Questions and Answers on Female Genital Mutilation

Q. What is female genital mutilation (FGM)?

A. Female genital mutilation (sometimes erroneously called “female circumcision”) refers to three different kinds of cutting procedures performed on the external genitalia (vulva) of young girls or women. The three basic types of FGM are:

  • “Sunna” circumcision—The cutting of the prepuce or “hood” of the clitoris, preserving the clitoris itself. The least commonly practiced form of FGM.
  • Excision—The cutting of the clitoris (clitoridectomy), together with adjacent or all parts of the labia minora, without closure of the vulva. The most common type of FGM in African countries, except in Somalia and the Sudan.
  • Infibulation—The cutting of the clitoris, labia minora and at least the anterior (forward) two-thirds of the labia majora. The two sides of the vulva are sewn together, so that only a small opening is left to allow for urinary and menstrual flow. The stitching together of the vulva after the procedure is called infibulation.

Q. How many people are affected and where?

A. There are more than 100 million women and girls alive today who are affected by FGM,the vast majority of them in Africa. Some also live in parts of the Middle East and Asia. With migration, affected women and girls now also live in the United States, Europe and, presumably, other parts of the world. It is estimated that, given rapid rates of population growth in Africa, an additional 2 million girls are subjected to this harmful traditional practice each year.

Q. Why does this practice continue?

A. Female genital mutilation is not sanctioned by either Christianity or Islam, but is practiced by followers of both religions, as well as by people of animist and other spiritual traditions. Ensuring virginity, protecting the honor of the family, traditions of cleanliness and beauty, and its role as a rite of passage to adulthood are among the reasons cited for FGM, but more research is needed. The practice appears to go back thousands of years and pre-dates both Christianity and Islam.

Q. What are the health consequences of FGM?

A. The health consequences of FGM are two-fold: short-term consequences relating to the procedure itself, and long-term effects on the health and well-being of the affected girl or woman.

FGM is usually performed with non-sterile, often crude instruments without anesthesia.Infection, injury to adjacent organs, and hemorrhaging—often leading to shock and even death—are among the immediate health consequences of FGM.

The long-term health consequences of FGM include scarring, which can cause life threatening complications in childbirth, and chronic infection, and infertility. Women subjected to FGM often experience psychological trauma, painful intercourse and menstruation, and lack of sexual pleasure.

Q. What is being done about this practice?

A. Roughly one quarter of all African girls and women are affected by FGM. Despite its widespread practice, international organizations and governments have moved slowly to address this health and human rights issue.

Out in front are a number of African women’s organizations working to educate and change the behavior of their communities, including the National Association of Nigeria Nurses and Midwives (NANNM), Kenya’s Maendeleo Ya Wanawake Organization (National Women’s Organization), and the Inter-African Committee on Harmful Traditional Practices Affecting Women and Children. One NANNM-sponsored project is credited with reducing the incidence of FGM by 30 percent.

Several international organizations are now working actively with local communities and governments to address FGM. In 1995, UNICEF gave eight million dollars to be spent in five countries over a five year period to support local initiatives to stop the practice. The United Nations Population Fund (also known by its original acronym, UNFPA) is working closely with the government of Uganda to end FGM. US-based non-governmental organizations—such as the Research Action Information Network for Bodily Integrity of Women (RAINBO) and the Program for Appropriate Technology in Health (PATH)—are also involved in efforts to end FGM. Through its Special Projects Fund, Population Action International supported the efforts of African activists on this issue for more than a decade.

On March 30, 1997, legislation went into effect outlawing female genital mutilation to individuals under 18 years of age in the United States. Other countries that have passed legislation against FGM include Belgium, Great Britain, France and Sweden.