Chartered Institute
of Linguists

Cutting work

It is vital that victims of female genital mutilation can access qualified interpreting, so how can professionals prepare for such traumatic work, asks Sue Leschen

Female genital mutilation (FGM) has been illegal in the UK since 1985 and it has been illegal to take a child abroad for cutting since 2003. Yet the UK Health and Social Care Information Centre estimates that approximately 20,000 girls in the UK are at risk of FGM each year, with the most common age group being 5-9 years.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) defines FGM (also known as female circumcision) as “all procedures that involve partial or total removal of external female genitalia or other injury for non-medical reasons”. It is practised in at least 29 African countries, despite legislation and/or decrees prohibiting it, and WHO believes that more than 200 million women and girls alive today are victims of this barbaric practice.

As a public service interpreter (PSI), I first came across FGM several years ago, at what I had naively assumed would be just another routine gynaecological examination. While the client could just about cope with being examined by her consultant, I struggled to continue with the assignment, so severe were her FGM injuries.

The agency hadn’t thought to warn me and I hadn’t thought to ask what the appointment was about. Of course, it is possible that they didn’t know – in my experience, hospitals tend to be economical with details relating to “difficult to place” PSI jobs involving FGM, abortion, Aids, tuberculosis and so on. We interpreters often have to use our own initiative to try to get as much information as possible rather than accepting jobs with vague descriptions such as “day surgery”.

For me, such jobs have been exercises in maintaining neutral body language when faced with visually upsetting sights. You learn to mask your discomfort, disbelief, shock and horror at what you are seeing. Some interpreters may not be able to cope, and there is no shame in that. However, they should stay away from this sort of work: the last thing a victim of FGM needs is to see disgust and distaste on her interpreter’s face.

Shocking content

I once had a job interpreting at a conference where nurses were using graphic slides to illustrate the dangers of FGM to a room of female Ethiopian asylum seekers. The nurses (who were clearly well accustomed to this sort of thing) did a sterling job of explaining each slide to the audience, while I had to work hard not to pass out. No one had thought to tell me in advance that the slides would include such graphic photos; all that I had been sent in advance were copies of the speeches. This was yet another learning curve: when interpreting PowerPoint displays, it is important to ask for advance disclosure of the entire – and most up-to-date version of – the slideshow from beginning to end.

I also interpret in the courts in cases where there have been foiled attempts to send young girls abroad “on holiday”. The authorities in the UK are sometimes tipped off by the girls’ mothers, who try to protect their daughters from suffering what they themselves have been through as children. There has only ever been one (unsuccessful) prosecution in the UK, when the defendant, Dr Dharmasena, was acquitted of a charge of reinfibulation (the more extreme form of FGM)1 against a Somali woman who had just given birth in a London hospital. She had been cut in Somalia as a child and refused to support the prosecution. The defendant’s argument that his suturing was to stem blood flow after the birth was accepted by the court.

By contrast, in France there is a tough ‘zero tolerance’ stance, with more than 40 trials (albeit still a drop in the ocean) since FGM was criminalised in 1983. According to Unicef, approximately 89% of girls are cut in Djibouti and Mali. In certain districts in Paris, such as Bondy in Saint-Denis, approximately 25% of the population originates from former French colonies such as these. 

While France clamps down, the problem is being displaced to the UK, courtesy of Eurostar. I interpret for girls who have been sent here for the sole purpose of being cut. According to Unicef, social acceptance of FGM as a rite of passage is the most commonly cited reason. It is culture, rather than religion, that ensures the survival of this particularly insidious form of child abuse. I also interpret for female refugees now living here in established communities within their own ethnic groups whose cultures condone FGM. They talk about cutters being flown into the UK to cut groups of girls in one fell swoop.

Holding back

I recently interpreted in a case where the court took the children’s passports away from their father. He was furious that his “rights” had been restricted in this way and he wasn’t an easy client to interpret for in court, as he was angry and loud. Both he and his wife needed my services, so I initially positioned myself between them in the court room. As the father became increasingly aggressive, I requested the judge’s permission to move away from him. The father then accused all of the professionals in the court room (including the judge and myself) of being “racist” and “discriminating” against him.

In another case, I interpreted for the father’s two wives, who both condoned FGM as a cultural practice. They too had been cut as children and argued that if their daughters were not cut it would bring shame on their family and decrease their future marriage prospects. Tellingly, they said it would also spell financial ruin for the entire family.

Faced with such belief systems, it is important not to go outside my remit as an interpreter. For example, when asked by clients what I think about FGM as a European woman, I never offer an opinion. When working across cultural divides such as these, you have to understand that the clients have grown up in entirely different cultures to your own and know no other way of life. PSIs need to be sensitive to the fact that some girls are under intense social and cultural pressure to practise FGM. The cutter may well wield power and influence in their community, and might even be a relative, such as a future mother-in-law.

PSIs with openly judgemental attitudes to FGM will lessen the chances of clients reporting the practice to professionals such as health visitors. Sadly, many of my clients are isolated from mainstream British society due to cultural and linguistic barriers; some don’t even know that FGM is illegal here – and as their interpreter, it’s not for me to tell them. However, if a client confides in me that a particular child is about to be cut, I can breach client confidentiality on the grounds of safeguarding concerns. Other than that, all I can do is interpret for them to the very best of my professional ability.


1 Infibulation involves the complete removal of the clitoris and labia, and sewing up of most of the vulva. It is largely practised in North East Africa in countries such as Somalia and Ethiopia.

Sue Leschen

Sue Leschen MCIL CL is a lawyer-linguist and the Director of Avocate, a legal and commercial French interpreting and translation company in the UK, which is also an independent training provider ( She sits on the committees of various professional language organisations, including the NRPSI Professional Conduct Committee, and is a member of CIOL Council.