Why does female genital mutilation continue to happen?

Female Genital Mutilation (FGM), also commonly known as ‘cutting’ or ‘female circumcision’, is an ancient traditional practice which has been carried out for over 2000 years by ‘traditional excisors’ and, in certain countries, by medical professionals. But, even though NGOs, social media, news organisations, continue to draw attention to this issue, how many of us actually know what FGM entails? Why it still happens? And where it happens?

What is FGM?

According to the World Health Organization, FGM encompasses “all procedures that involve partial or total removal of the external female genitalia, or other injury to the female genital organs for non-medical reasons”. There is no medical reason for FGM. In fact, FGM has serious negative implications for health – including psychological, sexual, and reproductive health. Immediate complications may include hemorrhaging, severe pain, infections, and behavioural disturbances (in children) due to the psychological stress endured during the procedure and erosion of trust and confidence between the child and caregiver. Whereas, long term effects include anxiety, depression, sexual dysfunction, and increased risk of HIV transmission.

Why does FGM happen?

FGM continues to this day, despite it being internationally condemned in several treaties, conventions, and national legislations, such as the UN Declaration of Human Rights, UN Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination Against Women, Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman, or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, and if performed on a minor, the Convention on the Rights of the Child.

The practice is an indicator of deep rooted gender inequities against women and their bodies. For example, FGM is primarily used to enforce patriarchal cultural notions of ‘femininity’ which is that women must remain ‘beautiful’, ‘clean’, and ‘untouched before marriage’. That a woman cannot and should not be in charge of her own sexuality, it must be controlled and maintained by others. By ‘cutting’ a female’s genitalia, it is believed that her libido decreases (reducing the chances of ‘illicit sexual acts’) and removes the ‘unclean’ parts of her body.  In areas where girls and women are largely dependent on men for income, FGM often then becomes a prerequisite for marriage.

Is FGM a religious requirement?

As famously highlighted in Reza Aslan’s interview with CNN, the western world tends to view FGM as an ‘Islamic practice’ on the basis that Muslim majority countries – such as Egypt, Somalia, and Sudan – have high rates of FGM. However, FGM has not been referenced in the Qu’ran and even predates the prophet Muhammad’s (PBUH) birth. It’s practice that is also widely accepted and performed in Christian majority countries such as Ethiopia and is largely absent in other Muslim majority countries such as Turkey. Even though there is no religious backbone for FGM, religions including Islam, Christianity, and Judaism are generally used to justify the practice and has been (but not always) promoted via religious leaders.

Where does FGM happen?

FGM is a global phenomenon. Currently, over 200 million women and girls alive today have undergone FGM in 30 countries across Africa, Asia, and the Middle East where the practice is most concentrated. The highest prevalence of FGM amongst females between the years of 15 to 49 are Somalia (98%), Guinea (97%), and Djibouti (93%). Even though the practice is concentrated in these regions, the arrival of immigrants, refugees, and asylum seekers from places where FGM is normalised, has led to the practice being found in ‘pockets’ across Europe, Australia, and North America.

According to ‘The European Parliament resolution of 24 March 2009’, an estimated 500,000 women in the EU have experienced FGM while an additional 180,000 are at risk of FGM annually. However, it’s important to note that these results have been derived from ‘unclear’ methods and, therefore, should be carefully interpreted to avoid inaccurate statements and the stigmatisation of immigrants, refugees, and asylum seekers. In general, there is a scarcity of FGM-related statistics in the EU since it is notoriously difficult for several reasons, such as the:

  • Intimate nature of FGM;
  • Absence of an ongoing systematic, representative, and harmonised surveys for FGM;
  • Lack of resources allocated to measure the prevalence of FGM;
  • Lack of current, complete, and accurate quantitative data on the number of girls and women who originated from places where FGM typically occurs. For example, census figures may not include undocumented migrants, refugees, asylum seekers, lack details about the country of origin and birth, and in certain member states, it is unethical and illegal to access and use data ‘on the basis of ethnicity’;
  • Lack of qualitative research which provides insight into how acculturation and migration affect the social attitudes which perpetuate FGM.

Having accurate statistics for the prevalence of FGM is vital to eliminating the practice. These statistics help creating an understanding of the scale of the issue, accelerate action – whether it’s the development of policies, legislations, funding allocations- to ultimately protect the rights of millions of girls and women.

Female genital mutilation in the European Union and Croatia. Report by European Institute of Gender Equality. 2013
Estimation of girls at risk of female genital mutilation in the European Union. Report by European Institute of Gender Equality. 2015