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Female Genital Mutilation between Human Rights and Tradition

Updated: Jan 16, 2019

Female circumcision is a form of gender-based violence and a fundamental violation of the rights of girls and women. The World Health Organisation (WHO) defines female circumcision, or female genital mutilation (FGM) as: ‘all procedures that involve partial or total removal of the external female genitalia, or other injury to the female genital organs for non-medical reasons.’ An important complication in ending FGM is that it is a deeply entrenched social norm, practiced in 29 countries in Africa and the Middle East. According to a statistical overview provided by UNICEF in 2013, more than 125 million of the girls and women living in these countries have experienced FGM (2013, UNICEF – Female Genital Mutilation/Cutting: a statistical overview and exploration of the dynamics of change).

Despite the absence of data collection, it is estimated that also in some EU countries women and girls are at risk of FGM. Because of this the practice has gained more attention in the EU during recent years.

The WHO identified four major types of FGM:

- The clitoridectomy is the partial or total removal of the clitoris;

- The excision is the removal of all the clitoris and the inner labia (lips that surround the vagina), with or without removal of the labia majora (larger outer lips);

- The infibulation is the narrowing of the vagina opening by creating a seal, formed by cutting and repositioning the labia;

- Girls and women can be subjected to other harmful procedures for non-medical purposes, like pricking, piercing, incising, scraping and cauterising the genital area.

As was quoted above, female circumcision has no health benefits. Even more so, FGM alters the natural functions of the woman’s body and it can be harmful in many ways. Further, the procedure carries great risk and can generate immediate consequences such as severe pain, shock, haemorrhage, sepsis (bacterial infection), urine retention, and / or injury to nearby genital tissue. Additionally, FGM can produce long-term implications like cysts, damage to the external reproductive system, uterus or vaginal infections, complications in pregnancy and child birth or psychological damage. Because of the potential destructive effects, there are cases when it is necessary for circumcised women to undergo further surgeries later in life. (WHO – Female genital mutilation).

The age at which female circumcision is practiced differs from one ethnic group to the other. It can vary from shortly after birth to after delivering the first child, but mostly it is carried out on girls whose age is between four and ten. Although in urban areas female circumcision can be performed in a hospital, in rural African areas the procedure is often carried out by an old woman of the village with no medical training. Besides, often basic tools are used such as knives, scissors, razor blades or pieces of glass. The hygienic conditions in which the procedure occurs are, therefore, very poor most of the times.

The practice is supported by a wide range of motives and justifications which are deeply-rooted into the cultural and historical situation of the societies where FGM is mostly carried out.

The two main justifications for FGM are religion and tradition. Since it is mainly practiced in Muslim communities, female circumcision acquired a religious dimension. However, in the risk countries FGM is practiced by followers of different beliefs, such as Christians, Animists and Jews. It would be therefore wrong to identify the procedure only with the Islamic faith. Besides, it is not practiced by all Muslims. Even more important than perceiving female circumcision as a religious obligation, social pressure is imposed on individuals trough family and community members. Those who do not implement the practice would be excluded and ostracised from the community life.

It can be claimed that tradition and not religion is the main origin of the justifications supporting FGM. While many traditions promote social cohesion, others do great harm to the physical and psychological integrity of individuals. FGM is perceived as an initiation rite, a transition in status from girlhood to womanhood and marriageable age. ( Before the initiation through mutilation, the girls are kept in seclusion for at least two weeks and they get instructed about morality, social codes, being a good wife, behaviours around elders and other age groups (2009, – Myths and Justifications for the Perpetuation of FGM).

Among sociological reasons, the sexual and marriage factors are essential. In many Third World countries, marriage is necessary for a woman’s survival. Finding a husband and reproducing are the ways a woman can reach economic stability and social status. In order to get married a girl needs to be a virgin, otherwise both the girl and her family could face social consequences. FGM is considered as a way to ensure virginity. Alongside this justification, women are also believed to be weak when it comes to emotion and the control of their sexuality; circumcision is expected to control women’s sexuality. However, even though FGM may reduce physical feelings, it cannot reduce the desire and it is not assurance of chastity (Dr. Ashenafi Moges – What is behind the tradition of FGM?).

Psychological reasons play also an important role, particularly regarding gender identity.  FGM is often considered a necessary practice in order for girls to be considered a complete woman. Clitoris and labia are seen as ‘male parts’ of a woman’s body, and clitoris is also considered to be ugly on a girl. The practice eliminates any indication of maleness in a woman’s body and makes a woman feminine (Amnesty International – End FGM European Campaign).

Another justification for the practice of FGM is the fact that it contributes to the cleanliness and beauty of women, since an unmutilated woman is considered dirty and polluted. It is believed that secretions produced by the glands in the clitoris, labia minora and majora are bad smelling and unhygienic, therefore their removal makes the body clean. In reality, by closing the vulva and preventing the natural flow of urine and menstrual flow, FGM could lead to uncleanliness. (Dr. Ashenafi Moges – What is behind the tradition of FGM?).

As argued before, the practice of FGM is, in any form, internationally recognised as a violation of the human rights of girls and women. Despite that several actions have been taken to address the issue on an international level, they were mostly unsuccessful. The interventions were often external, and those who tried to tackle the problem ignored the social and economic context of the countries were FGM is practiced. Some actions taken by Western feminists and human rights activists were also met with resistance and negative reactions from locals; these initiatives were considered as condescending and derogatory toward their culture.  (1997, Frances A. Althaus – Female Circumcision: Rite of Passage Or Violation of Rights?)

The rights of women and girls, which the practice of FGM violates, are protected in several international and regional instruments such as the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR), Convention Against Torture, Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) and Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC), the European Convention of Human Rights and the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union.

Both national and domestic legislation did not prove to be successful in eliminating FGM. At the contrary, they forced to carry out the procedure in secret and unsanitary areas, increasing health risks for girls and women. (Jessica A. Platt – Female circumcision: Religious practice v. Human rights violation)

Some international organisations have therefore developed new ways to address the issue. They support local activist groups with funding, training and technical expertise instead of being directly involved. A positive way to address female circumcision can be through education and women’s empowerment. Educational groups in the countries where FGM is mostly practiced can give women knowledge about the operational procedure involved in female circumcision, the different forms of FGM, and inform them about the procedure’s potential health risks. (Jessica A. Platt – Female circumcision: Religious practice v. Human rights violation). In order to establish a balance between religious beliefs and the promotion of human rights,  the clinicalisation of female circumcision or the implementation of mild forms of circumcision that can be carried out in a hospital at the birth of a female child can be promoted. ( The sunna, for instance, is a form of circumcision practiced in Somalia under sterile and anaesthetic conditions and which drastically decrease the possibilities of casualties).

Finally, circumcision through words can be encouraged. It is a way to implement the practice spiritually rather than physically through a programme of training, counselling and informing girls on anatomy, physiology, sexual and reproductive health, gender issues. The program is followed by a ceremony performed in front of the entire community which represents the rite of passage of girls into womanhood. Circumcision through words is a spiritual alternative which allows women to practice their religion without risking their health. (Jessica A. Platt – Female circumcision: Religious practice v. Human rights violation)

The practice of female circumcision derives from complex belief systems. Many efforts to eradicate the practice originated from outside the community often met with hostility from the community practicing them: the idea of ending their tradition is inconceivable, and Western pressures for change is perceived as culturally imperialistic. This is why actions to stop female circumcision are most likely to be effective when they originate within the culture that practices them. (1998, Lauren Hersh – Giving Up Harmful Practices, Not Culture).

Addressing FGM requires a long-term commitment and a collective effort. There are no easy or quick solutions. Female circumcision needs actions from different sectors and on different levels. The international community plays an important role in raising awareness on the issues, but legislation alone is not sufficient to end FGM. Engage the communities where the practice is widely spread, and adopt programmes that include empowering education – with a special focus on women’s empowerment – is a good way to develop knowledge and consensus at community level. (2008, WHO – Eliminating Female genital mutilation).

References (2009), Myths and Justifications for the Perpetuation of FGM (Accessed: 25.07.2014)

Frances A. Althaus (1997), Female Circumcision: Rite of Passage Or Violation of Rights?

Amnesty International, End FGM European Campaign (Accessed: 26.07.2014)

Lauren Hersh (1998), Giving Up Harmful Practices, Not Culture

Dr. Ashenafi Moges, What is behind the tradition of FGM? (Accessed: 25.07.2014)

Jessica A. Platt, Female circumcision: Religious practice v. Human rights violation – (Accessed: 26.07.2014)

Unicef (2013), Female Genital Mutilation/Cutting: a statistical overview and exploration of the dynamics of change

Unicef, Female genital mutilation/cutting

WHO (2008), Eliminating Female genital mutilation

WHO, Female genital mutilation (Accessed: 25.07.2014)


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