What is female genital mutilation?
Female genital mutilation (FGM), also known as female genital cutting and female circumcision, is the ritual cutting or removal of some or all of the external female genitalia. The practice is found in Africa, Asia and the Middle East, and within communities from countries in which FGM is common. UNICEF estimated in 2016 that 200 million women living today in 30 countries—27 African countries, Indonesia, Iraqi Kurdistan and Yemen—have undergone the procedures. Female genital mutilation is defined as a form of violence against women and girls and has been criminalized in many countries.
There is no reliable and comparable data on the prevalence of FGM in Europe. It is estimated, however, that hundreds of thousands of women living in Europe have been subjected to genital mutilation and thousands more girls are at risk. Most women and girls originating from countries in which the practice of FGM is widespread live in the following EU countries: Austria, Belgium, Denmark, Germany, Spain, Finland, France, Ireland, Italy, the Netherlands, Portugal, Sweden and the United Kingdom.
FGM is a crime in the EU. In some EU countries, it is possible to prosecute the practice even when the procedure is performed outside the country. Victim Support Europe has compiled some useful information about FGM in general as well as advice for survivors of FGM on this page.
Key facts from WHO
- Female genital mutilation (FGM) includes procedures that intentionally alter or cause injury to the female genital organs for non-medical reasons.
- The procedure has no health benefits for girls and women.
- Procedures can cause severe bleeding and problems urinating, and later cysts, infections, as well as complications in childbirth and increased risk of newborn deaths.
- More than 200 million girls and women alive today have been cut in 30 countries in Africa, the Middle East and Asia where FGM is concentrated.
- FGM is mostly carried out on young girls between infancy and age 15.
- FGM is a violation of the human rights of girls and women.
According to the World Health Organization, FGM has no health benefits, and it harms girls and women in many ways. It involves removing and damaging healthy and normal female genital tissue and interferes with the natural functions of girls’ and women’s bodies. Generally speaking, risks increase with increasing severity of the procedure.
Immediate complications can include:
- severe pain
- excessive bleeding (haemorrhage)
- genital tissue swelling
- infections e.g., tetanus
- urinary problems
- wound healing problems
- injury to surrounding genital tissue
Long-term consequences can include:
- urinary problems (painful urination, urinary tract infections);
- vaginal problems (discharge, itching, bacterial vaginosis and other infections);
- menstrual problems (painful menstruations, difficulty in passing menstrual blood, etc.);
- scar tissue and keloid;
- sexual problems (pain during intercourse, decreased satisfaction, etc.);
- increased risk of childbirth complications (difficult delivery, excessive bleeding, caesarean section, need to resuscitate the baby, etc.) and newborn deaths;
- need for later surgeries: for example, the FGM procedure that seals or narrows a vaginal opening needs to be cut open later to allow for sexual intercourse and childbirth. Sometimes genital tissue is stitched again several times, including after childbirth, hence the woman goes through repeated opening and closing procedures, further increasing both immediate and long-term risks;
- psychological problems (depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder, low self-esteem, etc.).
Cultural reasons for performing FGM
The reasons why female genital mutilations are performed vary from one region to another as well as over time and include a mix of sociocultural factors within families and communities.
The most commonly cited reasons are:
- Where FGM is a social convention (social norm), the social pressure to conform to what others do and have been doing, as well as the need to be accepted socially and the fear of being rejected by the community, are strong motivations to perpetuate the practice. In some communities, FGM is almost universally performed and unquestioned.
- FGM is often considered a necessary part of raising a girl, and a way to prepare her for adulthood and marriage.
- FGM is often motivated by beliefs about what is considered acceptable sexual behaviour. It aims to ensure premarital virginity and marital fidelity. FGM is in many communities believed to reduce a woman’s libido and therefore believed to help her resist extramarital sexual acts. When a vaginal opening is covered or narrowed, the fear of the pain of opening it, and the fear that this will be found out, is expected to further discourage extramarital sexual intercourse among women with this type of FGM.
- Where it is believed that being cut increases marriageability, FGM is more likely to be carried out.
- FGM is associated with cultural ideals of femininity and modesty, which include the notion that girls are clean and beautiful after removal of body parts that are considered unclean, unfeminine or male.
- Though no religious scripts prescribe the practice, practitioners often believe the practice has religious support.
- Religious leaders take varying positions with regard to FGM: some promote it, some consider it irrelevant to religion, and others contribute to its elimination.
- Local structures of power and authority, such as community leaders, religious leaders, circumcisers, and even some medical personnel can contribute to upholding the practice.
- In most societies, where FGM is practised, it is considered a cultural tradition, which is often used as an argument for its continuation.
- In some societies, recent adoption of the practice is linked to copying the traditions of neighbouring groups. Sometimes it has started as part of a wider religious or traditional revival movement.
Advice for girls and young women
If you are worried that you may be at risk of FGM, you should talk to someone you trust, for example, a teacher or a school nurse.
- If you are in the UK, you can call the FGM helpline: 0800 028 3250. It is free, anonymous, and operating 24/7 (further contacts: https://www.gov.uk/female-genital-mutilation-help-advice)
- If you are in Portugal, you can call 114 or 800 202 148 (further contacts: https://uefgm.org/index.php/advice-support-pt/)
- If you are in Belgium, you can contact Group for the Abolition of Female Genital Mutilation at 02 219 43 40 or email@example.com (further contacts: https://uefgm.org/index.php/advice-support-be/)
- If you are in France, call GAMS at 39-19 (further contacts: https://uefgm.org/index.php/advice-support-fr/)
- If you are in Germany, call the Violence against Women hotline: 08000 116 016 (further contacts: https://uefgm.org/index.php/advice-support-de/)
If you or someone you know is in immediate danger, call 112.
For further information visit: https://uefgm.org/
Advice for families and friends
A girl at immediate risk of FGM may not know what is going to happen. However, she might talk about some of the following events, which should alert you:
- A long holiday abroad or going home to visit family
- Relative or cutter visiting from abroad
- A special occasion or ceremony to ‘become a woman’ or ‘get ready for marriage
A girl or woman who’s had female genital mutilation (FGM) may:
- have difficulty walking, standing or sitting
- spend longer in the bathroom or toilet
- appear withdrawn, anxious or depressed
- have unusual behaviour after an absence from school or college
- be particularly reluctant to undergo normal medical examinations
- ask for help but may not be explicit about the problem due to embarrassment or fear.
If you think someone you know might be at risk or might have undergone FGM, call the FGM helpline 0800 028 3550 in the UK. You can also send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org. If you are not in the UK, you can contact a victim support organisation in your country. You can find an organisation through our website. If anyone is in immediate danger, call 112. You can also find more organisations here.
What you can do to help
One of the key steps all of us can take to end female genital mutilation is educating ourselves and talking about this issue. Below you can find some of the resources which can be helpful in this task.
- FGM aware has compiled an “Essential reading” list for anyone who wants to know more about FGM. You can find it here.
- Three things you can do to help stop FGM:
- Raise awareness: share information you have learned about FGM with your friends
- Reach out to the community: if you live in a community where FGM is practiced, you can volunteer to help.
- Stay vigilant: look out for the warning signs (a trip abroad, long absence, etc.)
- End FGM: European umbrella network of 19 organisations
- UEFGM: EU-funded international project, provides country-specific information
- FGM Aware: UK-based, provides resources on child protection, public education, etc.
- Support for victims of genital mutilation: Infographic on FGM
- Female genital mutilation/cutting – a global concern: UNICEF’s brochure on FGM
- Daughters of Eve: UK-based, provides specialist support to victims of FGM
- UEFGM Promotional Video: Information about FGM and an e-learning course offered by UEFGM
- The truth about female genital mutilation: Information about FGM, statistics, tips