What is Female Genital Mutilation or FGM?

A deeply entrenched social and cultural practice in many places, Al Jazeera answers the most asked questions about FGM.

Al Jazeera answers to the most asked questions about FGM. 

What does FGM stand for?

FGM stands for Female Genital Mutilation, which consists of the partial or total removal of the external female genitalia.  

It is also known by other names including ‘cutting’, ‘female circumcision’ and ‘initiation’.

Which countries practice FGM? 

The practice takes place in many parts of the world but it is most common in Africa, Asia and the Middle East. 

According to the United Nations, FGM is practiced by certain communities in the following places:

In Africa: Benin, Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Central African Republic, Chad, Ivory Coast, Democratic Republic of Congo, Djibouti, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Gambia, Ghana, Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, Kenya, Liberia, Mali, Mauritania, Niger, Nigeria, Senegal, Sierra Leone, Somalia, Sudan, Tanzania, Togo, Uganda and Zambia.

In Asia: India, Indonesia, Malaysia, Pakistan and Sri Lanka.

In the Middle East: Yemen, Oman, Iraq, Iran, Palestine, Israel, Egypt, and the United Arab Emirates.

In Eastern Europe: Georgia and Russia. 

In South America: Colombia, Ecuador, Panama and Peru.

And in many Western countries, including Australia, Canada, New Zealand, the United States and the United Kingdom, FGM is practised among diaspora populations from places where it is common.

Why is FGM practised? 

The motivations and justifications given vary and often overlap. Among them are: 

Controlling female sexuality: FGM has been closely associated with the control of female sexuality. According to the World Health Organisation, in different cultures, some believe the procedure curbs women’s sexual urges, and thereby increases the likelihood of them remaining virgins until they are married.

Religion: FGM is practised within both Muslim and Christian communities, as well as by followers of some indigenous religions. Although neither Islam nor Christianity endorse it, religious doctrine is often used to justify it. 

Social obligation: Partly because of its association with religion, many societies consider FGM an essential part of raising a girl and preparing her for womanhood and marriage. With its direct link to beliefs about premarital virginity and marital fidelity, the social pressure to adhere to the practice can be intense.

Economic factors:  And because of these associations, in many communities, FGM is a prerequisite for marriage. In places where women may be financially dependent on marriage, economics can become a justification for FGM.  

Aesthetics: In some communities, the practice is presented as a form of beautification.

Forms of FGM 

According to the World Health Organization there are four main categories: 

  • Type I: Often referred to as clitoridectomy, is the removal of the clitoral hood only 
  • Type II: Also known as excision, is the removal of the clitoris and the labia minora (inner vaginal lips)
  • Type III: Also referred to as infibulation consists in the removal of all the woman’s external genitalia and the narrowing of the vaginal entrance.
  • Type IV: This includes all other invasive procedures on female genitalia for non-medical purposes, including pricking, piercing, incising, scraping and cauterising. 

Who performs it? 

It is normally carried out by older members of the community, often women who lack proper medical training.

Sometimes it is carried out by traditional health practitioners, herbalists, or occasionally a female relative.

In some cases, medical professionals perform FGM.

At what age does FGM take place?

It varies from place to place, but the practice is typically performed on girls between infancy and the age of 15. It is sometimes carried out as early as a couple of days after birth.

How many women and girls are affected?

Approximately 6,000 girls are subjected to FGM every day, with nearly a quarter of them under the age of 14 when it takes place.

More than half of those live in three countries: Indonesia, Egypt and Ethiopia. 

According to a report released by UNICEF in 2016, which examined the prevalence of FGM among girls aged 15 to 19, there has been a decline in Egypt, Burkina Faso, Kenya, Liberia and Togo.

However, due to population growth, based on current rates the number of girls and women undergoing FGM is expected to rise significantly over the next 15 years. 

Where did the practice of FGM originate?

It is not clear when or where the practice of FGM originates. But we know it was practised by the Pharaohs in ancient Egypt.

The United Nations has also reported that forms of FGM were practised in parts of Africa, the Philippines, by certain tribes in the Upper Amazon, in the Arunta tribe in Australia, and by some early Romans and Arabs. 

Gynaecologists in the 19th-century practised it in the United Kingdom and the United States to treat what were then perceived ailments including hysteria, epilepsy, mental disorders, masturbation, nymphomania and melancholia, and lesbianism. 

However, the practice has not proven to have any medical validity. 

How does FGM affect women and girls?

FGM has no proven health benefits. But it can cause serious and lifelong physical and psychological harm.

The extent of the damage caused can depend on the type of FGM performed, and on whether the practitioner had medical training and used sterile tools. 

In the case of Type III, it also depends on whether a small hole was left for the passage of urine and menstrual blood. 

Some of the most common problems caused by the practice include:

  • Severe bleeding, pain and shock, sometimes leading to death
  • Infection, sometimes leading to death
  • Urination and menstrual obstruction
  • Increased risk of urinary tract infections and HIV
  • Mental health problems, including PTSD
  • Sexual dysfunction, including dyspareunia
  • Complications in pregnancy and childbirth, sometimes leading to death

Which countries have banned FGM? 

FGM has been banned by most African countries affected by the practice as well as many other European and Western nations.

Penalties range from a minimum of six months to a maximum of life in prison. Several countries also include monetary fines in the penalty. 

However these laws are not always enforced and FGM continues in many places, affecting the lives of millions of women and girls.

Source: Al Jazeera