Female Genital Mutilation (FGM)

“My mother brought a midwife and some neighbors home. She prepared everything and left me alone with them in the room,” Jamila recalls. “They took off my shorts, and each of them held one of my legs. The midwife had a small blade which she used to cut this part of me, and that was it,” she says.1

This was Jamila’s experience of female genital mutilation (FGM). She was nine years old.

Jamila’s story is one out of more than 200 million girls and women alive today who have been subjected to female genital mutilation or FGM.2

What is FGM?

Female genital mutilation (FGM) is an old cultural tradition practiced by communities around the world. FGM is the partial or total removal of the external female genitalia, or other injury to the female genital organs for non-medical reasons.3 FGM does not have any health benefits for girls and women. FGM is practiced as a custom. It is part of cultural traditions like the rites of passage, to mark the age of a female child, to control women’s sexuality and to confirm virginity before marriage and faithfulness after marriage.4

Female genital mutilation (FGM) is performed without the consent of the female involved. There are immediate and lifelong consequences including death. FGM is a violation of the human rights of girls and women.2

Prevalence of FGM 2

FGM is mostly carried out on young girls between 0 and 15 years and occasionally on adult women. FGM is mostly found in sub-Saharan Africa and Arab states, but it is also practiced in some countries in Asia, Eastern Europe and Latin America. FGM is also practiced among migrants from these communities in Europe, North America, Australia and New Zealand.

Prevalence of FGM7

Types of FGM 2

There are 4 main types of FGM:  

Type 1, also called clitoridectomy: Partial or total removal of the clitoris and/or the clitoral hood.
Type 2, also called excision: Partial or total removal of the clitoris and the labia minora, with or without removal of the labia majora.
Type 3, also called infibulation: The narrowing of the vaginal opening through the creation of a covering seal. The seal is formed by cutting and repositioning the labia minora and/or the labia majora, sometimes through stitching. This can happen with or without removal of the clitoris.
Type 4: All other harmful procedures to the female genitalia for non-medical purposes. For example: pricking, piercing, incising, scraping and cauterizing (burning the flesh with a heated instrument) the genital area.

Types of FGM8

Other terms related to FGM2:

Incision: Making cuts in the clitoris or cutting the clitoral hood. Includes incisions made in the vaginal wall and areas between the genitals and anus.
Deinfibulation: Cutting open a woman who has been infibulated (type 3) to allow intercourse or childbirth.
Reinfibulation: resewing the external labia back together after deinfibulation.

FGM is Harmful 3

FGM has no health benefits and only harms girls and women. The more severe the type of FGM, the greater the risk. Girls and women who underwent FGM have immediate and long-term consequences often lasting for life.

Immediate complications include severe pain, excessive bleeding, genital tissue swelling, fever, infections, urinary problems, wound healing problems, injury to surrounding genital tissues, shock, death.

Long term complications include urinary problems, vaginal problems, menstrual problems, scar tissue, sexual problems, increased risk of childbirth complications, need for later surgeries and psychological problems like depression, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Despite having no health benefits and with serious consequences, why is FGM practiced?

Cultural and social factors for performing FGM 2,3

Female genital mutilation (FGM) is an ancient tradition practiced before Christianity and Islam by different societies across generations and continents.2 Communities perform FGM for different reasons. The reasons are a mix of social and cultural factors within families and communities. At the core, FGM is deeply rooted in gender inequality.

In communities that practice FGM, both men and women support the practice. While there are growing objections from communities to stop FGM, families who do not practice FGM may face criticism, harassment and isolation.5 The social consequences of not performing FGM perpetuates the practice.

Reasons for practicing FGM2

Psychosexual reasons: To control women’s sexuality, to ensure virginity before marriage and faithfulness after marriage and to increase male sexual pleasure.

Social and cultural reasons: To mark a girl’s transition to womanhood and as part of a cultural tradition.

Hygiene and visual reasons: Some communities consider the external female genitalia dirty and ugly.

Religious reasons: Religion is used to justify the practice. However, FGM is not a requirement of any religion. No religious texts recommend the practice.

Social and economic reasons: In many communities, FGM is a requirement for marriage. Where women are dependent on men, financial necessity is a major reason to do FGM. For people who perform the practice, FGM is a source of income.

Who performs FGM? 2,3

Traditionally, FGM is performed by traditional midwives or elders (usually women) assigned to perform the practice. In some countries, FGM is increasingly performed by health-care providers. This is referred to as the “medicalization of FGM”. Doctors who perform FGM are from the same communities practicing FGM and are subjected to the same social norms. The “medicalization of FGM” does not make the practice legal and instead, continues to violate human rights and medical ethics.


Throughout the past years, there has been growing international efforts to stop the practice.5 While there is a slow decline in FGM, a deeply traditional and complex issue like FGM does not end so simply. When a custom has been practiced throughout generations and is believed to be socially accepted, the attitudes of society are harder to change. 6

The needed change in social attitudes to end FGM requires collaboration. It needs the shared effort across all areas of health, education, law, finance, and women’s affairs.3 It involves supporting communities, religious and non-governmental organizations to stop the practice. It needs the continued and coordinated efforts led by survivors of FGM and communities that practice FGM to put an end to the practice.2

FGM is not a woman’s issue – it is everyone’s issue.

Awareness and advocacy starts with you. Speak out using #endFGM on social media to make it known we must end this harmful practice.5

Read about the commonly believed myths of FGM here.


Header Photo: Pixaby

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