Monday, 31 May 2010

The Truth About Female Genital Mutilation

The other day I was chatting to a friend online and we were discussing the interesting online visual map Because Everything Is Best At Something.  My friend queried the Djibouti entry for female circumcision.  She did not know what it was and also did not know why it would be considered a crime.  We spoke about it briefly and it occurred to me that many people do not know about this most heinous of traditional practices.


The practice known as female circumcision or female genital mutilation (FGM) is a cultural and religious practice that takes place mainly in many African countries, the Middle East and southern and western Asia.  Whereas many proponents of male circumcision claim the practice to have health benefits, there are very few such claims about FGM.  This is an overtly oppressive practice that is designed to maintain the submission of women.  There are three main types of FGM and various cultural or religious excuses given for the practice.  Whatever the type or reason, what results is that women’s genital are mutilated, their ability to experience sexual pleasure is drastically reduced or removed and there are often very serious consequences of the practice.

Female Genital Mutilation map of Africa
Image source: Wikipedia

Types of Female Genital Mutilation

The World Health Organization identifies four main types of female genital mutilation:

  • Clitoridectomy: This involves the partial or full removal of the clitoris or in rare cases, only the prepuce (which is the fold of skin that surrounds the clitoris).  Sometimes the prepuce or hood of the clitoris can be too tight and there are possible medical reasons to remove or snip it but that is a rare procedure.
  • Excision: This is where the clitoris and major or minor labia are removed.  These are the lips that surround the vagina and they protect the vaginal opening so there is no possible medical benefits to be derived from removing them.
  • Infibulation: This most heinous form of FGM usually involves sewing together of the labia and leaving only a tiny whole through which a women can urinate and pass menstrual blood.  In the area presented in dark brown in the illustration above, the whole of the external genitalia including the clitoris, labia minora and the inside of the labia majora are removed and then the labia majora are held together by thorns.  The girl’s legs are held together for two to six weeks to allow healing.
Victims of Female Genital Mutilation

The World Health Organization notes that the procedure is usually carried out on girls between infancy and fifteen years of age.  Three million girls are at risk of FGM each year and between 100 and 140 million worldwide are living with the effects of FGM.  The practice is spreading to countries such as the United States and United Kingdom through immigrant populations who will undergo procedures in these countries are undertake them during visits home.

Cultural and Religious Reasons for Female Genital Mutilation

Unicef details five reasons for practicing FGM.  These reasons are based in religion and culture and as such are subject to conjecture, myth, tradition and ritual.  In other words, the reasons for practicing FGM are not legitimate and the act of doing so on an underage girl not only constitutes extreme abuse but it is an international crime against children too.  The reasons for the practice of FGM are:

  • Sexual: to control or reduce female sexuality.  It is very difficult, if not impossible for a woman to experience sexual arousal and orgasm once she has undergone any of the procedures listed above.  The whole idea is that sex should not be pleasurable for females and that only dirty or mentally ill women experience arousal and do such things as masturbate.  In addition to a loss of pleasure and arousal, women often experience massive pain and discomfort following any form of FGM but especially infibulation.  The process of infibulation is often reversed to allow for procreation and childbirth and then redone.
  • Sociological: FGM is a ritual that is performed as a rite of passage in many cultures, initiating women into womanhood and integrating them into the community.  Kurdish advocates of FGM state that the practice makes a woman spiritually clean so that she can serve food to men. 
  • Hygiene and aesthetic reasons:  Some cultures believe that female genitalia are unsightly, unhygienic and dirty.  They believe the healthy and self-cleaning mechanism of vaginal secretion to be dirty and something that can be prevented by infibulation.  They believe that FGM can preserve and maintain virginity and that it prevents the desire for masturbation.  They also believe that it can cure hysteria and depression.
  • Health: many advocates of FGM believe that it increases fertility rates and child survival.  Just so there is no confusion about this, I can state categorically that the opposite effect occurs and both fertility and child survival rates are dramatically reduced due to FGM.
  • Religious reasons: many people mistakenly believe that there is a religious requirement to perform female circumcision or cutting but there are in fact no basis in any of the holy Christian, Jewish or Muslim texts.  This is in contrast to male circumcision which is strictly required in both Judaism and Islam.  The practice does appear to be accepted by Sunni Muslims and there is differing opinions within the faith as to whether this has been passed down in their narrations.  There are some interpretations on Sunni law that state it is obligatory.


  1. I have seen documentaries on this and it is an absolutely horrendous act of manipulation and superiority under the guise of religion, hygiene etc... I am disgusted that nothing is being done about this.

  2. Thanks for this blogpost and for drawing attention to FGM.

    Since volunteering in Ethiopia and discovering more about this practice, I now run a small campaign (with large aspirations!) to ensure that the UN and other agencies follow through on their stated aim of ending FGM within the next generation.

    It should be entirely possible, given what we know about behavioural change, successful projects and the desire for change within the communities that it happens in.

    Yet there is no global commitment, no strategy and most of all, very few resources. All of which takes lobbying and advocacy at a high level. After a year of volunteering my time to this, I still find it remarkable that FGM is so under-represented and under-resourced. It is a classic taboo - absent from so many agendas.

    The "three million girls" figure that you so rightly quote is a case in point. This is in fact only in 75% of African practising countries. So you can begin to imagine how much the siutation is under-estimated. How can we begin to end FGM if we have no idea of the scale of the problem?

    Looking forward to Part 2!

  3. I've been discussing this in my minority rights class- have you heard of teh Seattle Compromise?

    Recently the American Academy of Pediatrics stated they would endorse "symbolic cutting of the clitoris" to prevent Somali immigrants from taking their daughters to Somalia to be mutilated.;102/1/153

    And here is another intersting perspective on this issue from Ayan Hirsi Ali
    I'd be interested to hear your take on all this! Very interesting!

  4. Also, have you read "Desert Flower" by Waris Dirie?
    I LOVE that book!

  5. FGM is a horrendous practice, which should be eradicated.

    Although Female Genital Mutilation is by far worse than circumcision, too little has been written about the mass circumcision of American males, which has started in earnest in the years after WW II.

    Maybe not as painful, terrible and degrading, but still a barbaric act by any definition.

  6. @ Joanne: I share your disgust, especially at the lack of conclusive action. You also put it so succinctly - "horrendous act of manipulation and superiority". There are people working to eradicate it though and hopefully we'll see some degree of success in the coming months.

    @ JLM: Thank you for your reply and your efforts to educate about this phenomenon. I do hope we can chat some more about the matter in future.

    @ Jen: Thank you so much for all of this information. It is incredible and I'm going to feature it on the blog if you don't mind. Ayaan is my new hero - what an amazing woman. My thoughts concur with this quote from the bottom of the AAP article: "Pediatricians and pediatric surgical and urologic surgeons who are contemplating performing such a procedure should consider their role in perpetuating this social practice with its cultural implications for the status of women". But that is a cognitive reaction and not a realistic reaction. I don't know what the solution is.

    @ Politicus: I am coming to realise that too. Is it performed on most American males or still within the bounds of certain religions?

  7. As the British summer holidays approach there will be a signifigant number of young girls who will be taken back to their country of origin to undergo FCM. There are also a number of "drs" who will do it here in the UK. Unfortunaltey women who have had the operation often assist in having it done on their own daughters. Something I do not understand.

    1. Too right, Mo. this is a terrible time of year for FGM and you're right about women sending their own daughters to have it done.


I love comments but delete spam.

HINT: use the "Name/URL" function to get a free backlink straight to your blog!

© A Passion to Understand

This site uses cookies from Google to deliver its services - Click here for information.

Blogger Template Created by pipdig