to this practice.

Breast flattening is a form of child abuse. See the CPS legal guidance on So-Called Honour-Based Abuse.

Further Information

Legislation, Statutory Guidance and Government Non-Statutory Guidance

Multi-Agency Statutory Guidance on Female Genital Mutilation (GOV.UK)

Female Genital Mutilation Resource Pack (Home Office) - including links to local organisations

FGM Protection Orders: Factsheet

Mandatory Reporting of Female Genital Mutilation – procedural information

Safeguarding Women and Girls at Risk of FGM – Guidance for Professionals (DHSC) – includes Pathway and Risk Assessment tools

Virginity Testing and Hymenoplasty: Multi-agency Guidance (DHSC)

Female Genital Mutilation CPS Guidelines

National Support Agencies

Good Practice Guidance

NSPCC FGM helpline: 0800 028 3550

FGM Assessment Tool for Social Workers (National FGM Centre). It has two elements; Best Practice Guidance and an Online FGM Assessment Tool to help guide the assessment of cases where FGM is a concern.

Female Genital Mutilation and its Management: Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists 2015

Useful Websites

National FGM Centre provides a range of guidance for all agencies including schools, health and social care

AFRUCA (Child Protection of African Children)

Forward (Foundation for Women's Health Research and Development)

NHS - FGM (including information on where to get support)