Written by Juliana Campos, Nadia Annous and Maria Popova.
FGM, or the full-term Female Genital Mutilation is a practice performed on women and young girls involving removal or injury to the female genital organs. It is not performed for medical reasons, nor does it bring any health benefits. FGM is generally considered a human rights violation and a form of torture with long lasting effects on girls’ physical and mental health, often leading to early marriage and hindering girls’ access to education in over 30 countries worldwide.
What is Female Genital Mutilation (FGM)?
According to the World Health Organisation, FGM consists of total or partial removal of the external genitalia or injury to the female genital organs. There are four types of FGM:
- Partial or total removal of clitoral glands;
- Partial or total removal of clitoral glands and labia minora;
- Infibulation, which consists of narrowing the vaginal opening;
- All other harmful procedures to female genitalia for non-medical purposes.
In total, it is estimated that over 200 million women have undergone this procedure worldwide. Currently, FGM is performed in over 30 countries around Africa, the Middle East and Asia, with most occurrences being registered in Somalia, Guinea, Djibouti and Egypt. Most victims of FGM fall between the age range of 0 to 15 years old.
Immediate and long-term complications
FGM has no health benefits, on the contrary, it can lead to a number of short and long-term complications to women. The adverse effects of the procedure are both physical and psychological, as FGM interferes with the natural functions of the female body and brings several damages to a healthy and normal genital tissue. Short-term health complications include excessive pain and bleeding, swelling, fever and infections. Oftentimes, the practitioners performing FGM use shared instruments, which leads to transmission of HIV and Hepatitis. Long-term complications include urinary and vaginal infections, pain during intercourse and complications during childbirth, especially in women who have undergone infibulation, as the sealed vagina is ripped open for intercourse and stitched back again after childbirth or widowhood. Neonatal mortality rates are also higher in places where FGM is practiced, as it can lead to increased risk of death for the baby.
How does FGM affect schooling?
FGM has a direct effect on girls’ education, starting by the long period of recovery needed after the procedure. A full recovery can take up to several months, by the end of which girls may feel it is pointless to return to the same school year. The longer education is disrupted, the lower are the chances of a return to school and many girls end up taking on other responsibilities such as house chores or informal work instead.
Another effect on girls’ education caused by FGM is the increased social pressure for marriage. Especially in low-income households, marriage can mean better financial stability and higher social status. As a result, education is no longer a priority for these girls’ families, causing many FGM victims to enter early marriages, which may lead to early pregnancies, diminishing the chances of a return to school to near zero.
Besides physical health complications, the psychological trauma caused by such an invasive and painful procedure, often performed without anaesthesia, may be paralysing for these girls, possibly leading to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), depression, difficulties in socialisation and an overall impact on girls’ confidence.
Why is FGM still practiced?
There are different reasons as to why FGM remains such a common practice in certain regions, most of which reflect cultural or social factors. For instance, FGM is considered a requirement for women to be eligible for marriage, serving as “proof” that they have been kept “pure”. As a result, many families may feel as if they should conform to this practice in order to protect their daughters from social exclusion. In countries like Somalia where, according to UNICEF, 98% of girls between the ages of 5 and 11 have undergone FGM, not being part of that astonishing statistic can outcast these young girls from their communities.
Since the 1990’s, FGM has been the center of political debates as the international community and feminist groups press governments for a ban on this practice. However, besides guaranteeing social status, there is also a culture aspect behind FGM. It is seen as an honourable rite of passage, a way for these communities to connect to their ancestors and it creates a sense of belonging which can be difficult for outsiders to comprehend.
As a result, local political leaders who are openly against FGM are accused of caving in to external pressure and reduce their chances of being elected, making it unlikely that there will be a change in laws before there is a change in these societies’ cultural mindsets. This is evidenced by the fact that FGM is still practiced in many countries where it is officially illegal, such as Egypt, Ghana, Senegal and Burkina Faso.
How can education help end FGM?
Many girls are forced to undergo FGM at an age when they don’t understand the risks of the procedure. In fact, due to the alarmingly low literacy rates in some communities, it is likely that neither parents nor practitioners are able to make scientifically informed choices regarding these young girls’ health. It is evident, therefore, that education and access to information may be the strongest tools for prevention against Female Genital Mutilation.
Though information can be spread orally and not necessarily through formal education, taboos still hinder open discussions on female reproductive health. That is why it is important for healthcare professionals to educate local practitioners and parents in an accessible way. As education is also an empowering tool, it is crucial that girls are invited into these conversations and informed of their human right to make decisions over their own bodies.
What is being done to stop FGM?
Evidently, the process of educating people about the dangers of FGM must be done respectfully, by listening to these communities and understanding what this rite of passage means as a tradition. That is what NGOs such as the Association for the Promotion of Women in Gaoua (APFG) have done. APFG contributors in Burkina Faso have managed to persuade FGM practitioners to maintain the sacred rituals of the rite but leave out genital cutting. That way, girls are protected from the complications of FGM and the community’s tradition is kept.
It is equally as important to support survivors all around the world, women who are still dealing with the long lasting physical and mental impacts caused by FGM. The NGO Terre de Femmes or TDF, a German organisation working on raising awareness against Female Genital Mutilation, works to protect and support FGM survivors in Europe, particularly in countries with the highest rates of affected individuals, namely France, Belgium, Italy, The Netherlands, and the United Kingdom. TDF also advocates against Female Genital Mutilation by writing petitions and increasing political pressure for countries to either ban FGM or ensure existing laws are upheld.
Female Genital Mutilation results in numeral short and long-term complications for women, including a significant disruption in girls’ education. It is an extremely dangerous practice affecting thousands of girls each year, girls who have been denied the basic human right to physical integrity.
Still today, perhaps due to cultural stigmas around female reproductive health, FGM is not as openly discussed as other gender related issues and efforts to tackle its impacts are still insufficient. Educating practitioners, parents and girls themselves by providing information on the dangers of FGM is a powerful tool against this harmful procedure. Furthermore, it is crucial to take FGM’s social, political and cultural complexities into consideration and, most importantly, amplify FGM victims’ voices.
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- The EU supports projects working to end violence against women and girls. Education is amongst the most important ways to stop female genital mutilation. (n.d.). https://ec.europa.eu/justice/saynostopvaw/projects/education-is-amongst-the-most-important-ways-to-stop-female-genital-mutilation.html
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- World Health Organization. (2023, January 31). Female genital mutilation. World Health Organisation. https://www.who.int/news-room/fact-sheets/detail/female-genital-mutilation
- What is Female Genital Mutilation? (n.d.). Pharos. https://www.pharos.nl/english/female-genital-mutilation/what-is-female-genital-mutilation/
- UNICEF. (2023, August). Female Genital Mutilation – UNICEF DATA. UNICEF DATA; UNICEF. https://data.unicef.org/topic/child-protection/female-genital-mutilation/
- UNICEF. (2019, March 4). What you need to know about female genital mutilation. Unicef.org; UNICEF.https://www.unicef.org/stories/what-you-need-know-about-female-genital-mutilation
- NHS. (2019, May 20). Female Genital Mutilation (FGM). NHS; NHS. https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/female-genital-mutilation-fgm/
Cover Image by UN Women/Ryan Brown via Flickr
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