International Day of Zero Tolerance For Female Genital Mutilation

FGM blog 2

Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) is the partial or total removal of the external female genitalia for non-medical reasons. Globally, more than 130 million girls and women have experienced some form of FGM in the 29 countries in Africa and the Middle East where it is most common, a figure that will rise to 196 million by 2050 [1]. It is estimated that seven girls have their genitals cut or mutilated per minute [8].

FGM is rooted in cultural, religious and social tradition. It is usually initiated and carried out by women, who see it as a source of honour and fear their daughters will be socially shunned and deemed unmarriageable if they are not cut. FGM is practiced in both Christian and Islamic cultures even though neither the Bible nor the Quran mention the practice. In some areas, a girl who refuses to be cut is seen as stealing from her family; a man won’t offer a dowry for an uncut girl, thus depriving the family of wealth [3]. FGM isn’t just about a girl’s sexuality. It is part of a system that impedes her educational, economic and social rights too, perpetuating gender inequality.

FGM is usually performed sometime between birth and the age of 15. Globally girls are being cut at a younger age, most before the age of five [10]. Typically, the procedure it is performed by a ‘traditional circumciser’, whose instrument of choice might be a sharp stone, broken glass, scissors or razor blade. The ‘operation’ is often performed without anaesthesia. The most common type of mutilation is the complete or partial removal of the inner labia, with or without the removal of the clitoral glans and outer labia.

Tools used for FGM
The UN estimates 20% of affected women/girls have been subjected to infibulation, the harshest form of FMG. Here, the girl is held down by her female relatives as her external genitalia is cut out. She’s then sewn together with thread, thorns or string, with a tiny hole left for the passing of menstrual blood and urine. The wound then heals over and the scar tissue ‘seals’ her vagina shut. To help the wound bond, the woman/girl has her legs bound together from hip to ankle for up to six weeks. Upon marriage her vagina will either be slit open by the circumciser or forced open by her husband’s penis. She is opened further for childbirth and then closed up again afterwards. She is also refibulated if she divorces or is widowed.

FGM causes both physical and psychological pain. Women/girls are at risk of prolonged or fatal bleeding, hepatitis B and C, fatal septicaemia, tetanus, gangrene, death and future gynecological and obstetric problems. Girls are at an increased risk of HIV, since typically the same unsterilized blade is used to cut many girls. Statistics on mortality rate are sketchy, since few records are kept and deaths rarely reported [4].

FGM also jeopardises the health and survival of children born to women who have undergone the procedure. Women who have undergone FGM are twice as likely to die during childbirth and are more likely to give birth to a stillborn child than other women, and risks seem to be greater with more extensive FGM [5].
The good news is that the number of women and girls being cut is one third lower than it was three decades ago. As of 2014, about 10 million people in 15 countries have renounced the practice [7]. However, by 2050, nearly 1 in 3 births worldwide will occur in the 29 countries where FGM is concentrated, so even if rates of decline seen in the past three decades are sustained, the impact of population growth means that by 2050, 63 million more girls could be cut [7].

Female genital cutting is widely recognised as a violation of the human rights of women and girls. Although it has been outlawed or restricted in most of the countries in which it occurs, laws are poorly enforced and in some cases have driven the practice further underground. In Burkina Faso, for example, there was an increase in cutting babies instead of young girls, to escape scrutiny [9]. And FGM is by no means an issue limited to Africa and Asia. As a result of immigration, it has spread to Australia, Europe and North America. Yet few European countries invest in awareness training or investigations and none explicitly accept the threat of genital mutilation as a reason for asylum [12]. In December 2012 the General Assembly passed a resolution calling for intensified efforts to eliminate FGM. And in July 2014 UNICEF and the UK co hosted the inaugural Girl Summit, aimed at mobilising efforts to end FGM and child marriage within a generation.

The Female Genital Mutilation Act 2003 outlaws performing FGM on women/girls in the UK. However, in 2013 the UN expressed concern that in the decade since the Labour government introduced the law, there had been no convictions. Campaigners, meanwhile, warn that many young girls are being taken out of schools by their parents to be cut overseas [11]. And despite UK legislation, an estimated 66,000 women in England and have been affected by FGM, while 24,000 girls under 15 are thought to be at risk.

In 2014, Bristol teenager Fahma Mohamed, 17, daughter of a Muslim Somali family, was chosen to lead a national campaign spearheaded by the Guardian newspaper to make schools to do more to educate students, parents and teachers about the dangers of FGM [14]. Backed by charities and campaigners, Fahma launched a petition on for education secretary Michael Gove to write to the head teachers of all primary and secondary schools about the horrors of FGM, and to do so before the school summer holidays, when girls are traditionally sent away, a period dubbed ‘The Cutting Season’. It became one of the fastest-growing petitions hosted on the campaigning website, at one point attracting two signatures every second [15]. It was readily backed by the health and police sector as well as Malala Yousafzai and UN secretary-general, Ban Ki-moon. Though Gove initially stopped short of saying that FGM should be taught in all schools, he agreed to the request on February 28th [15].

Fahma Mohamed

[1] United Nations Children’s Fund, Female Genital Mutilation/Cutting: A statistical overview and exploration of the dynamics of change, UNICEF (2013)

[2] Desert Flower: The Extraordinary Life of A Desert Nomad, Waris Dirie (1988)

[3] Kenyan ‘cutter’ says female genital mutilation is her livelihood (Feb, 07 2014)

[4] United nations Children’s Fund, Changing A Harmful Social Convention: Female Genital Mutilation/Cutting (2005)

[5] Female Genital Mutilation and Obstetric Outcome: WHO Collaborative Prospective Study in Six African Countries (2006)

[6] Female Genital Mutilation – The Facts

[7] UNICEF: Female genital mutilation/cutting (Oct 31, 2014)

[8] Female Genital Mutilation and Child Marriage: Progress, But Too Slow (July 26, 2014)

[9] Cutters turn razors on babies to evade FGM/C (law Jan 27, 2009)


[11] Special report: Female genital mutilation – unreported, ignored and unpunished (Jan 06 2013)–unreported-ignored-and-unpunished-8439824.html


[13] FGM: more than 1,700 women and girls treated by NHS since April (Oct 16 2014)

[14] Bristol girl Fahma Mohamed fronts national campaign against female genital mutilation (Feb 06 2014)

[15] Fahma Mohamed: the shy campaigner who fought for FGM education (Feb 28 2014)

[16] Tell schools to teach risks of female genital mutilation before the summer