STORY Sep 16, 2019 Haruna Kashiwase

Female Genital Mutilation is still practiced around the world

This year, a mother from Uganda was sentenced to 11-years’ imprisonment for carrying out female genital mutilation (FGM) on her 3-year old daughter in the United Kingdom. FGM is a harmful practice against women and girls and has been banned in the UK since 1985. This is the first conviction and sentence in the UK. You might think that FGM is practiced somewhere far from your community, but it could be happening in your neighborhood. As a matter of a fact, FGM is confirmed not only in the UK but across many regions. This is now becoming a global concern and eradicating FGM has been set as one of the targets in Sustainable Development Goals. Here are a couple of things you need to know about female genital mutilation:

What is FGM?

Female genital mutilation (FGM) is defined as all procedures involving partial or total removal of the female external genitalia or other injury to the female genital organs for non-medical reasons. It doesn’t provide any health benefits, but rather causes serious risks on women’s health including chronic infections and pain, menstrual problems and complications in child birth. FGM has been practiced from generation to generation based on the cultural brief and social norms in the communities. In some communities, FGM is considered a girl’s initiation into womanhood and marriage. While in others, it is believed to ensure premarital virginity and marital fidelity. FGM has been recognized and criticized as a violation of women’s basic human rights in the international community.

Where is FGM practiced? Which countries have the highest FGM prevalence?

The United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) estimates that at least 200 million women and girls have undergone FGM in the world. FGM has been practiced mainly in the western, eastern, and north-eastern regions of Africa and some countries in the Middle East and Asia. FGM is also found in western countries such as United Kingdom, United States and Canada.

According to the data from Demographic and Health Surveys (DHS) and Multiple Indicator Cluster Surveys (MICS), more than 65 percent of women ages 15-49 years have undergone FGM at least in 10 countries. In Guinea, the prevalence of FGM has slowly declined from 98.6 in 1999 to 96.8 in 2016, but it remains extremely high.

Prevalence of FGM by background

The following charts show that the socioeconomic status of women is correlated with the prevalence of FGM:

  • By education: women without education are more likely to undergo FGM than women with the highest level of education. In Kenya, there is a sharp contrast in the prevalence of FGM between women without education and women with highest level of education (58% and 9 %, respectively).
  • By residence: women in rural areas are more likely to undergo FGM than women in urban areas in most countries with data. In Egypt, more than 90 percent of women in rural areas have undergone FGM, as opposed to 77 percent of women in urban areas.
  • By wealth quintile: there are large gaps in the prevalence of FGM between women from poorest and richest households in many countries. For example, in Mauritania, more than 90 percent of women from poorest households have had any form of FGM, compared to 37 percent of women from richest households. However, there are a few exceptions. In Mali, women from richest households have higher FGM prevalence than women from poorest households (87% and 64%, respectively).

How old were the women when FGM was carried out?

Most women have undergone FGM before reaching 15 years old. In several countries, more than 50 percent of women experienced FGM before the age of 5.

Who performs FGM?

Based on the available data, FGM is usually carried out by a traditional practitioner such as traditional circumciser, barber, or traditional birth attendant in the communities. Anesthetic and antiseptics are generally not used. In some cases, FGM is performed by a medical professional. However, the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) has warned that there are no safe FGM practices even when medical professionals are involved since FGM could lead to serious medical complications.

What are the types of FGM?

DHS and MICS classifies FGM into four main categories, depending on the procedure:

  • Cut, but no flesh removed;
  • Cut, some flesh removed;
  • Sewn closed; and
  • Type not determined.

Sewn closed (or Infibulation), narrowing of the vaginal opening through the creation of a covering seal, is the most invasive and severe form of FGM. In Sudan, the majority of women have undergone this type of FGM.

What do women think of FGM in the countries where it is practiced?

While the data shows high prevalence in some countries, women do not necessarily support the practice of FGM, which appears deeply rooted in culture, social norm, and traditions.

  • By education: based on the available data, women with highest education are less likely to support the continuation of FGM practices. In Kenya, only 1 percent of women with highest education support FGM while 40 percent of women without education do. However, in Mali more than half of women with highest level of education still support the practice of FGM.
  • By residence: while Sudan has a high prevalence of FGM both in rural and urban areas (87 percent and 86 percent), less than half of women in both areas support the practice—especially in urban areas where only 28 percent of women think FGM should continue.
  • By wealth quintile: the percentage of women from richest households who support FGM is lower than that of women from poorest households in all the countries on the list. In Mauritania, only 13 percent of women from richest household support the practice of FGM while 62 percent of women from poorest households do.

FGM has been proven to have no medical benefits, and instead poses significant health risks. This practice is mostly performed on girls before they reach puberty – while they are still too young to make significant decisions for themselves. And in the countries where it is still practiced, the majority of women do not support FGM. In 20 out of 26 countries with data, more than half of women think that FGM should end.