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Five Essential Facts About Female Genital Mutilation—And How to Help End It

By Regina Park

February 6, 2018

With the dignity, health and well-being of millions of girls at stake, there is no time to waste. Together, we can and must end this harmful practice. -UN Secretary-General António Guterres

Today is International Day of Zero Tolerance for Female Genital Mutilation (FGM). Not sure what FGM is, or why it’s such a devastating practice for girls and women around the world? Then this article is for you. FGM, sometimes known as female genital cutting (FGC), is actually an umbrella term that includes all procedures involving the partial or total removal of female genitalia for non-medical reasons. To date, at least 200 million girls and women alive today have been subjected to FGM globally—and thanks to rapid population growth, the rate is only increasing.

 

So why is it happening?

FGM is sometimes viewed as a way to control female sexuality. And, it is often practiced in communities with pervasive gender inequality. FGM is often seen as an important rite of passage conducted at puberty. A girl who has not been circumcised has less status in society than a circumcised woman would.  

  1. There are four types of genital mutilation, with each procedure being more invasive than the last. Different ethnic groups and regions often practice different varieties of FGM.
  2. Female genital mutilation is dangerous to sexual and reproductive health. Although FGM is technically a cultural tradition, it carries with it serious medical risks for the women it is performed on, including but not limited to: sexual problems, increased risk of childbirth compilations, severe infection and pain, heavy scarring, psychological problems, and sometimes death.
  3. It is more often women, not men, that perpetuate FGM. Elderly women see the ritual as an essential part of becoming a women, and have a hard time accepting girls who do not receive the procedure as a full-fledged member of society. Many girls that undergo the procedure choose it of their own free will because, to them, the social benefits outweigh the physical costs.  Like Bettina Shell-Duncan, an anthropology professor at the University of Washington, told the Atlantic, “Female circumcision is part of demarcating insider and outsider status. Are you part of this group of elder women who have power in their society?”
  4. There have been recent cases of FGM in the United States. Genital mutilation isn’t just a problem in faraway nations. The practice continues to thrive in diaspora communities in Europe and, yes, the U.S. as well. As recently as 2017, UNICEF reported that a Detroit doctor was found guilty of performing genital mutilation on girls aged six to eight.
  5. The practice has been deemed a violation of human rights. Despite its classification as a cultural tradition, the severe health risks of the practice has caused the UN to denounce the practice as an extreme violation of female rights, and in 2007 formed the Joint Programme to Eliminate Female Genital Mutilation specifically for this pervasive issue. Many countries where the procedure is most popular have followed in the UN’s footsteps and outlawed the practice.

FGM is a harmful practice that infringes upon the bodies and minds young girls and women. It should not be encouraged or performed any longer. UN Secretary-General António Guterres said it best: “With the dignity, health and well-being of millions of girls at stake, there is no time to waste. Together, we can and must end this harmful practice.”

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  Header photo by Albert Gonzalez Farran, UNAMID.

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