Female genital mutilation (FGM) | ActionAid UK

Female genital mutilation (FGM)

Female genital mutilation (FGM), is one of the most extreme forms of violence against girls. ActionAid is working in nine African countries to end this painful and traumatic practice. We help communities — men and women — say no to FGM and provide safe spaces for girls who are at risk.

What is FGM?

Female genital mutilation (FGM), also known as female genital cutting and female circumcision, is the partial or full cutting of a girl’s clitoris and labia, for non-medical reasons, nearly always on girls between four and 12 years old.

The procedure can cause severe bleeding, infection, infertility and even death. Afterwards, girls are often taken out of school and forced into early marriage. FGM can have devastating physical, psychological, and social consequences for the rest of girls’ lives.

What’s the scale of the problem?

  • 100
    3 million girls in Africa are at risk of being mutilated every year.1
  • 100
    Up to 140 million girls worldwide have been subjected to FGM — more than double the UK population.2
  • 98
    Somaliland has one of the highest rates of FGM, where 98% of 15-19 year old girls have been cut.3

Students Abigail (R) and Purity (L) in class at a school in West Pokot, Kenya. The school has been supported by ActionAid.

Abigail and Purity are childhood friends, from Kenya. Abigail escaped FGM and found sanctuary at an ActionAid-funded safe house and school in West Pokot. She helped Purity to flee when her turn to be cut came. Now they are both safe and enjoying school.

Photo: Ashley Hamer/ActionAid

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.

Types of tools used in FGM practices in Pokot, Kenya

Types of tools used in FGM practices in Pokot, Kenya

What are the effects of FGM on girls?

Aside from the agonising pain, FGM has serious immediate and long term consequences.

Immediate effects include:

  • shock
  • haemorrhage (bleeding)
  • bacterial infections
  • urine retention
  • open sores
  • injury to the nearby genital tissue
  • death

Long term effects include:

  • bladder and urinary tract infections
  • cysts
  • infertility
  • 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

What’s ActionAid doing to end FGM?

ActionAid works in Ethiopia, Ghana, Kenya, Liberia, Senegal, Sierra Leone, Somaliland, The Gambia and Uganda to end female genital mutilation.

HandsWe provide direct support to women and girls who have escaped FGM

TalkingWe help communities to learn and openly talk about its damaging effects

TeachingWe run youth groups to help boys and girls speak up to end FGM

WomenWe train women to form Women’s Watch Groups to report cases of FGM

CampaigningWe lobby governments to help pass anti-FGM laws

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.

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.

Donate to support our work protecting girls from FGM

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


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How child sponsorship is helping tackle FGM

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Find out how child sponsorship is playing a crucial role in helping to end FGM in Ghana.

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Page updated 6 September 2018