What is Female Genital Mutilation?
Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) is sometimes referred to as female circumcision, although it has far wider implications beyond the common understanding of circumcision.
FGM refers to the removal of a part, or all, of the female genitalia. The procedure consists of a clitoridectomy (where all, or part of, the clitoris is removed) and the excision and cutting of the labia majora to create raw surfaces which are then stitched or held together in order to form a cover over the vagina when they heal. A small hole is left to allow urine and menstrual blood to escape. The most severe form is infibulation, also known as pharaonic circumcision.
Girls can undergo genital mutilation anytime between shortly after birth to during their first pregnancy. The type of mutilation and the way in which it is carried out depends on the woman or girl’s ethnic group, what country they are living in, whether they live in a rural or urban area and their socio-economic provenance.
An estimated total of 100 to 130 million women and girls have been subjected to this practice. Two million girls each year are at risk of genital mutilation – around 6000 per day. FGM is practised in more than 25 countries in Africa and in a few countries in the Middle East and Asia.
FGM is mainly performed on children and adolescents between four and 14 years of age. In some countries, however, up to half of all genital mutilation is performed on infants under one year old, including 44 per cent in Eritrea and 29 per cent in Mali.
In diaspora and refugee communities in Europe, Canada and the United States increasing numbers of girls and young women are at risk of the procedure, with governments currently failing to address the seriousness of the issues on a legal, policy and social level.
Why is FGM practiced?
Female genital mutilation is perpetuated for a number of reasons including:
- sexual to control or reduce female sexuality.
- sociological for example, as an initiation for girls into womanhood, social integration and the maintenance of social cohesion.
- hygiene and aesthetic reasons, where it is believed that the female genitalia are dirty and unsightly.
- health in the belief that it enhances fertility and child survival.
- religious reasons in the mistaken belief that it is a religious requirement.
The health risks of FGM
The procedure poses a serious health risk for girls and women as it is often performed with basic cutting instruments, under little or no anaesthetic, that not only is extremely painful, but can cause fatal medical complications. In addition, the lack of hygiene practised by cutters, like using of the same instrument on several girls without sterilization, can cause the spread of HIV/AIDS and other infection.
FGM permanently damages female genitalia and can result in women being unable to experience sexual pleasure. The procedure often causes long-term physical and emotional implications due to the restriction it places for girls and women to experience sex equally to their partners, alongside the trauma as a result of the procedure and its associated implications.
FGM and the law
FGM is a fundamental violation of basic human rights and contravenes the UN Convention of the Rights of the Child. Some countries, such as the UK, have banned the procedure both at home and abroad, however enforcing the law and safeguarding girls will involve a complex process, and it remains to be agreed as to what this process will be. Conversely, countries such as Somalia, where infibulation is practiced on around 98 per cent of girls and women, have no legislation prohibiting FGM. Even in countries with long standing laws FGM is still widespread in many areas.
In the UK, the Prohibition of Female Circumcision Act 1985 was replaced with the Female Genital Mutilation Act 2003, which repeated the provision of the 1985 Act and applied them extra-territorially. In effect, this protects girls and women taken overseas for the purpose of genital mutilation. The new law also increased the maximum penalty on conviction and indictment for FGM from 5 years to 14 years imprisonment. However, there have been no prosecutions under the law despite more and more women presenting themselves to health care professionals and specialist clinics treating hundreds of women with FGM related complications.
What is UNICEF doing to eradicate FGM?
In 1997 UNICEF, the World Health Organization and the United Nations Population Fund, unveiled a joint plan to bring about a substantial decline in FGM within ten years and to entirely dissolve the practice within three generations.
The plan calls for a multi-disciplinary approach and highlights the importance of teamwork at a national, regional and global level. The plan identifies the need to educate the public and law makers on the need to eliminate FGM, to tackle FGM as a violation of human rights as well as a danger to women’s health and to use the entire UN system to encourage every African country to develop a national, culturally specific plan to eradicate FGM.
In 2002, at the UN Special Session on Children governments forged a commitment to end the disturbing phenomenon by 2010.
On 6 February 2003, delegates from 30 African countries vowed to eradicate FGM on what they declared ‘International Day of Zero Tolerance of FGM’. Furthermore, in June 2003, UNICEF attended the Afro-Arab Expert Consultation in Cairo. From this event the ‘Cairo Declaration for the elimination of FGM’ was produced which highlights the provision of existing legal tools for the prevention of FGM.
UK agenda for action
Ending all forms of FGM is crucial to the success of two of the Millennium Development Goals: improving maternal health and promoting gender equality. UNICEF UK calls on the government to fulfil its responsibility under this agreement.
UNICEF UK therefore supports the Female Genital Mutilation Bill but also stresses the need for the Government to invest more energy into exploring the reasons why there have been no prosecutions for FGM, and to address culturally sensitive, educative approaches for the eradication of this gross breach of the rights of young girls.
No More Female Genital Mutilation!
Are you a young girl who has been affected by FGM?
FGM is a Crime
It is illegal in the UK
It is an offence to take female children out of the UK
Child protection is everyone’s responsibility
Are you a young girl who has been affected by FGM?
KMEWO Can Help
For confident advice and assistance please contact us:
Kurdish and Middle Eastern Women’s Organisation
Tel: 020 7263 1027
- KMEWO – 137,000 women and girls in England and Wales affected by FGM
- Daughters of Eve: What is Female Genital Mutilation?
- World Health Organisation Factsheet: Female Genital Mutilation
- Gov.uk: Female Genital Mutilation Resource Pack
- Buzzfeed: Here’s what you need to know about the global fight to end FGM