Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) - The tradition of circumcision

“Becoming a woman – The next thing I felt was my flesh, my genitals, being cut away. I heard the sound of the dull blade sawing back and forth through my skin. When I think back, I honestly can’t believe that this happened to me. I feel as if I were talking about someone else. There`s no way in the world I can explain what it feels like. It’s like somebody is slicing through the meat of your thigh, or cutting off your arm, except this is the most sensitive part of your body.“ [1] (Waris Dirie)

According to an estimation of the World Health Organization (WHO) 100 to 140 million girls and women worldwide [1] have suffered female genital mutilation and are living with the consequences of this procedure. [1] The following article will mention the countries practising FGM, the cultural, religious and social reasons for this procedure and the health consequences. The text will also deal with the attempts to end FGM.


Female genital mutilation (FGM), also known as female genital cutting (FGC), female circumcision or female genital mutilation/cutting (FGM/C), is classified by the WHO and it includes “all procedures that involve the partial or total removal of the external female genitalia or other injury to the female genital organs for non-therapeutic and non-medical reasons. [2]



FGM is practiced all over the world, but the practise is most common in Asia and Africa. It is mainly practiced in 28 different African countries. In Africa, about three million girls are at risk of FGM per year. It is common in a belt that stretches from Senegal in West Africa to Ethiopia on the East coast, as well as from Egypt in the north to Tanzania in the south. It is also practiced by some groups in the Arabian peninsula. The country where FGM is most common is Egypt, followed by Sudan, Ethiopia, and Mali. [3] [4] [5]

As a result of immigration, the practice has also spread to Europe, Australia and the United States. Some families who have emigrated and are still close to this tradition make their daughters suffer the procedure of FGM on vacation in their home countries Africa or Asia. [4]

Procedures: World Health Organization categorization

FGM consists of several different procedures, which are mostly carried out on young girls between infancy and an age of 15 years, and occasionally on adult women. Their severity is often viewed as dependent on how much genital tissue is cut away. Due to this classification female genital mutilation is divided into four major types that vary in their severity: This image shows the different types of FGM and how they differ to the uncircumcised female anatomy: [2] [4]


A:Normal anatomical structures of the outer female genitals.


B: Type I: Clitoridectomy: “partial or total removal of the clitoris and, rarely, the prepuce” [2] [6] (the fold of skin surrounding the clitoris). [2] [7]


C: Type II: Excision:“partial or total removal of the clitoris and the labia minora” [2] [6] (the labia are "the lips" that surround the vagina) [2] [7] , “with or without excision of the labia majora.” [2] [6]


D: Type III: Infibulation (also known as “pharaonic circumcision”): “narrowing of the vaginal opening through the creation of a covering seal. The seal is formed by cutting and repositioning the inner, and sometimes outer, labia, with or without removal of the clitoris. This procedure involves extensive tissue removal of the external genitalia, including all of the labia minora and the inside of the labia majora. The labia majora are then held together using thorns or stitching.” [2] [6] [7]

In some cases the girls’ legs are tied together for two to six weeks to prevent her from moving and to allow the healing of the two sides of the vulva. Nothing remains but the walls of flesh from the pubis down to the anus, with the exception of an opening at the inferior portion of the vulva to allow urine and menstrual blood to pass through. Women who have been infibulated face a lot of difficulty in giving birth to children. During childbirth, the opening is too small to allow vaginal delivery, and so the infibulation is opened completely and may be restored after the birth. The legs are sometimes again tied together to allow the wound to heal. If the infibulation is not undone beforehand, there is a high risk of severe tearing of the infibulated area or of fetal death. Infibulation is the most extensive form of FGM, and accounts for about 10% of all FGM procedures described from Africa. The danger of severe physical and psychological complications is more highly associated with women who have suffered infibulation as opposed to one of the lesser forms of FGM. [2] [3] [4] [6]

Type IV: Other: “all other harmful procedures to the female genitalia for non-medical purposes, such as pricking the clitoris with needles, burning, piercing or scarring the genitals as well as ripping or tearing of the vagina.” [2] [6] Type IV is found mainly among isolated ethnic groups as well as in combination with other types. [2] [4] [6]

Cultural, religious and social reasons for FGM

FGM is mainly practiced because of, cultural traditional, religious and social reasons.

In most societies, FGM is considered a cultural tradition, which is often used as an argument for its continuation. Although medical justifications offered by cultural tradition are regarded as baseless by scientists and doctors, some African societies consider FGM as to be part of protection of the cleanliness, because it removes secreting parts of the genitalia. Vaginal secretions, in reality, play a critical part in maintenance of female health. Some Bambara and Dogon believe that babies die if they touch the clitoris during birth. In some areas of Africa, the belief exists that a newborn child has elements of both sexes. In the male body the foreskin of the penis is considered to be the female element. In the female body the clitoris is considered to be the male element. When the adolescent reaches puberty, these elements are removed to make the sexual differentiation more distinct. [8] FGM is associated with cultural ideals of femininity and modesty, which include the idea that girls are “clean” and "beautiful" after the removal of body parts that are considered "male" or "unclean". [2]

The practice of FGM is also motivated by the social pressure to conform to what others do and have been doing. For example it is often considered as a necessary part of raising a girl properly, and a way to prepare her for adulthood and marriage. Because FGM is considered to lead to a proper sexual behaviour including premarital virginity and marital fidelity, women who aren’t circumcised are regarded as unclean and won’t get married. FGM is believed to reduce a woman's libido and help her resist "illegal" sexual acts like premarital sex and masturbation. When a vaginal opening is covered or narrowed, a woman is physically hindered from premarital sex. So she isn’t capable of sexual intercourse until the closure is reopened, which is often done cruelly by the husband during their wedding night. [2]

Though no religious scripts prescribe the practice, practitioners often believe the practice has religious support. Local structures of power and authority, such as community leaders, religious leaders, circumcisers, and even some medical personnel can assist to upholding the practice. [2] [9]

Health consequences of FGM


FGM has no health benefits, and it harms girls and women in many ways. It involves removing and damaging healthy and normal female genital tissue, and hinders the natural functions of girls and women's bodies. Because of its prohibition FGM has gone underground, which means that people who haven’t had medical training perform the cutting without anaesthetics, sterilization, or the use of proper medical instruments. Immediate complications can include severe pain, shock, excessive bleeding, and problems with urinating. The failure to use sterile medical instruments may lead to infections like tetanus or sepsis. Long-term consequences can include: urinary tract infections, cysts, infertility, potential childbirth complications and deaths of the newborn. [2] [3] [4] [6]
The first sexual intercourse will often be extremely painful for infibulated women, who need the labia majora to be opened, to allow their partner access to the vagina. This second cut, sometimes performed by the partner with a knife, can cause other complications to arise. Recent reviews have suggested that FGM may increase the risk of sexually transmitted diseases such as HIV because of the non-sterile procedure of FGM (the same instrument is frequently used on 15-20 girls), because of the blood transfusions due to blood loss during the procedure itself and because of the increased susceptibility to infectious conditions. These health consequences of FGM are recognized risk factors for HIV. [4] [5]

Attempts to end the practice of FGM

FGM is internationally recognized as a violation of the human rights of girls and women. It reflects inequality between the sexes, and constitutes an extreme form of discrimination against women. It is always carried out on minors and is a violation of the rights of children. The practice also violates a person's rights to health, security and physical integrity, the right to be free from torture and cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment, and the right to life when the procedure results in death. [2]

Despite laws forbidding the practice, FGM is still tied close to cultural and religious tradition in many societies and cultural groups. But there are cases where attempts at ending FGC have been successful. For example, since 1997, 4,203 communities in Senegal, 364 in Guinea, 23 in Burkina Faso, 24 in The Gambia, and 14 in Somalia have voluntarily given up FGM. UNICEF believes that in Senegal the practice of female genital mutilation could be ended by 2015. The United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) has declared February 6 as the International Day against Female Genital Mutilation. The UNFPA has stated that “[the] practice violates the basic rights of women and girls, [...]" and "[...] female genital mutilation or cutting is not required by any religion." Another progress is that FGM can now be partially reversed via a surgical technique, which gives back certain sensations to the genitalia. Clitoraid, a non-profit international organization, is in the process of building a hospital in Burkina Faso, West Africa, where women who have suffered FGM will be able to receive this procedure free of charge. [4] [10] [11]

To come to a conclusion it is to say that steps towards the end of female genital mutilation have been made and some attempts at ending this cruel procedure have been successful, but there are still many girls and women who suffer FGM every year. So there is still a lot of work and engagement necessary to forbid and to stop FGM definitively. Education is the most important way to achieve this and we also have to eliminate the belief that women are unclean without being circumcised and we have to improve the role of women in society, so that equality between the sexes will be reached.

For further information, you can watch these videos:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qDJyZIPvExY (Documentation on FGM)

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1fUlsMafFjM&feature=related (The terror of FGM)

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LQOuQj923fM&feature=player_embedded (Terre des Femmes: Stoppt weibliche Genitalverstümmelung!)

Hannah Krafft


  • [1]
  • Dirie, Waris; Miller, Cathleen: Desert flower. The extraordinary life of a desert nomad, New York 19992, p.70/71.
  • [2]
  • World Health Organization: Female Genital Mutilation, http://www.who.int/mediacentre/factsheets/fs241/en/, February 2010, access: 04.01.2010.
  • [3]
  • Gaede, Peter-Matthias (Hrsg.), Beschneidung, in: GEO Themenlexikon Band 9. Medizin und Gesundheit. Diagnose, Heilkunst, Arzneien, Mannheim 20071.
  • [4]
  • Female genital cutting, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Female_genital_cutting , 30 May 2010, access: 04.01.2010.
  • [5]
  • UNICEF Innocenti Research Centre: Changing a harmful social convention: Female Genital Mutilation/Cutting, http://www.unicef.de/fileadmin/content_media/presse/fotomaterial/Beschneidung/Beschneidung.pdf, November 2005, access: 04.01.2010.
  • [6]
  • Genitalverstümmelung. Alle Artikel, Hintergründe und Fakten, http://www.spiegel.de/thema/genitalverstuemmelung/, ältester Artikel: 06.06.1977; neuester Artikel: 23.12.2009, access: 04.01.2010.
  • [7]
  • Drake, Richard, Vogl, A. Wayne, Mitchell, Adam W. M.: Gray's Anatomy for Students, Philadelphia, 20092.
  • [8]
  • Religious views on female genital cutting, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Religious_views_on_female_genital_cutting, 22 May 2010, access: 04.01.2010.
  • [9]
  • Abu-Sahlieh, Sami: To Mutilate in the Name of Jehovah or Allah. Legitimization of Male and Female Circumcision, http://www.cirp.org/library/cultural/aldeeb1/ , July 1994, access: 04.01.2010.
  • [10]
  • Stoppt Mädchenbeschneidung, http://www.unicef.de/3412.html, April, 2006, access: 04.01.2010.
  • [11]
  • UNFPA Calls for End to Female Genital Mutilation/Cutting, http://www.unfpa.org/public/global/pid/213, February 2006, access: 04.01.2010.

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