Female genital mutilation is a problem you’ve most likely never discussed. The World Health Organization estimates that at least 200 million women and girls alive today have undergone it, yet globally we remain silent on the issue. It can be an uncomfortable topic to discuss in communities where it is so far from the norm. And this lack of widespread awareness of such a severe and pervasive violation of human rights is indicative of the deep-rooted discrimination against women at the core of this practice.
Female genital mutilation, or FGM, is a human rights issue that affects women and girls around the world. This practice, performed under beliefs of purity or health, has traumatized and abused so many. The education and empowerment of women and girls is only the first step to ending FGM.
Definition of FGM
Female genital mutilation refers to the partial or complete removal of external female genitalia as well as other modifications, including the stitching and narrowing of the vaginal opening. Although the meanings and associations differ by country and community, FGM is often associated with ideas of cleanliness or hygiene, femininity, modesty, the transition into adulthood, chastity, beauty, and family honor.
How It Works
The practice is common in Africa, the Middle East, and Asia. It’s particularly widespread in Egypt, Guinea, and Somalia, although FGM appears to be diminishing globally. However, it is still a major global public health issue.
FGM is most commonly practiced on girls before age 15, but many are younger than age five. FGM is very closely related to education. The more formal education the mother has achieved, the less likely her daughter is to undergo FGM.
This procedure is mostly carried out by people with traditional roles as circumcisers or birth attendants, but they often lack formal medical training. Sometimes, healthcare providers perform it, believing that they can complete the procedure more safely than an untrained person could. However, the World Health Organization opposes FGM in all forms, no matter who performs it.
Proponents of FGM object to using the word “mutilation” and prefer to call this procedure “female circumcision.” However, that is a dangerously unfair comparison because of the physical and emotional harm FGM causes. Over the short-term, FGM can cause severe pain, infection, and blood loss. In the long term, it is related to increased vulnerability to sexually transmitted diseases as well as childbirth complications. Furthermore, it can lead to mental health problems, including anxiety, depression, and post-traumatic stress disorder. FGM is never medically necessary nor beneficial, but it is always harmful and cruel. It is a human rights issue and a severe manifestation of deep-rooted sexism that takes away women’s control over their own bodies and sexuality.
FGM is the social norm in many communities, meaning its use is incredibly pervasive. People in power, such as religious, community, and even healthcare leaders, perpetuate FGM. It is very difficult to challenge a widely accepted cultural practice, especially when it mainly affects a disadvantaged group. To further complicate the issue, FGM has different cultural and social meanings in different places, so no one intervention strategy will work everywhere.
However, before we can create specific intervention plans, we need to educate ourselves and others. Knowledge of FGM and its effects is lacking not only in highly affected communities, but also among non-governmental organizations and foreign governments. Ending this practice will require working at a grassroots level by educating community leaders and members about human rights and opening up dialogue that allows them to question the beliefs that justify this social convention. Empowering and educating women is central to this goal. You can learn more about FGM and help to end it by supporting initiatives like the Joint Program on FGM and the U.S. End FGM/C Network, which have made serious strides towards ending FGM through policy and community-based awareness and education.