What is female genital mutilation?
Everything you need to know about FGM and what UNICEF is doing to stop it
An estimated 200 million girls and women worldwide have undergone some form of female genital mutilation (FGM) – many before the age of 15. Despite being internationally recognized as a human rights violation, FGM persists for various reasons. No matter where or how it is performed, FGM causes extreme physical and psychological harm.
What is FGM?
Female genital mutilation (FGM) refers to all procedures involving partial or total removal of the female external genitalia or other injury to the female genital organs for non-medical reasons. It is most often carried out on young girls between infancy and age 15. In every form in which it is practiced, FGM is a violation of girls’ and women’s fundamental human rights, including their rights to health, security and dignity.
How is FGM a risk for girls and women?
FGM has no health benefits and can lead to serious, long-term complications and even death. Immediate health risks include haemorrhage, shock, infection, HIV transmission, urine retention and severe pain.
Psychological impacts can range from a girl losing trust in her caregivers, to longer-term feelings of anxiety and depression.
In adulthood, girls subjected to FGM are more likely to suffer infertility or complications during childbirth, including postpartum haemorrhage, stillbirth and early neonatal death.
Why is FGM still practiced?
Numerous factors contribute to the persistence of the practice. Yet in every society in which it occurs, FGM is an expression of deeply rooted gender inequality.
Some societies see it as a rite of passage. Others use it to suppress a girl’s sexuality or ensure her chastity. FGM is not endorsed by Islam or Christianity, but religious texts are commonly deployed to justify it.
Where FGM is most prevalent, communities may deem it a prerequisite for marriage or inheritance. This makes it difficult for parents to abandon the practice. Families who don’t participate face ostracism, their daughters at risk of becoming ineligible for marriage.
How is FGM a human rights violation?
No matter how it is practiced, FGM is a violation of universal human rights principles.
FGM violates the principles of equality and non-discrimination on the basis of sex. It violates the right to freedom from torture and cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment. It violates the right to the highest attainable standard of health, the right to physical integrity, and the rights of the child. In the worst cases, it even violates the right to life.
How prevalent is FGM?
While the exact number of girls and women to have undergone FGM worldwide remains unknown, at least 200 million girls and women from 31 countries across three continents have been subjected to the practice.
UNFPA estimates that over 4 million girls are at risk of FGM each year. In 2021, an additional 2 million cases of FGM were predicted to occur over the next decade, as a result of COVID-19-related school closures and disruptions to programmes that help protect girls from the practice.
Global efforts have accelerated progress being made to eliminate FGM. Today, a girl is about one third less likely to be subjected to it than she was 30 years ago. Still, sustaining these achievements in the face of population growth presents a considerable challenge. By 2030, nearly one in three girls worldwide will be born in the 31 countries where FGM is most prevalent, putting 68 million girls at risk.
If global efforts are not significantly scaled up, the number of girls and women undergoing FGM will be higher in 2030 than it is today.
Where is FGM most common?
Although FGM is declining in the majority of countries where it is most prevalent, progress eliminating the practice has been uneven. In some countries, FGM remains as common today as it was three decades ago. Over 90 per cent of women and girls aged 15 – 49 have undergone some form of genital mutilation in Guinea and Somalia.
What is the medicalization of FGM?
An alarming trend in some countries is the medicalization of FGM, in which the procedure is carried out by a health-care provider. Approximately one in four FGM survivors – some 52 million women and girls worldwide – were subjected to FGM at the hands of health personnel.
Medicalization not only violates medical ethics, it also risks legitimizing the practice and giving the impression it is without consequences. No matter where or by whom it is performed, FGM is never safe. All forms of FGM remove and damage healthy tissue and interfere with the biological functions of girls’ bodies.
How are attitudes towards FGM evolving?
Girls’ and women’s attitudes about FGM vary widely across countries where the practice is prevalent, but opposition is mounting. The majority of girls and women (roughly 7 in 10) in most countries in Africa and the Middle East with representative data believe the practice should be eliminated. This proportion is about twice what it was only two decades ago.
Findings from a recent UNICEF analysis also show that many boys and men are against FGM. In Ethiopia, for example – a country with one of the highest rates of FGM globally – male opposition to the practice is 87 per cent.
What is UNICEF doing to stop FGM?
Eliminating FGM requires coordinated efforts that engage whole communities – young people, parents, religious leaders, civil society organizations, activists, medical personnel, educators and policymakers. One of the most effective ways to end FGM is through collective abandonment, in which an entire community chooses to forgo the practice. This ensures that no single family or girl will be disadvantaged for not participating in FGM.
UNICEF and the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) jointly lead the world’s largest programme to end FGM. Launched in 2008, the programme partners with communities to raise awareness of the harms caused by FGM and to shift social norms towards collective abandonment. UNICEF also works with governments at the national and regional levels to support the development of policies focusing on ending and outlawing FGM.
For girls at risk of FGM, as well as FGM survivors, UNICEF provides access to medical and psychological care, and supports health workers who provide such treatment.
What impact has UNICEF’s work had?
Since the establishment of the UNFPA-UNICEF Joint Programme on the Elimination of Female Genital Mutilation, 13 countries have passed national legislation banning FGM. The programme has also helped more than 6 million girls and women receive prevention, protection and treatment services related to FGM. Some 45 million people in communities across 15 countries have now made public declarations to abandon the practice.