Equality Now advocates for a world where women and girls have control over their bodies and choices.
Female genital mutilation is a human rights violation
Female genital mutilation (FGM), which affects more than 200 million women and girls around the world, is a human rights violation deeply rooted in gender equality and discrimination. It is most often carried out on girls between infancy and age 15, though adult women are also subjected. FGM has no health benefits, only harm.
FGM comprises all procedures that involve partial or total removal of the external female genitalia, or other injury to the female genital organs for non-medical reasons. It is commonly broken down into four types, as outlined by the World Health Organization (WHO):
- Type I — Partial or total removal of the clitoris and/or the prepuce (clitoridectomy).
- Type II — Partial or total removal of the clitoris and the labia minora, with or without excision of the labia majora (excision).
- Type III — Narrowing of the vaginal orifice with creation of a covering seal by cutting and appositioning the labia minora and/or the labia majora, with or without excision of the clitoris (infibulation).
- Type IV — All other harmful procedures to the female genitalia for non-medical purposes, for example, pricking, piercing, incising, scraping and cauterization.
FGM is a global issue
FGM occurs across cultural, religious, and socio-economic groups. It is practiced on every continent except Antarctica.
Every year, at least 3.9 million girls are at risk of undergoing female genital mutilation globally. FGM is a difficult issue to quantify, partly because the nationwide prevalence of FGM is measured in only 31 countries and that data relies on women self-reporting (or providing information regarding their daughters) having undergone the practice. Due to population growth in areas of the world where the practice is most common, there is also a concern that the number of women and girls subjected to FGM could rise in the near future.
In some countries, such as Indonesia, FGM may be offered in hospitals alongside vaccinations as part of a “birth package,” while in other countries, such as Kenya, the practice is most commonly carried out on girls between the ages of 12-18. In some contexts, girls undergo FGM to prepare them for marriage.
From India to Liberia to the United States, FGM can have lifelong implications for women and girls who are subjected to it.
Why is FGM a feminist issue?
FGM is carried out for a number of cultural, religious, and social reasons within families and communities which vary from context to context.
It is largely rooted in the desire to control women’s sexuality and bodily autonomy. It is associated with cultural ideals of femininity and modesty, which include the notion that girls are “clean” and “beautiful” after the removal of body parts that are considered “male” or “unclean.”
FGM is often motivated by beliefs about what is considered proper sexual behavior, linked to premarital virginity and marital fidelity. FGM often reduces a woman’s sexual pleasure and is in many communities believed to reduce a woman’s libido and therefore believed to help her resist “illicit” sexual acts.
Often seen as a rite of passage into womanhood, it can be an immediate precursor to child marriage.
Celebrating cultural values and heritage is important, however, girls should be able to celebrate transitions to womanhood and learn about their culture and community values without the violence and lifelong physical and mental effects of FGM or forced marriage.
Equality Now notes the tremendous social pressure that supports the continuity of these practices 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 or forcing a girl or woman to undergo FGM in order to maintain social and economic status is itself part of the human rights violation.
What are the consequences of FGM for a woman or girl?
FGM often results in lifelong health problems, increased risks during childbirth, psychological trauma, and even death. At the time the practice is carried out, risks include severe bleeding, shock, infection, other serious injuries, and even death. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), over the course of her life, a girl or a woman who has been subjected to FGM faces difficulties with menstruation, such as pain and difficulty passing menstrual blood or urine, urinary tract infections, pain during sex, less or no sexual pleasure, and increased risk of complications during childbirth, among other risks to her physical and mental health.
Who performs FGM?
The practice is commonly carried out by traditional circumcisers, who often play other central roles in communities, such as attending childbirths. However, there is increasing medicalization of FGM, and in some countries, FGM is almost universally carried out by health care providers.
FGM and the law: national and international
FGM violates various human rights under international and national law, including women’s and girls’ rights to equality, life, the security of the person, dignity, as well as freedom from discrimination and torture, cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment.
The following treaty monitoring bodies have all interpreted FGM as a human rights violation in breach of those treaties, with some including medicalization as well:
- 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
The Protocol to the African Charter on Human and Peoples Rights on the Rights of Women in Africa (Maputo Protocol) banned FGM in 2003 (Article 5).
All 193 countries of the United Nations committed to eliminating all harmful practices, such as child, early and forced marriage and female genital mutilation by 2030 within Goal 5 of the Sustainable Development Goals.
Explore the World Bank’s 2019 Compendium of International and National Legal Frameworks against FGM.