Female genital mutilation (FGM)
Why does FGM happen?
Female genital mutilation is a traditional practice that’s been going on for thousands of years, and as such, is deeply entrenched in social, economic and political structures. FGM is illegal in many countries, including the UK, but because the laws aren’t always well enforced, and many people in rural communities are unaware of them, the practice still goes on.
Many parents consider it a necessary part of upholding family honour and tradition. Women, particularly older generations, who are custodians and key decision makers on FGM, view it as an essential part of a girl’s cultural and gender identity, and a social obligation.
Men and boys often grow up expecting that they will marry someone who has undergone the procedure and girls may want to be cut due to peer pressure, fear of social exclusion, and where it is a precondition for marriage. Individual attitudes against female genital mutilation often remain hidden due to the private nature of the issue and lack of open public discussion in communities.
Though FGM is a cultural, not a religious practice, and not affiliated to any one religion, it is practised among various religious groups, under the misconception that it is a requirement.
Refusing FGM can have severe social repercussions, including being rejected by one’s family, becoming an outcast, and in extreme cases — such as certain areas in Uganda - being denied the right to speak in public. If a girl refuses, she will usually be forced to be cut anyway, or have to run away to survive.
Types of FGM
The World Health Organisation has classified four main types of FGM.4
- Type I — clitoridectomy: removing part or all of a girl’s clitoris and/or prepuce
- Type II — excision: removing part or all of a girl’s clitoris and the inner labia (lips) with or without removal of the outer labia (excision)
- Type III – infibulation: narrowing of a girl’s vaginal opening by repositioning the labia (lips) to make a seal (with or without cutting of the outer labia)
- Type IV – all other harmful procedures: including pricking, piercing and cauterisation.
All types are a violation of girls’ human rights.
What are the effects of FGM on girls?
Aside from the agonising pain, FGM has serious immediate and long term consequences.
Immediate effects include:
- haemorrhage (bleeding)
- bacterial infections
- urine retention
- open sores
- injury to the nearby genital tissue
Long term effects include:
- bladder and urinary tract infections
- greater risk of complications when giving birth
- higher risk of infant deaths during labour 5
FGM also increases the chance of girls needing further operations in the future. For example, for a girl who has had her vaginal opening sealed or narrowed (type III, known as infibulation — see above), she will need this to be cut open later to allow for sexual intercourse and childbirth. Sometimes a woman’s vagina will be cut open and stitched closed again several times, meaning she goes through the pain again and again, and is continually at risk.
There are three sorrows of womanhood. The first is when a girl has her genitalia cut… the second is when she is married and has to have her vagina opened… the third is when she gives birth.
Jenifer, traditional birth attendant, Tangulbei, Kenya
Damaris is from Kenya. She had FGM aged 11. At the time she had no idea what it really was. “I didn’t know where I was going to be cut. I wanted to run, but… they held me back. I was crying so much.” Afterwards, Damaris was married off to a much older man who regularly beat her.
As a result of FGM, having sex and giving birth to her baby was agonising. She lived in constant misery and fear, until she found the courage to run away. Luckily she heard of an ActionAid’s women’s group. Damaris says the group has made a huge difference to her life — she now feels safe, supported and is learning practical skills to help her in the future.
“Thanks to the group, I feel better every day,” she says. “We talk about our life experiences. I tell them how bad and sad it feels to be married off to someone you do not know. After having talked to the group and let everything go out of my head, I feel at peace with myself.
“We also learn business skills. I’d like to have a shop where I could sell maize flour, sugar, batteries and lots more things. ActionAid gives us hope and strength. Every time I leave the meetings I feel really hopeful.”
women helped to challenge violence against women and girls and harmful traditional practices like FGM (in 2016 alone)6
community-led projects to support women and girls to challenge harmful traditional practices including FGM (in 2016 alone)7
people reached in Somailand through our work with schools, communities and religious leaders (from 2013-2015)8
ActionAid’s approach to FGM
Bringing an end to female genital mutilation requires changes in attitudes and behaviour at all levels of society.
ActionAid provides direct support to women and girls who have escaped mutilation, through our rescue centres, safe houses and girls clubs.
To bring about change we talk openly about the damaging impacts of FGM with women, men, boys and girls, as well as influential members of the community, such as traditional elders and religious leaders. We work closely with each of these groups and offer them training in the specific skills they need to speak out and influence others, so that eventually whole communities say no to FGM.
ActionAid Women’s Watch groups help bring an end to FGM
In Ethiopia, we’ve trained over 1,000 women to form Women’s Watch Groups, and helped them understand how FGM can be harmful to women, and the laws that are there to protect them. As a result, more than 42,000 people living in 12 communities have stopped practising FGM, and more and more girls are refusing to have it.
Meko Aman, 19, in Seru, was the first female to be married without having undergone FGM. Watch groups have been convincing parents against the practice, and those that are defiant are reported to the police. Meko’s mother is a member of the watch group.
Meko says: “Although we are taught about the ill effects of female genital mutilation, many girls still undergo it, as it had been difficult to convince parents. Now, anyone can report to the Women’s Watch Group. The Women’s Watch Group members try to convince parents against the practice and take individuals who persist to court. They spare girls, one way or another.”
Women’s networks leading the fight against FGM in Kenya
Susan Krop is the director of the Kongelai Women’s Network in Kenya. She was forced to undergo FGM at the age of 12, and was married shortly after. Now, she leads 107 women in the network to tackle FGM and other forms of violence against women and girls in her community, supported by ActionAid.
“We are women who have come together to fight against the violence against women and girls. Now, more girls are going to school and completing their education. But this doesn’t mean FGM has stopped. It is being practiced in other areas. There is still more work for us,” she says.
We want a world where FGM is a thing of the past. Progress is being made. More countries are banning the procedure and increasingly community members where FGM is practised are speaking out against it. There’s a long way to go to achieve total eradication, but we will keep working until this practice is stopped, and is no longer destroying girls’ lives.
How to seek help
If you think you, or someone you know, are at risk of FGM, please seek support as soon as possible.
Read more about our work on female genital mutilation
- 1 World Health Organisation, ‘Female genital mutilation and other harmful practice ↩︎
- 2 World Health Organisation, ‘Female genital mutilation and other harmful practices ↩︎
- 3 The Adelman Foundation project reports (2013-15) ↩︎
- 4 World Health Organisation, ‘Eliminating female genital mutilation
An interagency statement’ ↩︎
- 5 World Health Organisation, ‘Female genital factsheet no. 241 (2014) ↩︎
- 6 ActionAid UK Annual Trustees’ Reports and Accounts 2015 ↩︎
- 7 ActionAid UK Annual Trustees’ Reports and Accounts 2015 ↩︎
- 6 The Adelman Foundation project reports (2013-15) ↩︎