FGM, or Female Genital Mutilation is the practice, traditional in some cultures, of partially or totally removing the external genitalia of girls and young women for nonmedical reasons. More than 125 million girls and women have been cut in the 29 countries in Africa and Middle East where FGM is concentrated (1). FGM is mostly carried out on young girls sometime between infancy and age 15. FGM is illegal in many countries.
The procedure has no health benefits for girls and women. Procedures can cause severe bleeding and problems urinating, and later cysts, infections, infertility, complications in childbirth, increased risk of newborn deaths and the need for later surgeries to repair the damage.
The practice is mostly carried out by traditional circumcisers, who often play other central roles in communities, such as attending childbirths. However, more than 18% of all FGM is performed by health care providers, and the trend towards medicalization is increasing.
FGM is recognized internationally as a violation of the human rights of girls and women. It reflects deep-rooted inequality between the sexes, and constitutes an extreme form of discrimination against women. It is nearly always carried out on minors and is a violation of the rights of children. The practice also violates a person's rights to health, security and physical integrity, the right to be free from torture and cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment, and the right to life when the procedure results in death.
"This is a gross human rights violation," Jaime Nadal-Roig, the U.N. Population Fund representative in Cairo, told CNN. "It doesn't add anything to the life of the girl, and there are no medical or religious grounds whatsoever." FGM has been illegal in Egypt since 2008, but the practice remains woven into the very fabric of Egyptian society, where many see cutting as a way to "purify" a girl and make her marriage material.
The causes of female genital mutilation include a mix of cultural, religious and social factors within families and communities. Where FGM is a social convention, the social pressure to conform to what others do and have been doing is a strong motivation to perpetuate the practice. It is often considered a necessary part of raising a girl properly, and a way to prepare her for adulthood and marriage.
FGM is often motivated by beliefs about what is considered proper sexual behavior, linking procedures to premarital virginity and marital fidelity. FGM is in many communities believed to reduce a woman's libido and therefore believed to help her resist "illicit" sexual acts. When a vaginal opening is covered or narrowed, the fear of the pain of opening it, and the fear that this will be found out, is expected to further discourage "illicit" sexual intercourse among women with this type of FGM.
FGM is associated with cultural ideals of femininity and modesty, which include the notion that girls are “clean” and "beautiful" after removal of body parts that are considered "male" or "unclean". Though no religious scripts prescribe the practice, practitioners often believe the practice has religious support. Religious leaders take varying positions with regard to FGM: some promote it, some consider it irrelevant to religion, and others contribute to its elimination.
Local structures of power and authority, such as community leaders, religious leaders, circumcisers, and even some medical personnel can contribute to upholding the practice. In most societies, FGM is considered a cultural tradition, which is often used as an argument for its continuation. In some societies, recent adoption of the practice is linked to copying the traditions of neighboring groups. Sometimes it has started as part of a wider religious or traditional revival movement. In some societies, FGM is practiced by new groups when they move into areas where the local population practices FGM.
So what can be done to counteract FGM? Progress at both international and local levels includes: a) wider international involvement to stop FGM; b) international monitoring bodies and resolutions that condemn the practice; c) revised legal frameworks with growing political support to end FGM, including a law against FGM in 24 African countries, and in several states in two other countries, as well as 12 industrialized countries with migrant populations from FGM practicing countries.
The good news is that in most countries, the prevalence of FGM has decreased, and an increasing number of women and men in practicing communities support ending its practice. Research shows that, if practicing communities themselves decide to abandon FGM, the practice can be eliminated very rapidly. May this continue on a broader scale with international support.
1.UNICEF. Female Genital Mutilation/Cutting: a statistical overview and exploration of the dynamics of change, 2013.
2 Information taken from the World Health Organization fact sheet on Female Genital Mutilation