FGM/C Shifting Sands

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Newborns incorrectly reported as having undergone ‘FGM’ in England

Published 9 March 2018 Associated Categories The facts
FGM hype

‘FGM’: data errors, hype and double standards

New prevalence data about ‘FGM’ have been released by NHS digital. And the press releases/coverage that followed were predictably sensationalist. But they ignored the important error embedded in the small print: that newborn baby girls in England have been falsely reported as having undergone ‘FGM’.


‘FGM: Eleven newly recorded cases in England every day’ reported Barnardo’s, the charity that runs the National FGM Centre, together with the Local Government Association.

The new tabloid, The Guardian, went for a different headline following the Bristol trial, saying: ‘Reported cases of FGM rise sharply in UK yet still no court convictions’.

Figures quoted come from estimates as well as the FGM Dataset which provides a picture of the prevalence of FGM across the NHS in England. Data about women and girls is reported quarterly when they have been identified in healthcare settings as having had FGM. The latest report, published 6 March 2018, covered the period between October and December 2017.


NHS Digital always includes the caveat ‘As a general rule, caution is advised in interpreting FGM Enhanced Dataset findings because data completeness is often low and varies by region, submitter and data item. Caveats are noted in the descriptions accompanying the outputs in the main report.’ But data continues to be reported as fact, particularly when the point being made can be negative or sensationalised.

Within the report, a cumulative total was also published: 15,390 women and girls were identified with ‘FGM’ between April 2015 and December 2017. The ‘eleven newly recorded cases in England every day’ from which this figure derives seems deliberately obtuse so as to suggest that they could be new cases carried out in the UK. But they aren’t.

Low attendance rates

Attendance in this quarter amounted to 1760 individuals. That’s the second lowest figure reported since records in this format started to be collected in Quarter 2, 2015.

The number of new attendees was 1030. That’s the lowest ever recorded in those 11 quarters.

Why the hype?

The data confirmed, as usual, that almost 85 per cent of these attendances were in Midwifery and Obstetric services. And the average age at attendance was 31 years.

Again, 87 per cent of the women and girls were under 18 when their ‘FGM’ was undertaken. And in 98 per cent of cases, the procedure was undertaken over 10 years ago i.e. earlier than 2007. Under 18’s amounted to 15 people only.

The country of birth was reported as the UK for 40 people, and for 20, FGM was undertaken in the UK.

Error about children who’ve undergone ‘FGM’ in England

The probably small but significant, recently identified problem with data collection was reported again. The data is supposed to represent only women and girls where they have been actually identified as having undergone ‘FGM’.

But some women who had given birth to a baby girl, in England, had their daughter’s details included in the Dataset, despite that the newborn patently hadn’t had the procedure. This is an acknowledged, human error. But their number has helped inflate the official figures.

NHS Digital is working with the affected organisations to delete these records. But where are the media headlines about this embarrassing error? Where is their attempts to explain that the numbers have been inflated?

Genital piercings reported as ‘FGM’ but not tattoos or labiaplasty

As usual the majority of the 30 people who had a ‘Type 4’ were genital piercings.

The report explains: ’Genital piercings are included because the World Health Organisation currently defines all female genital piercings as a form of FGM. The data item FGM Type 4 qualifier allows users to specify that the FGM was a piercing.’ But labiaplasty and genital tattoos are not included. Are double standards at play here? If so, why?

Agency self-promotion

The perceived ongoing need for the National FGM Centre and its approach was demonstrated by Barnardo’s when it emphasised in its press release: ‘Much more needs to be done to support survivors of female genital mutilation and protect girls at risk’.

The Local Government Association also got in on that act suggesting ‘The latest statistics show just how important the work of the National FGM Centre is. It is concerning that there were more than 1,000 newly recorded cases, including 20 cases where the procedure was undertaken in the UK.’

It’s glaringly obvious whose interests really are at stake in regard to ‘FGM’.

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About the Author -

Bríd is a retired health professional. She started her career as a nurse and midwife in Africa where she worked for almost four years. She encountered FGM/C in Ethiopia. She then moved to London where she worked in the National Health Service as a midwife, community nurse, health visitor, reproductive and sexual health nurse and manager over a period of 30 years. She did not encounter FGM/C during that time despite working with immigrant communities who are reported to practice it still. She is puzzled by the current reported prevalence of the practice, the official response and associated activism. And is worried that they might cause more harm than good.


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