Around the world, at least 200 million women and girls alive today are living with the results of the harmful practice of female genital mutilation (FGM). While women and girls today are less likely to be subjected to FGM compared to decades ago, the United Nations Population Fund estimates an additional 2 million girls are at risk of this practice because COVID-19 disrupted preventive programs and child protection systems. FGM is often directly linked to child marriage, which many parents view as the most viable option for their daughters, especially during economic uncertainties like those related to the pandemic or the current global hunger crisis.
Defining FGM and the four types
FGM is all procedures that involve partial or total removal of the female external genitalia or other injury to the female genital organs for non-medical reasons.
There are four types:
1. The first, called Mild Sunna, is the pricking of the tip of the clitoris with a sharp instrument, like a pin, which leaves little to no damage.
2. The second, called Modified Sunna, is the partial or total excision, or cutting of the body of the clitoris.
3. The third, called Clitoridectomy, is the removal of part or all of the clitoris as well as part or all of the labia.
4. The fourth type is called infibulation, or pharaonic circumcision, which consists of the excision or removal of the clitoris plus the excision of the labia minora as well as the inner walls of the labia majora. The raw edges of the vulva are then sewn together. When this heals it forms a wall over the vaginal opening. A small sliver of wood, or similar object, is inserted into the vagina to keep open a small hole so urine and menstrual fluid can pass.
Most girls in Egypt undergo FGM type 2 or 3 between the ages of 4 and 12.
What are the consequences of FGM?
FGM has serious implications for the physical, psychological, and sexual and reproductive health of girls and women. Often carried out under unsanitary conditions without anesthetic, FGM can cause severe pain, bleeding, and swelling that may prevent passing urine or feces. In the long term, it leads to chronic pelvic infections, urinary tract infections, and birth complications for mothers and children.
FGM is still practiced in at least 30 countries across three continents.
While most prevalent in Africa and the Middle East, FGM is a global problem and is also practiced in Asia and Latin America. Among immigrant populations living in Western Europe, North America, Australia, and New Zealand, female genital mutilation continues to persist.
Why is it still practiced?
FGM still continues because of gender inequality and deeply held cultural beliefs and attitudes. Most girls and women familiar with FGM say they would like to see it end, but there is social and cultural pressure to continue the practice. Though officially illegal in many countries, female genital mutilation is still practiced globally and is often a direct precursor to child marriage, since it symbolizes a girl’s entrance into womanhood. Mothers, fathers, extended family, and community leaders may force or coerce girls and young women to undergo the procedure to be accepted as “clean” and ready for marriage.
How are attitudes towards FGM evolving?
Girls’ and women’s attitudes about FGM vary widely across countries where the practice is prevalent, but opposition is mounting. The majority of girls and women (roughly 7 in 10) in most countries in Africa and the Middle East with representative data believe the practice should be eliminated. This proportion is about twice what it was only two decades ago.
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