What is FGM?
FGM is internationally recognized as a violation of the human rights of girls and women. FGM has no health benefits, only harm.
Female genital mutilation is the procedure that involves partial or total removal of the external female genitalia, or the injury to the female genital organs for non-medical reasons.
Traditional circumcisers, who often play multiple predominant roles within communities, typically carry out FGM procedures. FGM procedures may also take place in health care settings due to the inaccurate, ill-advised belief that the procedure is safer when medicalized. The World Health Organization strongly recommends that health professionals do not perform these types of procedures.
Female genital mutilation is classified into 4 major types:
- The 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 cliterous).
- This is the partial or total removal of the clitoris and the labia minora (the inner folds of the vulva), with or without excision of the labia majora (the outer folds of skin of the vulva).
- This is the narrowing of the vaginal opening through the creation of a covering seal. The seal is formed by cutting and repositioning the labia minora, or labia majora, sometimes through stitching, with or without the removal of the clitoris.
- All other harmful procedures:
- This includes anything else that is harmful to the female genitalia for non-medical purposes including piercing, incising, scraping, and cauterizing.
As mentioned before, FGM has no health benefits. It harms girls and women in many ways. It involves removing and damaging healthy and normal female genital tissue, which interferes with the natural functions of girls and women’s bodies. It is illegal and a form of gender-based violence.
Immediate complications can include:
- Severe pain
- Excessive bleeding
- Genital tissue swelling
- Urinary problem
- Wound healing problems
- Injury to surrounding genital tissue
Long-term consequences can include:
- Urinary problems
- Vaginal problems
- Menstrual problems
- Scar tissue and keloid
- Sexual problems
- Increased risk of childbirth complications
- Need for later surgeries
- Psychological problems
There are more detrimental effects of FGM besides the physical, psychological, and emotional impacts. Examples follow:
FGM can have large negative ramifications on a girl’s socio-economic opportunities. It may increase the likelihood of leaving school at a young age, which may be caused by multiple absences in result of FGM side effects. Leaving school at a young age has been well documented on having knock-on effects on earning less, having less control and agency over life choices such as marriage, pregnancy, and family planning.
FGM is also linked to child marriage. Child marriage is linked to early first pregnancy, when the girl’s body is not physically mature enough to bare a child. This can lead to a set of its own problems, including childbirth complications.
FGM can impact the experience of sexual intercourse by being both painful and traumatic. For many who have gone through FGM, it is not only the first instance of sexual intercourse that causes pain. The scar tissue may continue to cause pain and discomfort during sex throughout a woman’s lifetime.
These are just a few of the many, many examples of how women’s lives are negatively affected.
Who is at risk?
Procedures are mostly carried out on young girls, between infancy and adolescence, and occasionally adult women. The practice is most common in the western, eastern, and north-eastern regions of Africa, in some countries in the Middle East and Asia, as well as among migrants from these areas.
Why does FGM happen?
FGM is a mix of sociocultural factors within families and communities. The World Health Organization lists the most commonly cited reasons as:
- Where FGM is a social convention (social norm), the social pressure to conform to what others do and have been doing, as well as the need to be accepted socially and the fear of being rejected by the community, are strong motivations to perpetuate the practice. In some communities, FGM is almost universally performed and unquestioned.
- FGM is often considered a necessary part of raising a girl, and a way to prepare her for adulthood marriage.
- FGM is often motivated by beliefs about what is considered acceptable sexual behavior. It aims to ensure premarital virginity and marital fidelity. FGM is in many communities believed to reduce a woman’s libido and therefore believed to help her resist extramarital sexual acts.
- Where it is believed that being cut increases marriageability, FGM is more likely to be carried out.
- FGM is associated with cultural ideals of femininity and modesty, which include the notion that girls are clean and beautiful after removal of body parts that are considered unclear, unfeminine, or male.
- Though no religious scripts prescribe the practice, practitioners often believe the practice has religious support.
- Religious leaders take varying position with regard to FGM: some promote it, some consider it irrelevant to religion, and others contribute to its elimination.
- Local structures of power and authority, such as community leaders, religious leaders, circumcisers, and even some medical personnel can contribute to upholding the practice.
- In most societies, where FGM is practiced, it is considered a cultural tradition, which is often used as an argument for its continuation.
- In some societies, recent adoption of the practice is linked to copying the traditions of neighboring groups. Sometimes it has started as part of a wider religious or traditional revival movement.
Why is this a public health issue?
Public health promotes and protects the health of people and the communities where they live, learn, work, and play. I believe female genital cutting is a public health issue because more than 200 million girls and women alive today have been cut, which is a violation of human rights that causes unnecessary harm and injury.
In terms of what can be done to end FGM, public health officials should speak out against FGM, and convince people of influence within communities to also speak out against it. This is a global concern.
World Health Organization
Center for Disease Control and Prevention
Women’s Health, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services
Orchid Project—“Working together to end female genital cutting”
Daughters of Eve—“Working to protect and empower girls and young women”