Big story: teaching the truth about FGM

07 November 2019

Lessons raising awareness about female genital mutilation are to be taught in secondary school classrooms from next year. But is that too late, asks Journalist Juliette Astrup.

From 2020, secondary school pupils in England will learn about the dangers of female genital mutilation (FGM). But should younger children be educated about it too?

FGM carries with it an appalling array of harms: severe pain and bleeding, infection or death, and long-term physical consequences including chronic pain, difficulty urinating and increased risk of childbirth complications and stillbirths. The life-long psychological impact can also be profound, with victims experiencing depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder and flashbacks.

Earlier this year, a Ugandan woman from east London who mutilated her three-year-old daughter became the first person in the UK to be found guilty of FGM and was jailed for 11 years. But the practice persists. Healthcare attendances by 6415 women and girls who had undergone FGM were recorded in England in 2018-19, 40 of whom were under 18, and 100 reported the procedure had happened in the UK (NHS Digital, 2019).

Clearly the law isn’t enough, and now the government is taking action on education too. From next year, secondary school pupils in England are to be taught about the dangers of FGM, and the physical and emotional damage it causes, as part of new compulsory relationships and sex education classes.

While the move has been welcomed, will the lessons come too late to protect girls at risk? Some campaigners are making the case for FGM education to begin in primary schools, to help children learn that their body belongs to them and no one is allowed to harm them.

Getting the balance right

Among them is the head of the National FGM Centre, Leethen Bartholomew. He says that, while he recognises concerns about overburdening children and ‘protecting their innocence’, it can be done in a child-centred, age-appropriate way.

He says: ‘We’re already having conversations in primary schools about a child’s rights and body rights through the NSPCC “PANTS” campaign, which teaches children that their body belongs to them and how to speak up at a young age.’

The centre has already adopted a similar approach, working with a London primary in 2017 to develop a whole-school approach to teaching FGM, which was then shared with 10 other London schools.

‘Recently I went and sat in with Year 3 students learning about FGM and they absolutely got it – they understood it and asked informed questions,’ says Leethen. ‘It is embedded in their science curriculum; no images are shown to them – it is child-focused and pitched at a level they can understand and engage in conversation about.’

He adds: ‘I’d like to steer away from the word “compulsory” as there’s tension from some about teaching FGM and some might feel they are being forced.’

Primary priority?

FGM campaigner and educator Hibo Wardere, herself an FGM survivor, is clear that the government has ‘really missed the boat’ by failing to make it a compulsory part of the curriculum for younger children as well as secondary school pupils.

‘You have to ask, when does most FGM take place? In most cases under the age of 10. It is very important to raise awareness among boys and girls at secondary age – but for me, primary school is the priority,’ says Hibo.

And while she finds head teachers are ‘quite apprehensive’ and ‘make assumptions’, she says: ‘Children are ready to learn; we adults need to put our fears aside and enable them to learn something which they can use to protect themselves.’

In her own work with primary school children she uses animations, and the children respond with drawings and writing, discussing ideas about privacy and body image.  

‘Education about FGM is so important – I can’t stress it enough - it is potentially life-saving, and primary school is the vital stage when you have to teach it.’

Aneeta Prem, an author and the founder of Freedom Charity, which campaigns against forced marriage and FGM, agrees: ‘That is a key area of concern as most cutting practices are going on at primary age.’

Aneeta’s novel about FGM, Cut flowers, which comes with Personal, Social, Health and Economic Association-accredited lesson plans, is already being used in secondary schools. ‘It could also work in primary school for Year 6 children,’ she adds. ‘But certainly not below that age. The language and the complexity of what we’re talking about is difficult.

‘I think we can talk in terms of making younger children aware of what abuse is, and how they can report it, but with regards to FGM for this age group, it is more about making sure professionals really know what they are looking for and how to safeguard children.’

Raising awareness

Education of professionals working with children is key, says Aneeta. ‘It is so important that school staff and all frontline professionals understand what FGM is, what the signs and symptoms are, and how to deal with it so that we prevent future crime and protect the next generation.’

And she urges practitioners to ‘wear the red triangle’, the symbol of the Freedom Charity campaign to end FGM, as a way to start conversations, and ‘find ways to make a lot of noise around FGM’.

Awareness of FGM, and the needs of its survivors, is certainly growing. In September, eight new walk-in NHS FGM clinics were launched in Birmingham, Bristol, London and Leeds, offering a range of highly specialised FGM services including counselling and treatment options, aimed at reaching women over 18 before they are pregnant.

Obi Amadi, lead professional officer at Unite, health sector, says it is an important step in addressing FGM across the life course.

‘One thing we have always been very clear about was that we needed support for women at every stage of life, not just in maternity care where much of the focus has been in the past.

‘We know that survivors of FGM want access to services and support, but we are still in a situation where they are travelling miles to get it, so these new centres are absolutely fantastic.

‘We also need to be thinking about educating people across the life course, from school-age children, and speaking to boys and young men as well.

‘And practitioners need to be alert to FGM no matter who they are working with – it might be a white mother in front of them, but they need to consider where her partner is from, or wider family.

‘We need to have confidence to have these conversations. We need to be speaking out about FGM.’

Difficult conversations

But speaking about FGM in some communities is a significant challenge. ‘It remains so taboo,’ says Leethen. ‘I think professionals sometimes don’t understand the extent to which that is true.’

He adds: ‘It is a difficult conversation to have. The words professionals use, the terminology, can shut people down – some feel their identity is being attacked.

‘One thing practitioners can do is acquaint themselves with the FGM risk assessment tools developed by the Department of Health [see Resources]. They need to feel confident to have those conversations.

‘Also, from our experience, when there is a case of FGM, it is often accompanied by other safeguarding issues. You could be talking to a woman about domestic abuse, but not consider the possibility of FGM. It is important to have a broader conversation and include FGM in that conversation as well.’

Clearly eradicating FGM, a practice which has been so embedded in some cultures and traditions for generations, is an incredibly difficult task. Legislation and enforcement alone is not enough, but the hope is that, combined with education and awareness, it could be.

But it is not just about giving secondary school children all the facts, or even about equipping primary school children with the knowledge they need to keep safe – it is about educating us as a society: challenging assumptions, supporting survivors, breaking down stigma, and bringing this dark practice to light before another generation of girls is made to suffer. 



Macfarlane AJ, Dorkenoo E. (2015). Prevalence of female genital mutilation in England and Wales: national and local estimates. See: (accessed 8 October 2019).

NHS Digital. (2019) Female genital mutilation (FGM): April 2018 to March 2019, annual report, experimental statistics report. See: (accessed 8 October 2019).

Scottish Liberal Democrats. (2018) Swinson reveals FGM victims identified in Scotland’s biggest cities. See: (accessed 8 October 2019).

Smyth C. (2018) Seventeen women with FGM attended Belfast hospitals. BBC News. See: (accessed 8 October 2019).

WHO. (2018) Female Genital Mutilation – fact sheet. See (accessed 3 October 2019).