Know the Facts: What is Female Genital Mutilation (FGM)?


FGM is a human rights violation, torture and an extreme form of violence and discrimination against girls and women. It is most often carried out on girls between infancy and age 15, though adult women are occasionally subjected. FGM has no health benefits, only harm.

FGM involves removing and damaging external female genitalia for non-medical reasons, thereby interfering with the natural functions of girls' and women's bodies. FGM is generally done without anaesthetic. It ranges from the partial or total removal of the clitoris (clitoridectomy), to the removal of the entire clitoris and the cutting of the labia minora (excision), to its most extreme form, the removal of all external genitalia and the stitching together of the two sides of the vulva (infibulation) – all for non-medical reasons.

FGM can have detrimental lifelong health consequences including chronic infections; severe pain during urination, menstruation, sexual intercourse and childbirth; psychological trauma; and in some cases even death. It is estimated that more than 200 million girls and women globally have undergone FGM, and 30 million are at risk over the next decade. No one knows how many girls die each year from FGM.

The practice is mostly carried out by traditional circumcisers, who often play other central roles in communities, such as attending childbirths. However, according to a 2010 World Health Organization study of existing data, the medicalization of FGM is increasing. More than 18% of all girls and women who have been subjected to FGM had the procedure performed on them by a health-care provider; in some countries the rate is as high as 74%.

Countries with the highest prevalence rates are in the African continent and in the Middle East, but FGM also occurs in Asia, Australia, Latin America, New Zealand, North America and Western Europe.

In countries, such as the UK and the US, with diaspora communities originating from high-prevalence for FGM countries, girls are frequently at risk of “vacation cutting,” i.e. being brought to their families’ home country during school vacations to undergo FGM.

The causes of female genital mutilation include a mix of cultural, religious and social factors within families and communities. It 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 “male” or “unclean.” Typically seen as a rite of passage into womanhood, it is often an immediate precursor to child marriage. Ultimately, it is a way to control girls’ and women’s sexuality.

FGM is often motivated by beliefs about what is considered proper sexual behaviour, linking procedures to premarital virginity and marital fidelity. FGM is in many communities believed to reduce a woman's libido and therefore believed to help her resist "illicit" sexual acts. When a vaginal opening is covered or narrowed (infibulation), the fear of the pain of opening it, and the fear that this will be found out, is expected to further discourage "illicit" sexual intercourse among women with this type of FGM.

Celebrating cultural values and heritage is important, however girls should be able to celebrate transitions to womanhood and learn about their cultural and community values without the harmful effects of FGM or forced marriage. Equality Now notes the tremendous social pressure that supports the continuity of the practice and the fact that many girls undergo FGM for many reasons. However, the social and economic pressures to undergo FGM do not negate the violation of human rights or violence inherent in the practice. Compelling a girl or woman to undergo bodily mutilation in order to maintain social and economic status is itself part of the human rights violation.

FGM violates various human rights under international and national law, including women’s and girls’ rights to equality, life, security of the person, dignity, as well as freedom from discrimination and torture, cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment.

The Protocol on the Rights of Women in Africa (Maputo Protocol) banned FGM in 2003 (Article 5). Treaty monitoring bodies overseeing the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, the Convention on the Rights of the Child, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, and the Convention against Torture have all interpreted FGM as a human rights violation in breach of those treaties, with some including medicalization as well.

In December 2012, the UN General Assembly adopted a resolution (Res L21 revision 1) calling on States to implement laws eliminating FGM among several other recommendations, representing  the first time the General Assembly included the elimination of FGM on its agenda.  

In October 2015, the UN General Assembly adopted the Sustainable Development Goals, a roadmap whose “goals and targets will stimulate action over the next 15 years in areas of critical importance for humanity and the planet.” Covering 17 goals and 169 targets, “Agenda 2030” addresses many issues ranging from poverty to HIV/AIDS to climate change. And, for the first time, the gender equality goal includes targets aimed at ending violence and discrimination against women and girls, including a specific target on eliminating female genital mutilation (FGM) and child, early and forced marriage (CEFM), both of which have an irreversible and lifelong impact.

In countries and regions where FGM has been reduced or abandoned altogether, evidence shows that the decline resulted when the human rights of women and girls were reinforced and legally protected, and an all-inclusive strategy was used. Such an approach fully engages families, community leaders, educators, law makers or enforcers, health care and social service providers to play an active role. Research shows that if practicing communities themselves decide to abandon FGM, the practice can be eliminated very rapidly.

World Health Organization
UNICEF (2013, 2016)
Equality Now and partner publications