Disclaimer: Throughout this article, we will be using the terms “woman” and “girl” to describe biological females who experience genital mutilation. We understand that sex and gender are separate, but for the sake of simplicity and consistency, these are the terms we will be using. If you would like to learn more about gender identity, visit our Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity article.
Female genital mutilation (FGM) refers to all procedures that involve injury to and/or removal of the external female genitalia. These procedures are not medically necessary and provide no health benefits. Although FGM is now considered a cruel and inhumane violation of human rights, it is still culturally significant and prevalent in some parts of the world.
It is estimated that more than 200 million girls and women alive today, concentrated in Africa, the Middle East, and Asia, have undergone genital mutilation. The procedure is usually done to women between infancy and age 15.1
Types of Female Genital Mutilation
There are three types of FGM recognized under the World Health Organization (WHO Media Center):
- Clitoridectomy (Type I): The entire or partial removal of the clitoris.
- Excision (Type II): The clitoris and all or part of the labia minora are removed.
- Infibulation (Type III): The clitoris and labia minora are removed, and the labia majora is stitched together to cover the urethral and vaginal entrances, while a new hole is created to allow the passage of urine and menstrual blood.2
Health Effects of Female Genital Mutilation
The health complications and risks associated with female genital mutilation are significant, especially considering the procedure is not medically necessary and does not improve the health and wellbeing of women who experience FGM. The immediate consequences of female genital mutilation include severe pain and loss of blood, swelling, fever, infection, urinary problems, shock, and even death. If the procedure is particularly severe, potential long-term complications include difficulty urinating/menstruating, excessive scarring, severe pain during intercourse that could make sex impossible. Psychological problems such as post-traumatic stress disorder, diminished self-esteem, and fear of sex may also occur as a result of FGM.2
Origins of Female Genital Mutilation
The exact history of female genital mutilation is not well known; however, it is believed to have originated hundreds of years ago in Africa as a rite of passage for young women entering puberty and adulthood.3 FGM-practicing societies believe the procedure is a way of maintaining a woman’s virginity and marital fidelity because it makes sex very painful and undesirable, thus diminishing a woman’s sex drive. The practice is motivated by the desire to control women’s sexual behavior and confine it to what their society deems appropriate: sex only within the confines of marriage. FGM-practicing societies condemn the notion that women are sexual beings and view women with sexual desire as “immoral” or “unclean,” even barring some women from religious practice unless they have been genitally mutilated.2
Arguments Against Female Genital Mutilation
In recent years, activist groups have emerged with the sole purpose of eradicating female genital mutilation, thus preventing future girls and women from undergoing the immense physical and emotional trauma of FGM. The strongest arguments against the practice are as follows.
- FGM is entirely medically unnecessary, offers no health benefits, and is associated with severe complications, both immediate and long-term.1 Generally, the circumstances under which female genital mutilation is carried out are very unsanitary. Most of the midwives are not adequately trained to perform the procedure, and the tools used are not properly sanitized.4 Un-sanitized medical equipment causes infections, which can lead to further complications.
- FGM is a highly sexist practice. It attempts to establish control over women’s sexual behaviors and limit their sexual freedom. It also creates a double standard in FGM-practicing societies since male sexuality is never discouraged in the way that female sexuality is.1
- FGM is often practiced without consent. In societies where female genital mutilation is a standard practice, it is rare to establish consent from the women who will undergo the procedure. Especially if the procedure occurs during infancy or early childhood, the decision of whether to have the procedure is often left to the parents who are likely to follow their culture’s stance on FGM. Considering the many negative health effects and potential consequences of female genital mutilation, it is unjust to make such a significant decision on behalf of someone else.2
Efforts to Eradicate Female Genital Mutilation
Generally speaking, Western society condemns the practice of FGM because it is seen has inhumane. In comparison to FGM-practicing groups, Western culture tends to support the expression of female sexuality and disapproves of damaging societal double standards for men and women. Recently there have been feminist movements to eliminate female genital mutilation in countries such as Kenya and Egypt. Additionally, the governments of Mali and Niger have adopted anti-FGM policies.5
The movement titled “Circumcision Through Words” is an alternative ritual for societies that emphasize girls’ rites of passage. This new ritual includes intensive education on women’s roles in their society as women, as well as more modern education on health, hygiene, and reproductive matters.6 This movement is currently gaining momentum in Kenya and hopefully will spread across Africa and other FGM-practicing societies in the Middle East and Asia in the near future.
The most important tool in the fight to end the cruel practice of female genital mutilation is education. Successful reforms in FGM-practicing societies must begin with educating these societies on the dangers of the FGM procedure. Although it is difficult to combat the immense cultural significance of the practice, education can work to minimize the inequality between men and women in FGM-practicing regions. A more highly-educated world will more easily accept the more progressive ideas, such as men and women are equals; cutting someone’s genitals in unsanitary conditions is highly dangerous; and female sexuality is natural and healthy.
The wide-spread adoption of these beliefs may eradicate the practice of female genital mutilation, thus saving thousands of women from such an inhumane practice.
- Female Genital Mutilation/Cutting: A Global Concern. UNICEF: New York, 2016.
- Female Genital Mutilation. World Health Organization: 2017.
- Historical and Cultural Female Genital Mutilation. The FGM National Clinical Group: 2015.
- Odu, Kome. Iris. Charlottesville: 2004.
- Boyle, Elizabeth H. Female Genital Cutting. Baltimore and London: The Johns Hopkins UP, 2002. 124-133.
- Davis, Simone, W. Feminist Studies. College Park: Spring 2002. Vol. 28, Iss. 1.
Last Updated: 10 March 2017.