Female Genital Mutilation
Updated: Nov 8
Trigger warning: This article will cover the topic of genital mutilation. Please feel free to skip this one if you are triggered by topics surrounding gender-based violence.
Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) is the umbrella term for all procedures that involve the partial or total removal of the external female genitalia, or other injuries to the female genital organs for non-medical reasons. It is usually performed using a sharp object such as knives, razor blades or broken glass, and is done by a traditional practitioner without medical training. However, recent evidence has shown that there is an increasing amount of trained medical staff performing this often life-threatening procedure.
FGM is incredibly dangerous and can lead to many serious injuries. Immediate complications include severe pain, fever, and even death. If the woman (although it is more likely to be a girl under the age of 15) does not die from the procedure right away, it can also lead to many long-term complications such as urinary infections, infertility, and psychological problems. As if these complications are not bad enough, there is also the fact that FGM has absolutely no health benefits. It actually often interferes with the natural functions of a woman’s/girl’s body.
You might now wonder if FGM is actually still actively performed in today’s world, and the answer is, sadly, yes. In fact, according to a fact sheet about FGM provided by the WHO, more than 200 million girls and women still alive today had to undergo this inhumane procedure. Moreover, an estimated 3 million girls are at risk for Female Genital Mutilation each year, showcasing that FGM is very much a problem of today.
Which ethnicities and nationalities are most at risk, and why does it still exist?
FGM is mostly carried out in the Western, Eastern and North-Eastern regions of Africa, in some countries of the Middle East, and in Asia. However, FGM is also performed on migrants from exactly those areas, making it a global concern. There is a map, called the FGM Prevalence Map which shows its global prevalence.
As we can see when looking at the map, FGM is also present in Europe. This might come as a surprise, but, as previously mentioned, it is also performed on migrants from the ‘danger areas’. In fact, a statistical report by UNHCR 2018, called 'Too Much Pain', revealed that in 2017, 66,000 women and girls coming from countries where FGM takes place have applied for asylum in Europe; 24,000 of them could potentially already have undergone FGM. This goes to show that Female Genital Mutilation is not only a reality outside of our privileged Western world but also within it.
However, what still has to be established is the reason behind FGM, especially because it doesn’t have any health benefits. The main reason for FGM is social norms. Of course, these norms are dependent on the country FGM is performed in, but they are typically based on gender inequality in cultures where violence against women is normal. Practitioners and supporters of FGM usually argue that the procedure is to upkeep the girl’s ‘purity’ through her staying a virgin. Traditionally, in countries where FGM is prevalent, a girl is only worthy of marriage when she is still a virgin. FGM often severely limits a girl’s libido and sexual pleasure, because sexual intercourse often inflicts a lot of pain. Therefore, FGM is typically rooted in deeply sexist and misogynistic social norms, aiming to maintain a family’s honour and a girl’s ‘marriageability’.
First and foremost, there is already a lot of work being done to prevent FGM. In the UK, Female Genital Mutilation was made illegal in 1985 under the Female Circumcision Act. Then, in 2003, the Female Genital Mutilation Act was introduced, making it illegal to carry out FGM abroad, carrying a sentence of up to 14 years in prison. Since then, more legislation has been passed with the aim of abolishing FGM. Another very important fact is that FGM is internationally recognised as a violation of the human rights of girls and women, since the practice violates women’s rights to health, security, and physical integrity as well as the right to be free from torture and cruel, inhumane, or degrading treatment.
However, while all this work is necessary, it is clearly not enough. Education about FGM is vital and schools are the point of entry. Since most girls affected by FGM are under the age of 15, it is important for schools to teach children about it. While in the UK education about FGM is only compulsory in secondary school, the British government does encourage primary schools to put it into their curriculum as well. This all seems perfect, but of course there is a catch.
A survey carried out by NSPCC/YouGov that examined 1,000 teachers in England found that one in six did not even know that FGM was illegal in the UK and that it is their legal duty to safeguard children at risk. Moreover, a worrying 17% of teachers did not consider FGM to be child abuse.
1 in 6 teachers in England didn't know FGM was illegal in the UK
This just goes to show how important it is to further develop educational programs on FGM. In fact, it is important to not only educate the potentially affected children, but also the people who are supposed to safeguard them. Of course, it is not enough to only properly educate people in the Western world about FGM’s dangers, prevalence and cruelty. However, we have to start somewhere. It is perhaps more effective to first start educating communities, especially teachers, in Western countries where FGM is not as prevalent. Once we begin to see the impact of education in the Western world, we can start to tackle education in ‘danger areas’.
Nonetheless, if people who are educated about FGM in the West, typically not rooted in social frameworks endorsing it, are not aware of its dangerous and damaging impact, how are communities in countries where the practice is deeply embedded in their cultural fabric supposed to make progress? Education is a start, but it may take a long time to unlearn and re-teach the systems and socio-cultural beliefs that fuel FGM worldwide.
Edited by Olena Strzelbicka.