Female Genital Mutilation

WARNING: This page contains explicit and distressing content

What is FGM?

Female Genital Mutilation (FGM), also known as female genital cutting and female circumcision, refers to procedures involving incisions or injury to the female genitalia or removal of external genital tissue for non-medical reasons.

FGM has been classified into four major types by the World Health Organisation:

  1. Clitoridectomy: partial or total removal of the clitoris (a small, sensitive and erectile part of the female genitals) and, in very rare cases, only the prepuce (the fold of skin surrounding the clitoris)
  2. Excision: 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)
  3. Infibulation: narrowing of the vaginal opening through the creation of a covering seal. The seal is formed by cutting and repositioning the inner or outer labia, with or without removal of the clitoris. (According to the WHO, type 3 may describe up to 10% of all FGM)
  4. FGM
  5. Other: all other harmful procedures to the female genitalia for non-medical purposes, e.g. pricking, piercing, incising, scraping and cauterising the genital area

FGM is usually carried out by a female elder with no medical training. She is often paid to cut groups of girls at a time. Basic tools such as razor blades, knives, scissors or pieces of glass are used.

There are no anaesthetics or antiseptics and the conditions are often unsanitary. Girls may be given traditional medicines to help with healing and (particularly in the case of type 3 FGM, infibulation) may have their legs bound together to ensure the vaginal opening heals tightly.

Where does it happen?

FGM is most prevalent in African countries, though it also occurs in some Middle Eastern and Asian countries and in migrant communities from these regions.

Prevalence rates vary, ranging from 85% to as high as 98% in Somalia, Sudan, Egypt and Mali and under 30% in countries such as Nigeria, Senegal and Kenya. Within countries the prevalence rates of FGM differ across communities and regions.

What age does it happen?

Girls are usually cut between the ages of four and 14, but it is also done to infants, women who are about to be married and, sometimes, to women who are pregnant with their first child or who have just given birth.

Up to 140 million women and girls have undergone FGM worldwide, with an estimated 3 million more girls at risk each year - over 8,000 at risk every day.

The practice is becoming increasingly common in the USA, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and Europe, with FORWARD estimating as many as 6,500 girls in the UK alone at risk of FGM every year.

Consequences of FGM

Immediate complications include:

  • Shock
  • Excruciating pain
  • Urine retention, painful urination
  • Ulceration of the genitals, and injury to adjacent tissue
  • Septicaemia
  • Infection and infertility
  • Blood loss

According to a UNICEF report, haemorrhaging and infection from FGM have caused death. There is also a risk of HIV/AIDS, as the same cutting tools are frequently used on multiple girls.

The long-term effects of FGM can have devastating effects on women's lives and include:

  • Psychological trauma
  • Sexual dysfunction
  • Uterine, vaginal and pelvic infections
  • Obstructed labour
  • Greater risk of obstetric fistula
  • Complications in pregnancy and childbirth
  • Difficulty menstruating

Women and girls are often unable to access treatment for complications from FGM, or may be unaware that treatments exist.

Not only may the consequences of FGM cause mental and physical harm, but FGM itself also serves to reinforce women’s subordinate place in the societies where it is practised.

Why are girls cut?

The exact origins of FGM are unknown: it is practised across a range of countries, religions and ethnicities. Popular justification often relates to upholding traditional gender roles, emphasising women’s domestic role and place in the community as compliant wives and as child-bearers.

Justifications often cited are:

Read our guest post from FGM survivor, Leyla Hussein: "Making sure my daughter wasn't cut is my greatest achievement". Leyla co-founded charity Daughters of Eve with Nimco Ali, who's also written on surviving FGM, and what needs to be done to prevent British girls being cut.
  • Tradition and custom
  • Religion (widespread mistaken belief that FGM is a religious requirement)
  • Increased fertility
  • Increased male sexual pleasure
  • Marriageability, secure future
  • Protecting virginity and family honour
  • Ensuring lineage through fidelity
  • Hygiene
  • Initiation into adulthood
  • Social acceptance

Organisations working to end FGM and references


Image: Daughters of Eve


Last updated: about 3 years ago