Female genital mutilation (FGM), also known as ‘female genital cutting’ or ‘female circumcision’, is a form of gender-based violence comprising all procedures that involve the partial or total removal of the external female genitalia or other injury to the female genital organs for non-medical reasons (WHO, 2008).
Types of FGM
Type I: Partial or total removal of the clitoris and/or its prepuce (clitoridectomy)
Type II: Partial or total removal of the clitoris and the labia minora, with or without excision of the labia majora (excision)
Type III: Narrowing of the vaginal orifice with creation of a covering seal by cutting and appositioning the labia minora and/or the labia majora, with or without excision of the clitoris (infibulation)
Type IV: All other harmful procedures to the female genitalia for non-medical purposes, for example, pricking, piercing, incising, scraping and cauterisation (WHO, 2008)
Causes and consequences
The practice of FGM varies between countries and ethnic groups, underpinned by a complex variety of religious and/or social factors. However, its impact on gender and inter-generational relationships is broadly similar.
FGM is a deeply embedded social norm with longstanding historical roots. The age of the girl or woman upon whom FGM is performed and the type involved depend on several factors, including nationality, ethnic group or tribe, socioeconomic background and whether a family is urban or rural. FGM is generally performed on girls aged 4-12, although in some cultures it is practised as early as a few days after birth or as late as just prior to marriage or during the first pregnancy.
Religious arguments tend to be used to justify the practice but there is no religious mandate for it. Rather, FGM is part of a complex cultural and symbolic practice relating to the marriageability of women and the role of women in their communities, including access to property and social status. FGM is often considered a rite of passage, carried out during a ceremony or ritual to mark the change in status or transition from childhood to womanhood.
FGM has negative effects on the physical, sexual, psychological and social health of women in the short, medium and long term; it may even lead to death.
Global prevalence of FGM
An estimated 200 million girls and women in 30 countries are currently living with FGM, with a further 8,000 girls at risk every day—some 3 million girls a year (UNICEF, 2016). According to research by the European Parliament, an estimated 500,000 women and girls in the European Union (EU) have been subjected to FGM (EU, 2016). Around 20,000 women and girls from FGM-risk countries of origin seek asylum in the EU each year—20% of all female applicants in 2011. Around 8,800 of these—mostly from Somalia, Eritrea or Guinea—are affected by FGM. However, in Europe, there is still lack of accurate data and limited research regarding the prevalence of FGM.
FGM is most common in the western, eastern and north-eastern regions of Africa. Prevalence rates vary between and within countries and regions, with the most decisive criterion being ethnicity. Countries with high prevalence rates (> 85%) include Somalia, Egypt, Ethiopia and Mali. Lower prevalence rates (< 30%) are found in, for example, Senegal, Central African Republic and Nigeria. FGM was once thought to be confined to Africa. However, it is also practised by communities in Asia and the Middle East (e.g. India, Indonesia, Iran, Iraq, Kurdish communities, Malaysia, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and Yemen), among certain ethnic groups in Central, South and North America, and in Australia, as well as in Europe’s migrant communities from FGM-affected countries.
Copyright, Excision, parlons-en!
(Based on GAMS Belgium map, data from UNICEF, 2013)
FGM: A human rights approach
FGM is one of a wide range of patriarchal practices rooted in gender inequality, which aim to control the bodies, sexuality and reproductive rights of women and girls. FGM denies women and girls their rights to physical and mental integrity, to freedom from violence, to the highest possible standard of health, to freedom from discrimination on the basis of gender, and to freedom from torture, cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment (END FGM, 2015a).
FGM is internationally recognised as a violation of women and girls’ human rights and as an extreme form discrimination and violence, directed exclusively at girls and women because of their sex. The practice is a crime in all EU member states, under specific or more general legislation. However, any girl born into an FGM-practising community is potentially at risk of being subjected to the procedure (END FGM, 2015a).
International and European conventions
International human-rights law and national legislation in many EU countries recognises the practice of FGM as a form of gender-based violence and a violation of women and girls’ rights, including their sexual and reproductive rights.
Over the past decade several landmark international agreements have highlighted the need to tackle FGM as part of a broader effort to promote gender equality and sustainable development. These agreements include the International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD) Programme of Action, the Beijing Platform for Action and the 2012 UN General Assembly Resolution (A/RES/67/146). Some regional African and European instruments, such as the Protocol to the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights on the Rights of Women in Africa (Maputo Protocol), specifically address FGM and are key to finding sustainable solutions to combat the practice (END FGM, 2015b).
The Istanbul Convention is the first legally binding European instrument on preventing violence against women and domestic violence, protecting victims and punishing perpetrators. The Convention reflects current international law and knowledge of good and promising practices to eradicate violence against women. It aims to protect women against all forms of violence; to contribute to ending discrimination against women; to promote substantive gender equality; to design a comprehensive framework to protect and assist victims of violence against women and domestic violence; and to end perpetrators’ impunity for such acts.
The Istanbul Convention requires states to prevent, prosecute and eliminate physical, psychological and sexual violence, including rape, sexual assault and sexual harassment, stalking, forced marriage, forced abortion, forced sterilisation, FGM and killings, including crimes in the name of so-called ‘honour’. These are all manifestations of gender-based violence, which aims to control women’s behaviour, sexuality and autonomy, and which is common to all cultures. Grounded in a human rights-based perspective and promoting a comprehensive and integrated approach to tackling all forms of violence against women, the Istanbul Convention is a framework which, properly implemented, can support states parties in accelerating efforts towards ending the practice of FGM within one generation.
EU policy framework
Many countries in Europe have adopted national action plans or guidelines on FGM that include policy frameworks. Ideally, such policy frameworks should highlight the role of communities in prevention, protection and prosecution, as well as the provision of care.
The 2013 European Commission Communication, Towards the Elimination of Female Genital Mutilation, calls for an integrated approach to the ending of FGM. The Communication provides an effective policy framework for tackling FGM, calling for action in five areas:
- Promote sustainable social change to prevent FGM
- Support member states in effectively prosecuting FGM
- Ensure the protection of at-risk women on EU territory
- Promote the elimination of FGM globally
- Implement, monitor and evaluate strategies to end FGM
- END FGM, (2015a): Factsheet 2: FGM as a Gender & VAW issue.
- END FGM, (2015b). Position Paper: Repositioning FGM as a gender and development issue.
- European Commission (2016). Advisory Committee on Equal Opportunities Men and Women, Mandate for the 2016 Working Group on Female Genital Mutilation.
- UNICEF (2016). Female Genital Mutilation/Cutting: A Global Concern. New York: UNICEF.
- World Health Organisation (WHO). (2008). Eliminating Female Genital Mutilation: An interagency statement OHCHR, UNAIDS, UNDP, UNECA, UNESCO, UNFPA, UNHCR, UNICEF, UNIFEM, WHO. Geneva.