What Is Female Genital Mutilation?

Female genital mutilation, also known asFGM refers to all procedures which partially or completely remove the external female genitalia. FGM also includes any other injury to a woman's or girl's genitalia for reasons other than medical ones. In most parts of the world, FGM is done by non-medical practitioners who also attend childbirths and carry out male circumcisions. According to WHO (World Health Organization), over 18% of all female genital mutilation procedures are carried out by health care professionals in clinical setting, a trend which appears to be growing.

Virtually every country in the world agrees that female genital mutilation is a violation of a female's human rights. It is seen as an extreme form of discriminating against females in the community. As most procedures are carried out on young girls, it is also a violation against children's rights.

According to WHO:

"(female genital mutilation 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."

The World Health Organization informs that there are four main types of female genital mutilations:

FGM may involve cutting out all or part of the clitoris, the labia majora and/or minora, and stitching the labia together so as to narrow the opening
    • Clitoridectomy - the clitoris is partially or completely removed. The clitoris (see picture)is the most sensitive erogenous zone of the human female, and the main cause of her sexual pleasure. It is a small erectile part of the female genitalia. Upon being stimulated, the clitoris produces sexual excitement, clitoral erection, and orgasm.


    • Excision - the clitoris and labia minora are partially or completely removed. It may also include the removal of the labia majora. "Labia" refers to the lips that surround the vagina. (see picture)


    • Infibulation - the vaginal opening is narrowed; a covering seal is created. The inner or outer labia are cut and repositioned. This procedure may include (or not) the removal of the clitoris.


  • Other - procedures not listed above which damage the female genitalia and are not carried out for medical purposes. This may include cauterizing, scraping, incising, pricking or piercing the genital area (genital piercing is usually safe if performed by a licensed, professional body piercer).

    Read more: Complications From Female Genital Piercing - eHow.com.

Female genital mutilation offers the female no health benefits

Not only does FGM offer no health benefits for the female, it is associated with serious risks of harm. Healthy and normal (natural) female genital tissue is removed. In fact, these procedures undermine a girl's and woman's natural functions.

The following complications may occur during or soon after FGM procedures:

  • Excruciating pain, which can sometimes result in loss of consciousness
  • Bleeding (hemorrhage)
  • Bacterial infection (sepsis)
  • Open sores in the genital area
  • Urine retention and other problems urinating
  • Nearby genital tissue is damaged

The following long-term complications are also common:

  • Bladder infections which keep coming back
  • Cysts
  • Infertility
  • A considerably higher risk of newborn deaths
  • A significantly higher rate of childbirth complications
  • Further surgeries - if the opening has been narrowed, later on it will need to be "opened-up" again so that the female can have sex and give birth. In some cultures, this opening and narrowing is done several times throughout a female's life.

How common is female genital mutilation?

According to WHO, over 140 million females have undergone some form of female genital mutilation and currently live with its consequences. In Africa alone, it is believed that approximately 92 million girls aged 10+ years have undergone FGM procedures.

In the majority of cases, FGMs are done on girls aged between infancy and 15 years - FGMs are also done on adult women.

Approximately 3 million girls in Africa are deemed "at risk" for FGM each year.

FGM is most commonly performed in the north-eastern, western and eastern regions of Africa, as well as some parts of the Middle East and Asia - usually among African migrants who have moved there.

ShoulderFlex Massager
Prevalence of female genital mutilation in Africa and Yemen (women aged 15 - 49) (Source: MICS, DHS and other national surveys, 1997-2006. Map developed by UNICEF, 2007)

Why does female genital mutilation occur?

FGM is due to several factors, and often a combination of them, including those of a religious, social and cultural nature.

  • Social convention - "it is what others do, and what we have always done.." Social pressure and a desire not to stand out as a rebel is a powerful force, especially in societies with low literacy rates.
  • Proper thing to do - in some societies, FGM is part of proper female upbringing. It is said to prepare her for marriage and adult life.
  • Decent sexual behavior - in some cultures, FGM is linked to virginity and being faithful during marriage. If a woman's libido is reduced (by cutting the clitoris), it is believed that her chances of taking part in "illicit" sex is much smaller. Narrowing the vaginal opening is thought to keep females from taking any sexual risks, for fear of pain or widening the opening, being found out and getting into trouble for it.
  • Femininity and modesty - some societies believe that FGM makes girls cleaner and more beautiful. Some body parts, such as the clitoris (which sticks out) are seen as male or unclean.
  • Religions - even though not written in any of the major religions, practitioners are either convinced, or have convinced their communities that the practice is a religious one and should be carried out for that reason. It must be pointed out that many religious leaders are against FGM, and are involved in the movement to eradicate its practice.
  • Power and authority - in some cases, local chiefs, religious leaders, practitioners of FGM and circumcision, and even some health care professionals all agree that it is a practice that must prevail.
  • A new practice - in some cases, some communities have adopted the practice of FGM because they picked it up from neighboring communities. In some cases, it is the revival of an old custom.
  • Immigrants - sometimes, people who come from communities that don't practice FGM, and come to live in societies that do, adopt the practice to fit in.

Amnesty International informs that in some cultures, it is believed that a man would die if his penis touched a woman's clitoris. Some say that if a baby's head comes into contact with the clitoris, he/she could die. In some communities, women who have not undergone FGM are not allowed to handle food and water because of the perceived health risks for others.

Percentage of females aged 14 to 49 years living with FGM, according to year quoted(Source: UNICEF)

      Benin - 2006 - 12.9%


      Burkina Faso - 2006 - 72.5%


      Cameroon - 2004 - 1.4%


      Central African Republic - 2008 - 25.7%


      Chad - 2004 - 44.9%


      Côte d'Ivoire - 2006 - 36.4%


      Djibouti - 2006 - 93.1%


      Egypt - 2008 - 91.1%


      Eritrea - 2002 - 88.7%


      Ethiopia - 2005 - 74.3%


      Gambia - 2005/6 - 78.3%


      Ghana - 2006 - 3.8%


      Guinea - 2005 - 95.6%


      Guinea-Bissau - 2006 - 44.5%


      Kenya - 2008/9 - 27.1%


      Liberia - 2007 - 58.2%


      Mali - 2006 - 85.2%


      Mauritania - 2007 - 72.2%


      Niger - 2006 - 2.2%


      Nigeria - 2008 - 29.6%


      Senegal - 2005 - 28.2%


      Sierra Leone - 2006 - 94%


      Somalia - 2006 - 97.9%


      Sudan, northern (about 80% of all surveyed) - 2000 - 90%


      Togo - 2006 - 5.8%


      Uganda - 2006 - 0.8%


      Tanzania - 2004 - 14.6%


    Yemen - 2003 - 38.2%

Response to eradicate female genital mutilation

Resolution WHA61.16 was passed by the World Health Assembly in 2008; the aim being to eliminate FGM. Participants stressed the need for comprehensive action by all those involved in justice, women's affairs, education, finance and health.

Of concern, is the following quote from WHO:

"WHO is particularly concerned about the increasing trend for medically trained personnel to perform FGM. WHO strongly urges health professionals not to perform such procedures."

Written by Christian Nordqvist

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