Female Genital Mutilation (FGM)

What is Female Genital Mutilation (FGM)?

Female genital mutilation (FGM), also known as female circumcision or female genital cutting, is defined by the World Health Organisation (WHO) as "all procedures involving partial or total removal of the external female genitalia or other injury to the female genital organs for non-medical reasons".

Waris Dirie, UNFPA Goodwill Ambassador and spokesperson on FGM

"Mama tied a blindfold over my eyes. The next thing I felt my flesh was being cut away. I heard the blade sawing back and forth through my skin. The pain between my legs was so intense I wished I would die."

Waris Dirie, UNFPA Goodwill Ambassador and spokesperson on FGM

It is estimated that approximately 100-140 million African women have undergone FGM worldwide and each year, a further 3 million girls are estimated to be at risk of the practice in Africa alone. Most of them live in African countries, a few in the Middle East and Asian countries, and increasingly in Europe, Australia, New Zealand, the United States of America and Canada.

The procedure is traditionally carried out by an older woman with no medical training. Anaesthetics and antiseptic treatment are not generally used and the practice is usually carried out using basic tools such as knives, scissors, scalpels, pieces of glass and razor blades. Often iodine or a mixture of herbs is placed on the wound to tighten the vagina and stop the bleeding.

The age at which the practice is carried out varies, from shortly after birth to the labour of the first child, depending on the community or individual family. The most common age is between four and ten, although it appears to be falling. This suggests that circumcision is becoming less strongly linked to puberty rites and initiation into adulthood.

FGM types and terms

The World Health Organisation has classified FGM into four types. As well as the term Female Genital Mutilation, there are a number of other terms or names used to describe the practice, perhaps most common, female circumcision or female genital cutting (FGC). FORWARD chooses to use the term Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) as we believe that it is the term that most accurately depicts the true nature of FGM.

For definitions of the different types of FGM, and a list of the different terms used to refer to FGM click here.

Where is FGM Practised?

The majority of cases of FGM are carried out in 28 African countries. In some countries, (e.g. Egypt, Ethiopia, Somalia and Sudan), prevalence rates can be as high as 98 per cent. In other countries, such as Nigeria, Kenya, Togo and Senegal, the prevalence rates vary between 20 and 50 per cent. It is more accurate however, to view FGM as being practised by specific ethnic groups, rather than by a whole country, as communities practising FGM straddle national boundaries. FGM takes place in parts of the Middle East, i.e. in Yemen, Oman, Iraqi Kurdistan, amongst some Bedouin women in Israel, and was also practised by the Ethiopian Jews, and it is unclear whether they continue with the practice now that they are settled in Israel. FGM is also practised among Bohra Muslim populations in parts of India and Pakistan, and amongst Muslim populations in Malaysia and Indonesia.

As a result of immigration and refugee movements, FGM is now being practiced by ethnic minority populations in other parts of the world, such as USA, Canada, Europe, Australia and New Zealand. FORWARD estimates that as many as 6,500 girls are at risk of FGM within the UK every year.

Consequences of FGM

Depending on the degree of mutilation, FGM can have a number of short-term health implications:

  1. severe pain and shock
  2. infection
  3. urine retention
  4. injury to adjacent tissues
  5. immediate fatal haemorrhaging

Long-term implications can entail:

  1. extensive damage of the external reproductive system
  2. uterus, vaginal and pelvic infections
  3. cysts and neuromas
  4. increased risk of Vesico Vaginal Fistula
  5. complications in pregnancy and child birth
  6. psychological damage
  7. sexual dysfunction
  8. difficulties in menstruation

In addition to these health consequences there are considerable psycho-sexual, psychological and social consequences of FGM.

Justifications of FGM

The roots of FGM are complex and numerous; indeed, it has not been exactly possible to determine when or where the tradition of FGM originated.

The justifications given for the practise are multiple and reflect the ideological and historical situation of the societies in which it has developed. Reasons cited generally relate to tradition, power inequalities and the ensuing compliance of women to the dictates of their communities

Reasons include:

  1. custom and tradition
  2. religion; in the mistaken belief that it is a religious requirement
  3. preservation of virginity/chastity
  4. social acceptance, especially for marriage
  5. hygiene and cleanliness
  6. increasing sexual pleasure for the male
  7. family honour
  8. a sense of belonging to the group and conversely the fear of social exclusion
  9. enhancing fertility

Many women believe that FGM is necessary to ensure acceptance by their community; they are unaware that FGM is not practised in most of the world.

Click here for more information, publications and resources on FGM.

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