8 Things To Know About Female Genital Mutilation

Often rationalized as a rite of passage into womanhood, in reality, it is a human rights violation and an extreme form of violence used to control girls’ and women’s sexuality.

Results show that when women’s and girls’ human rights are reinforced and legally protected, FGM declines or is abandoned altogether. International women's rights organization Equality Now has been at the forefront of efforts to end FGM, pushing for laws that protect girls and criminalize the practice, and supporting grassroots activists working to end FGM in their communities.


1. The term FGM covers a range of harmful practices to female genitalia

FGM is defined as the partial or complete removal or injury of external female genitalia for non-medical reasons. While FGM is defined as any injury to the external female genitalia for non-medical reasons, it is commonly broken down into four types, as outlined by the World Health Organization (WHO):

> Type I — Clitoridectomy, which involves the partial or total removal of the clitoris and/or the prepuce. The clitoris is a woman's most sensitive erogenous zone for sexual pleasure.

> Type II — Excision, which involves the partial or total removal of the clitoris and the labia minora, with or without excision of the labia majora. The labia are the lips that surround the vagina.

> Type III — Infibulation, this is the most extreme form of FGM in which the vaginal orifice is narrowed with the creation of a covering seal, done by cutting and appositioning the labia minora and/or the labia majora, with or without excision of the clitoris. The appositioning of the wound edges involves stitching or holding the cut areas together for a length of time (such as by binding a girl's legs closed) to create the covering seal. A small opening is left for urine and menstrual blood to exit. Infibulation must be opened through penetrative sexual intercourse, surgery or other means.

> Type IV — All other harmful procedures to the female genitalia for non-medical purposes, and includes practices like cauterization, incising, pricking, piercing, and scraping.

2. At least 200 million women and girls alive today have been subjected to FGM

According to official data on the global prevalence of FGM released by UNICEF, there are 200 million women and girls in the world who have been cut. Shocking though this statistic is, it seriously underestimates the nature and scale of the problem.

Every year, at least 3.9 million girls are at risk of undergoing FGM globally. However, the exact figure is difficult to quantify, partly because data relies on women self-reporting having undergone the practice. Due to population growth in areas of the world where the practice is most common, there is also a concern that the number of women and girls subjected to FGM could rise in the near future.

3. FGM occurs on every continent except Antarctica

Another issue is that the figure of 200 million is based on official representative data which is available for only 30 countries, 27 of which are in Africa. However, small-scale data and anecdotal evidence shows that FGM is occurring in over 30 more countries, many of which have passed laws banning the practice.

FGM occurs on every continent and across all cultural, religious and socio-economic groups. In addition to FGM occurring in Africa, Asia, and the Middle East, it is also practiced in Australia, Europe, Latin America, New Zealand, North America, and countries in Asia such as Malaysia.

FGM is global, but so is the movement to end it.

4. It happens to women and girls of all ages.

From India to Liberia to the United States, FGM can have lifelong implications for women and girls who are subjected to it.

It is typically carried out on girls between infancy and age 18, often without anesthetic. In some countries, such as Indonesia and Egypt, FGM may be offered in hospitals alongside vaccinations as part of a “birth package.”

In many contexts, FGM is closely linked to early and forced marriage. Girls are cut in preparation for marriage, with families seeing it as a way to protect their daughters future by securing them a husband, and by stopping them from engaging in sexual activity that could lead to pregnancy outside of marriage.

In communities where FGM has been practiced for generations, every woman has been cut and all girls are expected to undergo the same, it can seem like there is no other option. This can make it very difficult for girls or their families to go against such deeprooted traditions.

5. FGM only causes harm

FGM has no medical benefits but is associated with a wide range of health problems. At the time the practice is carried out, complications include severe bleeding, psychological and physical trauma, infection, along with other serious injuries. In some instances, it causes death.

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), over the course of her life, a girl or a woman who has been subjected to FGM faces difficulties with menstruation, such as pain and difficulty passing menstrual blood or urine, urinary tract infections, pain during sex, less or no sexual satisfaction, and increased risk of complications during childbirth, among other risks to her physical and mental health.

6. It is a human rights violation.

FGM is recognized as a violation of the human rights of women and girls under international human rights law and by relevant bodies including the Committee on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), the World Health Organization (WHO), the United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child, UNICEF, and the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA).

In 2012, the United Nations General Assembly adopted a resolution to eliminate FGM and, in 2015, the 193 countries comprising the United Nations unanimously agreed to a new global target within the body’s Sustainable Development Goals calling for the elimination of FGM by 2030.

   \*Photo Credit: Equality Now/ Chedley Ben Ibrahim\*  

7. It’s rooted in a desire to control women’s sexuality

While the reasons behind FGM vary from context to context, it is largely rooted in the desire to control women’s sexuality and bodily autonomy. The practice is deeply rooted in patriarchal social norms and the idea that women and girl’s bodies must be kept “pure” and subjugated for men’s pleasure.

FGM is not recommended by any religion or in any religious texts.

8. The law is just one pillar of the global efforts to eradicate FGM

Whilst ensuring that girls and women are protected by law from FGM is key, the law cannot eradicate this practice alone.

We need to address the fundamental inequality in attitudes and perceptions on the role and place of women and girls in society. To move forward in the efforts to eradicate FGM, every one of us needs to commit to engaging in discussions around gender equality at all levels, within our communities, and our families, as well as at a national and international level.

Increasing women’s access to education can help to curb the incidence of FGM, as it opens women and girls’ minds to considerations beyond the traditions of their communities. Women and girls with more education are also less likely to choose the practice for their daughter, in addition to being less likely to have undergone FGM themselves.

Coupled with greater knowledge about the damaging effects of FGM, educational initiatives, such as school based anti-FGM campaigns, community wide campaigns, and media campaigns utilizing theater and other entertainment sources, can lead to greater understanding of the importance of having and enforcing laws against FGM.

Take action today — together, we can help end FGM around the world.

Photo Credit: Equality Now/ Tara Carey

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