Last week marked a milestone for the fight against female genital mutilation (FGM). A mother of a three-year-old girl became the first person to be convicted of FGM in the United Kingdom. The cutting of the little girl took place during the summer of 2017. 

While this practice had been outlawed for more than three decades, the UK had never had a conviction for it. The crime carries a maximum prison sentence of 14 years. Campaigners hope that the new conviction will encourage other victims to come forward and report the crime. 

Female genital mutilation, also called female genital cutting or female circumcision, is the ritual putting or removal of some all of the external female genitalia. There are a few different types of FGM, which all typically includes the partial or total removal of the clitoris. 

FGM is a way to control women’s sexuality and to ensure virginity before marriage and fidelity afterwards. It is also meant to increase male sexual pleasure. It is internationally recognised as a human rights violation. FGM is practised in households at all educational levels and social classes. Moreover, it occurs among many religious groups, including Muslims, Christians and animists. 

The physical and emotional pain of FGM

“The pain inflicted by FGM does not stop with the initial procedure, but often continues as ongoing torture throughout a woman’s life.”

Manfred Nowak, UN Special Rapporteur on Torture.

After girls have been cut, they might experience health problems, discomfort and pain for the rest of their lives. Examples are difficulty urinating, frequent pain and infections, menstrual problems, kidney damage and failure, cysts and abscesses, pain during sex and infertility. The more immediate effects include severe pain, infections such as hepatitis B and C, and organ damage.

Moreover, when women who have undergone FGM give birth, they face higher health risks. They are at higher risk for adverse effects during childbirth, and genital mutilation in mothers also has adverse effects on their newborn babies. One to two babies per 100 deliveries dies as a result of FGM. Moreover, when giving birth, scar tissue might tear and afterwards the vagina is often “ sewn up” again, causing additional pain for women. 

Moreover, FGM also leaves its mark on the mental wellbeing of girls and women. Studies have found that girls can experience immediate psychological trauma caused by the pain, shock and the use of physical force by those performing FGM. In the long-term, girls can experience post-traumatic stress disorder, depression and memory loss. About 80% of women who have been cut suffer from mood or anxiety disorders. Because of the continuous pain caused by FGM, there is a higher risk of depressed mood, with reduced functioning, feelings of worthlessness and guilt, and even suicidal tendencies. 

What is the scale?

FGM is practised in 42 countries in Africa, the Middle East and in Asia. Moreover, it is also prevalent in communities from those countries in for example the UK, USA, and Europe. 200 million women and girls worldwide live with the consequences of FGM. Research has shown that 44 million of these survivors are younger than 15 years old. Every year, about 3 million girls are estimated to be at risk of FGM.

FGM in Africa, the Middle East and Asia

In the four countries where FGM is most common, Sierra Leone, Djibouti, Guinea and Somalia, nearly every girl between the ages of 15 and 49 has been cut. But things seem to be slowly changing. In the 10 countries with the highest rates of FGM, its prevalence is declining. Whereas in 1985, 51 per cent of women aged 15 to 19 had undergone FGM, in 2000 this was 46 per cent, and in 2016 it was 37 per cent. 

Moreover, 63 per cent of men and 67 per cent of women in countries where FGM is common think that this practice should be history. However, because of population growth in the most affected countries, the actual number of girls could actually be increasing despite a decline in the practice. But while FGM practices are decreasing in practising countries, its prevalence outside of practising countries is growing because of migration.

FGM in Europe

Each year, 180,000 girls and women in FGM practising communities in Europe are at risk of FGM. In France, for example, between 24,000 and 43,000 girls face the possibility to be cut. It is estimated that about 500,000 women in Europe have experienced FGM.

The EU made a plan to tackle FGM in Europe with actions to increase understanding of the status of FGM in the EU, promote social change to prevent FGM, and support Member States in prosecuting FGM more effectively. Moreover, in 2015, the EU supported 17 projects that address FGM in 18 countries, spending 8 million Euros of EU funding.   

FGM in the USA

FGM is on the risk in the US. Since the 1990s, the number of girls and women who either had undergone FGM or were at risk of it has more than tripled. In 2012, The Center for Disease Control and Prevention estimated that there were more than 500,000 women and girls at risk of being a victim of this procedure. It seems that this increase is caused by the growing number of migrants from countries where FGM is most common. These girls and women mostly live in California, New York and Minnesota.

In 1996, a federal law was passed to make it illegal to perform FGM in the US. In 2013, this law was amended to also outlaw taking a girl out of the US to inflict FGM abroad. However, on 20 November, a federal judge in the USA declared a federal law banning female genital mutilation unconstitutional. He dismissed several charges doctors and others in the first US criminal case against FGM. According to the judge, the practice is a criminal assault, which means it can only be regulated at state level. 

While 27 states have laws prohibiting FGM, this could turn the 23 states that do not have such laws into ‘destination states’ for cutting. This is a realistic scenario, as the dismissed cases showed that victims were often taken across state lines to undergo this mutilation. Anti-FGM state laws often include clauses criminalising “vacation cutting”, which is the practice of taking girls out of the country to have FGM performed.

FGM Canada and Australia

In Canada, FGM is forbidden under the Criminal Code since 1997. This law prohibits FGM practices in the country, as well as taking girls out of the country to be cut. Any person guilty of the assault can be imprisoned for up to 14 years.  In Australia, FGM is a criminal offence as well.

While it is clear that FGM is practised in Canada and Australia, there is little to no data on the practice. It is unclear how prevalent FGM is, and prosecutions are rare.

Obstacles and solution to end FGM

Unfortunately, there is a global lack of data and research about FGM. In many countries and regions, it is unclear how often and how it is practised, how many girls are at risk, and how many people live with the consequences. Moreover, while research most often focuses on the physical harm of FGM, there is much less information available on the physiological and emotional harm. 

This lack of knowledge prevents the creation of effective policies to fight FGM. Moreover, whereas there are grassroots organisations who aim to stop FGM practices, these often do not have enough funding to have a big reach and impact. More research about FGM is needed to create an incentive to develop proper policies and to fund anti-FGM organisations. 

Another factor that stands in the way of ending this horrendous practice is the lack of knowledge in the professional community. Many medical and social workers are not aware of what the practice entails, how to recognise its signs, and what to do in case they come across women and girls at risk or who live with the consequences of FGM. This lack of knowledge prevents victims from getting the help they need, and offenders from being prosecuted. FGM should be a standard part of the education of healthcare and social workers, to identify victims. 

The most critical factor in the fight against FGM, however, is awareness within practising communities. Many women who have undergone FGM as girls and who are surrounded by women who have as well do not realise that these practices are harmful and not needed. For them, it is just normal for girls to be cut. Only when they learn about the physical and emotional harm and the abnormality of the practice, they realise the horrendous nature of it. 

There are many stories of women who were cut and participated in this practice until they realised how harmful and necessary FGM is and became anti-FGM activists. As FGM is a highly culturally-sensitive topic, the power to eradicate this practice lies in the hands of these women. These women are familiar with the culture and customs, which gives them the tools to change minds in their own communities. 

Are you interested in women’s rights? Be sure to check out this article about women’s rights in Saudi Arabia, and this article about contraceptives as a tool to fight poverty!