United Nations - OCHA IRIN | Web Special | Razor's Edge - The Controversy of Female Genital Mutilation

Tuesday 21 February 2006

Razor's Edge - The Controversy of Female Genital Mutilation
IRIN Web Special

   Razor's Edge

When culture harms the girls - the globalisation of female genital mutilation March 2005

These girls dance in the initiation ceremony that leads to their circumcision. If they refuse FGM they will be discriminated against or ostracized from their community.
Credit: IRIN

Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) is a surgical procedure performed on the genitals of girls and women in many parts of the world. The term FGM covers a range of procedures, which are also referred to as female circumcision and introcision.

FGM is found extensively in Africa and is also indigenous to other parts of the world. The age and time at which FGM is practised differs from community to community, and can be carried out from as early as a few days after birth, to immediately after the birth of a woman's first child. One of the notable trends in global FGM today is the progressive lowering of the age at which girls undergo the practice.

Among communities that practise FGM, the procedure is a highly valued ritual, whose purpose is to mark the transition from childhood to womanhood. In these traditional societies, FGM represents part of the rites of passage or initiation ceremonies intended to impart the skills and information a woman will need to fulfil her duties as a wife and mother.

The function of this practice, whether mild or severe, is ultimately to reduce a woman's sexual desire, and so ensure her virginity until marriage. The more extensive procedure, involving stitching of the vagina, has the same aim, but reducing the size of the vagina is also intended to increase the husband's enjoyment of the sexual act.

Discussions, conducted for the purposes of this report, with women who have undergone the procedure, revealed that penetration was almost always difficult and painful, even for the man, when women had undergone the more extreme forms of FGM.

Certain communities carry out FGM for religious reasons, believing that their faith requires it; this is particularly true of Muslims who adhere to the practice. Other communities consider female genitalia to be ugly, offensive or dirty, and thus the removal of the external genitalia makes a woman more hygienic and aesthetically pleasing. Some subscribe to the notion that FGM enhances a woman's fertility, and the chances of her children's survival.

All members of communities practising FGM have a role in perpetuating it. Families of girls or women who undergo FGM support it because it makes their daughters marriageable - the operation ensures that their daughters will have ready suitors and a satisfactory bride price.

In these communities, no eligible man would consider marrying a girl who has not undergone the procedure, so FGM makes a woman culturally and socially acceptable. It is in this important way that female genital mutilation is supported and encouraged by men.

Women in the community have a role too, as it is they who arrange for and perform the operation. Typically, the procedure is arranged by the mother or grandmother and, in Africa, is usually performed by a traditional birth attendant, a midwife, or a professional circumciser.

In communities practising FGM there is literally no place for a woman who has not undergone the procedure. Such societies have sanctions, which are brought to bear on the woman and her family, ensuring that the woman's relatives enforce compliance. Other circumcised girls will no longer associate with her. She is called derogatory names, and is often denied the status and access to positions and roles that 'adult' women in that community can occupy. Ultimately, an uncircumcised woman is considered to be a child.

In traditional societies that offer women few options beyond being a wife and a mother there is great pressure to conform. Women who lack the education to seek other opportunities are doubly constrained in terms of the choices open to them. These women also typically come from communities that do not have alternatives to the traditional economy and modes of production, such as farming, fishing or pastoralism.

Even educated women from such communities are often faced with the FGM dilemma for themselves and their daughters. In Kenya, a female member of parliament (MP) had to face her earlier decision not to be circumcised when she made the choice many years later to run for public office. Her opponents used the fact that she was not circumcised to challenge her eligibility to hold a position that "only adults" could occupy. The MP's name is Linah Kilimo and today she is a minister in Kenya's National Rainbow Coalition government.

FGM in a Global Society

In the modern world few places exist in isolation, untouched by other cultures. The creation of nation states, which brought together many communities within common borders, as well as the forces of globalisation, have contributed to the blurring of boundaries in all societies.

Institutions that bring new norms in religion, national policy and legislation, and on a more individual level, education and intermarriage, create new options for societies. Sociocultural clashes arise as communities, ideas and cultures attempt to blend.

The dilemma facing people in this newly globalised world is showcased by the experience of one Senegalese couple. The woman, from a non-circumcising community, married into a society whose FGM prevalence was 70 percent. From the outset, the couple agreed that they would not circumcise their two daughters. The man's family, however, was insistent that the girls undergo the ritual and, realizing that this was no idle threat, the couple barred their daughters from visiting the man's family unescorted, lest the girls be forcefully abducted and cut, as is common when parents reject the practice. An additional, chilling threat awaited the wife - her sisters-in-law vowed that though she remained uncircumcised in life, they would circumcise her in death.

Different Forms of FGM

1. Type I (commonly referred to as clitoridectomy)

Excision (removal) of the clitoral hood, with or without removal of all or part of the clitoris.

2. Type II (commonly referred to as excision)

Excision (removal) of the clitoris, together with part or all of the labia minora (the inner vaginal lips). This is the most widely practised form.

3. Type III (commonly referred to as infibulation)

Excision (removal) of part or all of the external genitalia (clitoris, labia minora and labia majora), and stitching or narrowing of the vaginal opening, leaving a very small opening, about the size of a matchstick, to allow for the flow of urine and menstrual blood. Also known as pharaonic circumcision.

4. Type IV (Unclassified/Introcision)

Pricking, piercing or incision of the clitoris and/or labia:

Stretching the clitoris and/or labia
Cauterisation by burning of the clitoris and surrounding tissues
Scraping of the vaginal orifice or cutting of the vagina
Introduction of corrosive substances into the vagina to cause bleeding, or introduction of herbs into the vagina to tighten or narrow it
Any other procedure that falls under the definition of female genital mutilation

Type 1 and type 2 operations account for 85 percent of all FGM. Type 3 is common in Djibouti, Somalia, Sudan and parts of Egypt, Ethiopia, Kenya, Mali, Mauritania, Niger, Nigeria, and Senegal. Type 3, also known as pharaonic circumcision, is extremely severe and involves binding a woman's legs for approximately 40 days to allow for the formation of scar tissue. Many of these communities use adhesive substances such as sugar, eggs, and even animal waste on the wound to enable it to heal.

The excisor often has to reopen the vagina to allow for easier childbirth, and then re-stitch it after birth, leaving it as small as before, or slightly larger to reduce painful intercourse. Frequently the excisor is called on a girl's wedding night to open her up so she is able to consummate her marriage.

Health complications associated with FGM

Although it is widely known that FGM can have devastating and harmful consequences for a woman throughout her life, because most communities practising it are very poor and do not have access to modern health facilities, medical emergencies arising from FGM are common, and often lead to death.
A doctor from the Fistula Hospital talks about the immediate and the long term health consequences of FGM.Credit: IRIN

A doctor from the Fistula Hospital talks about the immediate and the long term health consequences of FGM.
Credit: IRIN
It is difficult to determine the actual numbers of women who die from FGM-related complications, given the highly guarded nature of the practice. Medical record-keeping systems are also rarely configured to record FGM and FGM-related complications as causes of death.

The health problems a girl can experience are largely dependent on three factors.

First, the severity of the procedure: girls and women who undergo type II and type III are likely to experience more severe health complications, but health consequences for type I have also been widely reported.

Discussions with a doctor on the possible medical effects of type I FGM found that complications were most evident during childbirth, due to the reduced elasticity of the vagina caused by scar tissue formed as a result of the surgery. To compensate for the reduced elasticity during childbirth, tiny tears are caused around the vagina. These are too small to stitch, and end up forming more scar tissue, compromising the vagina's elasticity even further. Labour becomes longer and more painful with each subsequent birth. The tears themselves predispose the woman to infection, while her ability to experience sexual satisfaction is undermined, as the tearing leads to an ever-loosening vagina.

Second, the sanitary conditions in which the procedure is performed, and the competence of the person who performs it: most circumcisers are professionals with years of experience, but the tools and sanitary conditions of their trade are often rudimentary at best, with knife-like implements or razor blades used as the basic surgical instruments.

Close adherence to traditions that dictate what type of instrument is suitable do not allow for innovation, or the adoption of new, more suitable instruments that may be available. Typically, the circumcision ceremony takes place once a year and all eligible girls within a community are cut on the same day, using the same instrument - without the benefit of sterilisation between procedures - thus increasing the chances of infection, and the risk of exposure through such practices to HIV/AIDS.

Third, the health of the girl or woman undergoing the procedure, and her ability to heal and resist infection passed on by the procedure, is critical: if a woman is prone to infection, or has a poor immune system, she has a greater chance of becoming infected. Literally, only the strong survive.

The secret nature of FGM poses a great threat to the health of girls and women who undergo it. It is highly confidential, and outsiders are strictly prohibited from having any contact with the girls and women during and after the ceremony. Therefore, most of them have no access to a medical professional, should they need one during or after the procedure.

The 40-day isolation that characterises type III FGM, for example, means a woman might die of infection before she ever gets the chance to receive proper medical care. When qualified medical personnel perform FGM in the sanitary conditions of a hospital, the risk of infection may be reduced, but the long-term consequences remain.

Some immediate physical problems resulting from FGM are:

1. Bleeding (often haemorrhaging from rupture of the blood vessels of the clitoris), sometimes leading to death

2. Post-operative shock

3. Damage to other organs, resulting from the lack of surgical expertise of the person performing the procedure, and the aggressive resistance of the patient when anaesthesia is not used

4. Infections, including tetanus and septicaemia, through using unsterilised or poorly disinfected equipment

5. Urine retention caused by swelling and inflammation

Some longer-term consequences include:

1. Chronic infections of the bladder and vagina:
- in Type III, the urine and menstrual blood can only leave the body drop by drop
- the build-up inside the abdomen and fluid retention often cause infections and inflammation that can lead to infertility
- infections and inflammation that can lead to infertility

2. Dysmenorrhoea, or extremely painful menstruation

3. Excessive scar tissue at the site of the operation

4. Formation of cysts on the stitch line

5. Childbirth obstruction, which can result in:
- the development of fistulas
- tearing of the vaginal and/or bladder wall
- chronic incontinence

6. Risk of HIV infection. (There is a growing speculation of a potential risk of HIV/AIDS associated with the procedure, especially when the same unsterilised instruments are used on multiple girls, but this has yet to be scientifically proven.)

7. Reinfibulation must be performed each time a child is born. When infibulation (Type III) is performed, the opening left in the genital area is too small for the head of a baby to pass through. Failure to reopen this area can lead to death or brain damage of the baby, and death of the mother. The excisor must reopen the mother and re-stitch her again after the birth. In most ethnic groups the woman is re-stitched as before, leaving the same tiny opening. In other ethnic groups the opening is left slightly larger to reduce painful intercourse. (In most cases, not only must the woman be reopened for each childbirth, but also on her wedding night, when the excisor may have to be called in to open her so she can consummate the marriage.)

All female family members of girls who will undergo FGM are present at the ceremony. In Sierra Leone, the majority of women practise FGM through secret societies.
Credit: IRIN
There is a dearth of scientific studies on the psychological effects of FGM on girls and women. In the course of conducting research for this study, discussions were held with some women who had undergone one or other form of FGM. This information does not claim to be scientific, nor is it a substitute for a scientific approach, but it does begin to provide some insights on the possible psychological impact of FGM on survivors.

Some of the psychological impacts of FGM appear to be pavlovian in nature and effect:

- women who have undergone any form of FGM or its attendant painful rituals are so traumatized that they can only associate their genitals with pain and possible death from childbirth, of which there is always a much higher possibility than with uncircumcised women
- the idea of sexual intercourse as a pleasurable activity is inconceivable for most of them

The complexity of the psychological effects of FGM on women is demonstrated by the stories of Jane and Hawa, who underwent type 2 (excision) and type 3 (infibulation) FGM respectively.

Jane's Story

Jane comes from a community in Kenya which practises type II FGM (excision), where the compliance rate is 97 percent. She is from an educated family and has a PhD. Her husband is equally highly educated. They have two children.

According to the customs of her community, Jane underwent the procedure at the age of 14. She discussed how sex had always been an unpleasant chore for her, and although she no longer experiences any pain, she has no sexual response and sex has no meaning for her.

Jane also spoke of the difficult childbirth she experienced, which she attributes to the circumcision. She is grateful to have an understanding husband who does not demand more than the two children they have. Her experiences convinced both her and her husband that their daughter must not go through the procedure.

Hawa's Story

Hawa comes from Eritrea, a country in the Horn of Africa with a 90 percent compliance rate, practising types 1, 2, and 3 FGM. She is from a community that performs type 3 (infibulation). Hawa has lived in the United States since the 1980s, when she fled political persecution in her homeland.

She is now a naturalised American citizen, holding a doctorate and teaching at a University in the US, where she is a widely published and respected scholar. Hawa is divorced from a fellow Eritrean and has one child, a six-year-old girl.

She told IRIN of the devastating psychological effects she believes FGM has had on her, commenting that although she retained the ability to experience sexual pleasure, she experienced it in a distant, muted form. The act of sex has never brought her enjoyment, and she believes this contributed to the breakdown of her marriage.

However, when questioned about whether or not she would circumcise her daughter, Hawa revealed an interesting ambivalence. Before she had borne a child, she was clear that FGM was a terrible practice, which should be eliminated. Today, as the single mother of a girl she is bringing up in America, she has tempered her opposition to FGM somewhat.

Her concern comes from what she perceives as the highly sexualised community in the US - everywhere there are images of sexual freedom and images that objectify the role of women as sexual beings. Among the African American community in particular, sexual freedom has been taken to an extreme in which young girls often have children with more than one father. Inevitably, their focus on achievement in other areas, such as education, career and so on, is compromised. Many of these teenage mothers swell the ranks of the welfare system.

Hawa wants everything for her daughter, and although she is not an indigenous African American, she and especially her daughter, are perceived as African American, and subject to many of the same pressures and limitations. Further, she feels, the image of African Americans has been glamorised in music, the media and film - "this community is probably the most imitated by young people the world over".

In such an environment, the prospect of her daughter's full-blown sexuality frightens Hawa. She sees it as a potential Achilles' heel, which could lead her daughter down the path of low achievement, early pregnancy and welfare dependence. Incredible as it may seem, Hawa is adamant that an FGM procedure guaranteed to reduce her daughter's sexual urges to a shadow looks attractive.

FGM and Religion

FGM is often associated with Islam, and there are people who believe that Islam sanctions it. The fact that type I is also called the 'Sunna' procedure (meaning 'following the Prophet's tradition') is often used as evidence for this contention. However, it is found among both Muslim and Christian populations, and is a cultural practice that predates both religions. Type 3, or 'infibulation', also known in Sudan and Ethiopia as the 'pharaonic procedure', was most likely practised in ancient Egypt.

Prevalence of FGM

An Ethiopian girl in a meeting organised an NGO campaigning against FGM. She is worried because she doesn’t know how she will get a husband if she refuses to be circumcised.
Credit: IRIN
FGM is most widely practised on the African continent. It is found among more than half the communities in sub-Saharan African countries and in at least 26 out of 43 countries. The prevalence ranges from 98 percent in Somalia to 5 percent in Zaire. It is also indigenous to some Middle-Eastern countries, including Egypt, the Republic of Yemen (primarily coastal areas), Oman (in limited numbers throughout the country but more widespread in the southern coastal region), Saudi Arabia (among a few immigrant women and some Bedouin tribes and residents of the Hejaz) and Israel (among a very small number of women in a few Bedouin groups in the south).

FGM is also found among some Muslim groups in Indonesia, where the most common form is type IV, also known as 'incision'. This involves some form of symbolic pricking, scraping or touching of the clitoris. In Malaysia, among a very small number of Muslims in rural areas, the procedure carried out is much more ritualistic. It includes a symbolic prick, a tiny ritual cut to the clitoris, or a blade being brought close to the clitoris.

In Pakistan the Bohra Muslims in the largest cities of Sindh and Punjab provinces also perform FGM.

Introcision is also practised in several other countries around the world. In Peru it is found among the Conibos, a division of the Pano Indians in the northeast, and has also been reported in Australia among the Pitta-Patta Aborigines.

FGM is also increasingly found in North America, Europe, New Zealand and Australia, owing to the large immigrant communities living in those parts of the world.

The International response to FGM

The international community is identifying FGM more and more as a harmful traditional practice, and a violation of the fundamental human rights of girls and women. Global efforts to bring an end to the custom of female genital cutting are increasing, with many nations putting in place legislation against the practice, and a number of international organisations making the elimination of FGM a priority. The United Nations has designated 8 February as the "International Day of Zero Tolerance of Female Genital Mutilation".

Legislation against FGM

In Africa, thirteen countries have responded to the problem of FGM by implementing legislation against it: According to "Center for Reproductive Rights" there are 16 countries with criminal legislation against FGM: www.crlp.org
Benin (2003 = the date legislation was implemented),Burkina Faso (1996), Central African Republic (1966), Chad (2003), Côte d'Ivoire (1998), Djibouti (1994), Egypt (Ministerial Decree, 1996), Ethiopia (2004), Ghana (1994), Guinea (1965), Kenya (2001), Niger (2003), Senegal (1999), Tanzania (1998), Togo (1998), Nigeria (multiple states, 1999-2002).

There have been reports of prosecutions or arrests in cases involving FGM in various African countries, including Burkina Faso, Egypt, Ghana, Kenya, Senegal and Sierra Leone.

Ten industrialised countries that receive immigrants from countries where FGM is practised have also passed specific laws criminalising the practice: Australia, Belgium, Canada, Denmark, New Zealand, Norway, Spain, Sweden, the United Kingdom, and the United States. In Australia, six out of eight states have passed laws against FGM. In the United States, the federal government and 16 states have criminalised it. In France, existing legislation has been used to prosecute FGM practitioners and parents procuring the service for their daughters.

Some countries, such as the US, recognise forced FGM as a basis for asylum. In 1996, Fauziya Kassindja became the first woman to win asylum in the US on the grounds that she would be subjected to FGM if deported to her native Nigeria. However, a heavy burden of proof is placed on women seeking asylum on the basis of FGM or gender-based persecution.
Anti-FGM laws have been applied in various countries, as described in the cases below, but a full analysis of the legislation against FGM is explored in a subsequent article in this Web Special report.

Two teenage girls secured a landmark ruling on 13 December 2000, when a magistrate's court issued a permanent injunction barring their father from having them circumcised.

The United States of America
In 2003 a southern California couple was arraigned in a Los Angeles federal court to answer charges of conspiring to circumcise two female minors. This was the first time the law had been applied in the US.

In 1993 a medical practitioner was charged with performing female circumcision, with the full knowledge that the practise was illegal. He was found guilty and can no longer practise his profession.

FGM and international organisations

International organisations have highlighted the dangers of FGM and thrown their weight behind the cause for eradicating the practice.

The UN's Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing, China, held in September 1995, recognised FGM as a harmful traditional practice against women and girls.

The International Conference on Population and Development, in Cairo in September 1994, condemned FGM as a harmful practice, and encouraged governments not only to prohibit it but also to give their support to NGOs and religious institutions working to eliminate the practice.

The World Conference on Human Rights, in Vienna in 1993, addressed FGM as a violation of women's rights.

Alternative Rites to FGM

More recently, an 'alternative rites' strategy is being used by NGOs in FGM-practicing communities. This strategy is intended to retain the rites of passage or initiation that the girls would traditionally undergo, with the exception of FGM. The girls are still encouraged to learn what it means to be a woman in their respective communities, but do not have to endure the agony of the cut. This procedure is being tested in several communities around the world and has registered some success.

However, alternative rites have also faced serious opposition, and even led to lowering of the age at which FGM is practised in certain communities. The Maasai of Kenya, for example, responded to aggressive anti-FGM campaigns by cutting girls as young as four, rather than teenage girls.


FGM is a practice that violates the basic human rights of women and girls and seriously compromises their health. Nevertheless, among communities that practise FGM it is a highly valued tradition, making eradication difficult.

Nevertheless, there are also success stories. As individuals become better informed about the negative impacts of FGM, there has been a reduction in the practice and today there are few communities in which 100 percent of girls and women are circumcised.

Local organisations are working to eradicate the custom in many communities, and are achieving a higher level of success because they are able to communicate more easily with the people, whereas foreigners may appear to be ignorantly judging their traditions.

Over the last two decades, many countries have designed legal frameworks that criminalise FGM and protect women and girls who challenge the status quo, forcing those who continue to advocate it to reconsider their position and actions. In many cases, communities have fully or partially abandoned the practice in favour of non-FGM initiation ceremonies.


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