The Progress of Nations: Women

2 million girls a year mutilated

Every year several million women approach childbirth knowing that the risk will be greater because some or all of their genitalia has been cut away by the traditional practice of female genital mutilation (FGM).

Approximately 2 million girls are mutilated every year. Egypt, Ethiopia, Kenya, Nigeria, Somalia, and the Sudan account for 75% of all cases. In Djibouti and Somalia, 98% of girls are mutilated.

Apart from the immediate fear and pain, the consequences can include prolonged bleeding, infection, infertility, and death. For those who suffer infibulation – the severest form of FGM in which all external sexual organs are cut away – the trauma of recutting is repeated with each new birth to allow passage of the baby. Both moderate and severe forms increase the risks of childbirth.

Mutilation is not required by any religion. It is a tradition designed to preserve virginity, ensure marriageability, and contain sexuality.

As the table shows, several African governments have begun to move against the practice. So far, only Ghana has translated policy into law. The Government of Burkina Faso, which has actively campaigned against FGM since 1990 through its National Anti-Excision Committee, has escalated its work in the past three years as the result of increased national support: law cases involving deaths caused by FGM have been brought to court under existing criminal laws.

Usually inflicted on girls aged 4 to 12, FGM is one of the worst violations of the Convention on the Rights of the Child.

The 1990s have seen growing pressures against the practice from women's groups, human rights organizations, child welfare groups, and professional organizations.

Action has also been taken in some industrialized countries with significant numbers of African refugees or immigrant groups. In 1994, Australia and Norway joined Sweden and the United Kingdom in passing laws against FGM. As of December 1995, bills to make FGM a criminal offence were before the US Congress and the Canadian Parliament.

Africa: the FGM record

Estimates of the numbers and percentages of women who suffer female genital mutilation

% of women
of women
has published
FGM prohibited under
FGM law
Medical code
of practice
Nigeria 6032.8YesNoNo
Egypt 8024.2YesNoYes
Ethiopia 9023.9YesNoNo
Sudan (northern) 899.7Yes*No
Kenya 506.8YesNoNo
Somalia 984.5Yes**NoNo
Mali 804.3YesNoNo
Cote d'Ivoire 604.1NoNoNo
Burkina Faso 703.5YesNoNo
Ghana 302.6YesYes***
Sierra Leone 902.0YesNoNo
Chad 601.9YesNoNo
Eritrea 90****1.6YesNoNo
Guinea 501.6YesNoNo
Tanzania 101.5NoNoNo
Benin 501.3YesNoNo
Cameroon 201.3YesNoNo
Zaire 51.1NoNoNo
Togo 501.0YesNoNo
Liberia 600.9YesNoNo
Niger 200.9NoNoNo
Central African Rep. 50 0.8YesNoNo
Senegal 200.8YesNoNo
Gambia 890.5YesNoNo
Uganda 50.5NoNoNo
Djibouti 980.3YesNoNo
Guinea-Bissau 500.3NoNoNo
Mauritania 250.3NoNoNo

FGM is not practised in the three southern regions. The Sudan's 1946 law prohibited infibulation only (the severest form of FGM): the 1993 penal code does not mention FGM, leaving its current legal status unclear.

* Past government policy opposed FGM, but the policy of current ruling groups is unknown.

** FGM is not covered by a medical code, but this may be unnecessary since the practice is illegal.

*** This estimate predates Eritrea's independence and assumes that FGM prevalence is equivalent to Ethiopia's.

SOURCES FGM: Nahid Toubia, January 1996 update from her study, Female Genital Mutilation: A Call for Global Action, Women, Ink., New York, revised edition, 1995. Population: United Nations Population Division, World Population Prospects: The 1994 Revision, 1994.

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