What you need to know about female genital mutilation

How the harmful practice affects millions of girls worldwide

Leah Selim
A girl sits on a bed with her head in her hand, Sierra Leone

06 February 2019

 

Each year, 6 February marks the International Day of Zero Tolerance for Female Genital Mutilation. The day is observed as a way to raise awareness about female genital mutilation (FGM), and to galvanize support to end the practice. Learn more about the issue below, and find out how UNICEF is working with communities and governments to help eliminate FGM worldwide.

 

What is female genital mutilation?

Female genital mutilation (FGM) is a procedure performed on a woman or girl to alter or injure her genitalia for non-medical reasons. It most often involves the partial or total removal of her external genitalia. In some communities, FGM may be commonly referred to as ‘female circumcision’. However this term has been criticized as it can normalize the practice by drawing parallels with male circumcision without distinguishing its serious physical and psychological harm.


Why is it practiced?

In many of the countries where female genital mutilation is performed, it is a deeply entrenched social norm rooted in gender inequality. The reasons behind the practice vary. In some cases, it is seen as a rite of passage into womanhood, while others see it as a way to suppress a woman’s sexuality. Many communities practice genital mutilation in the belief that it will ensure a girl's proper upbringing, future marriage or family honour. Some also associate it with religious beliefs, although no religious scriptures require it.
 

 

 


Why is it a risk for girls and women?

FGM has no health benefits and often leads to long-term medical complications, including severe pain, prolonged bleeding, infection, infertility and even death. It can also lead to increased risk of HIV transmission. Women who have undergone genital mutilation can experience complications during childbirth, including postpartum haemorrhage, stillbirth and early neonatal death. In addition to its physical risks, FGM is a violation of girls’ and women’s fundamental human rights.


How prevalent is FGM?

While the exact number of girls and women worldwide who have undergone genital mutilation remains unknown, at least 200 million girls and women aged 15–49 from 30 countries have been subjected to the practice. Of these 200 million, more than half live in just three countries: Egypt, Ethiopia and Indonesia. The practice is almost universal in Djibouti, Guinea and Somalia, where over 90 per cent of women and girls undergo some form of genital mutilation or cutting.

Unless action to end female genital mutilation is accelerated now, another 68 million girls will have been cut by 2030.
 


 

A woman gathers with children, Djibouti
UNICEF Djibouti/2018
“I can remember everything, every little detail about that day, those moments. It’s all still in my head, where it happened, who held me down, the balcony above me. And how it was all masked by a party with gifts and music.”

Mariam, Djibouti


How is the practice evolving?

In several countries, qualified medical practitioners now play a significant role in performing FGM. More than 20 million women and girls in just seven countries (Egypt, Sudan, Guinea, Djibouti, Kenya, Yemen and Nigeria) have undergone female genital mutilation by a health care provider. Medicalizing the practice does not make it safer, as it still removes and damages healthy and normal tissue and interferes with the natural functions of girls’ and women’s bodies.

In many communities, the practice has been driven underground rather than ended, leading to girls being subjected to cutting at younger ages amidst greater secrecy.


What is UNICEF doing to stop it?

Ending female genital mutilation takes work at many levels, including action by families and communities, protection and care services for girls and women, laws, and political commitment at the local, regional, national and international levels.

UNICEF and the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) jointly lead the largest global programme to end FGM. The programme supports zero tolerance laws and policies, while working with health workers to both eliminate genital mutilation and provide care to women and girls who have undergone the procedure. Recent data show that in countries where it is prevalent, the majority of men and women oppose the practice, but they often keep these beliefs hidden for fear of being rejected by their communities. To help reshape these perceptions, the UNICEF-UNFPA programme works with communities to openly discuss and voice support for ending FGM.


What has been UNICEF's impact?

Since the UNICEF/UNFPA Joint Programme was established in 2008, 13 countries have passed national legislation banning FGM. The programme also provided access to prevention, protection and treatment services for more than 3.3 million girls and women. As a result of a community-led engagement, more than 34.6 million people in over 21,700 communities made public declarations against FGM.

Over the past three decades, there has been an overall decline in the prevalence in female genital mutilation – and momentum is growing. With our continued action, we can work together to end FGM by 2030.


Learn more

UNICEF overview of FGM
Female genital mutilation (FGM) frequently asked questions
UNFPA/UNICEF Joint Programme Phase II report