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The following information is sensitive in nature and suited for mature readers only. Also, this material should not be regarded as medical or legal advice.
The terms female genital cutting (FGC), female circumcision, and female genital mutilation (FGM) all describe the cultural practice of partially or totally removing the external female genitalia. The minor form of FGC is when the clitoris is removed. The most severe form of FGC is when all external genitalia are removed and the vaginal opening is stitched nearly closed. Only a small opening is left for urine and menstrual blood.
All three terms describe the procedure that cuts away part or all of the external female genitalia. Deciding what exactly to call it is still being debated. Some people fear that parents may resent the implication that they are "mutilating" their daughters by participating in this largely cultural event, and so reject the term FGM in favor of FGC. Some people point out that the word "cutting" is less judgmental and relates better to terms used in many local languages. However, many women's health and human rights organizations use the word "mutilation" not only to describe the practice, but also to point out the violation of women's human rights.
Previously, some referred to the practice as "circumcision" to link FGC to male circumcision. However, this word can hide the serious physical and psychological effects of cutting women's genitals. It also fails to show differences between the different types of cutting. For these reasons, a number of international organizations offer a compromise: "female genital mutilation/cutting (FGM/C)."
For our purposes in this fact sheet, womenshealth.gov refers to this practice as FGC.
FGC is performed on infants, girls, and women of all ages. The age at which girls are cut can vary widely from country to country, and even within countries. Most often, FGC happens before a girl reaches puberty. Sometimes, however, it is done just before marriage or during a woman’s first pregnancy. In Egypt, about 90 percent of girls are cut between 5 and 14 years old. However, in Yemen, more than 75 percent of girls are cut before they are 2 weeks old. The average age at which a girl undergoes FGC is decreasing in some countries (Burkina Faso, Côte d’Ivoire, Egypt, Kenya, and Mali). Researchers think it’s possible that the average age of FGC is getting lower so that it can be more easily hidden from authorities in countries where there may be laws against it. It is also possible that FGC is performed on younger girls because they are less able to resist.
The practice of FGC is a cultural tradition performed across central Africa, in the southern Sahara, and in parts of the Middle East. Most women who have experienced FGC live in one of the 28 countries in Africa and the Middle East where FGC is practiced. Almost one-half of women who have experienced FGC live in Egypt or Ethiopia. (In Egypt, 2008 Demographic and Health Survey (DHS) information notes that female genital cutting rates are declining.)
To a lesser degree, FGC is practiced in Indonesia, Malaysia, Pakistan, and India. Some immigrants practice various forms of FGC in other parts of the world, including Australia, Canada, New Zealand, the United States, and in European nations.
Although many people believe that FGC is associated with Islam, it is not. FGC is not supported by any religion and is condemned by many religious leaders. The practice crosses religious barriers. Muslims, Christians, and Jews have been known to support FGC on their girls.
No religious text requires or even supports cutting female genitals. In fact, Islamic Shari'a protects children and protects their rights. From a Christian perspective, FGC has no religious grounds either. In fact, research shows that the relationship between religion and FGC is inconsistent at best.
However, even though religious texts don’t support FGC, some people still think the two are linked and claim religious teachings support FGC.
In six of the countries where FGC is practiced — Ethiopia, Cote d'Ivoire, Kenya, Senegal, Benin, and Ghana — Muslim population groups are more likely to practice FGC than Christian groups. In Nigeria, Tanzania, and Niger, though, the prevalence is greater among Christian groups.
There are many reasons FGC is practiced, including social, economic, and political reasons. Those who support FGC believe that it will empower their daughters, ensure the girls get married, and protect the family’s good name. In some groups, FGC is performed to show a girl’s growth into womanhood and, as in the Masai community, marks the start of a girl’s sexual debut. It also is performed to keep a woman’s virginity by limiting her sexual behavior. FGC is believed (by those who practice it) to stop a woman’s sexual desire. In some groups, women who are not cut are viewed as dirty and are treated badly. While FGC pre-dates both Christianity and Islam, religion is also used to promote the practice. Some communities believe that in order to be good Muslims, parents must have their daughters cut.
There are also many superstitions about FGC, such as:
FGC is often part of a community’s tradition. Most parents who support FGC believe they are protecting their daughter’s future marriage prospects, and not hurting her. It is seen by parents as part of a girl’s upbringing.
It is estimated that between 100 million and 140 million girls and women worldwide have received FGC. There are more than 3 million girls at risk of having FGC each year. It is unknown how many women in the United States have received FGC.
FGC can cause a range of health problems, both short-term and long-term. The kinds of problems that develop depend upon the degree of the cutting, the cleanliness of the tools used to do the cutting, and the health of the girl or woman receiving the cutting. In most countries, FGC is performed in unclean conditions by mainly traditional practitioners who may use scissors, razor blades, or knives. In Egypt, though, up to 90 percent of FGC is performed by a health care professional. Almost every girl or woman who receives FGC experiences pain or bleeding.
Short-term health problems:
Long-term health problems (usually occurs to women with the most severe form of FGC):
In some countries where FGC is performed, leaders have tried to lessen the physical problems caused by FGC by asking hospitals and doctors to do the surgery. This “medicalization” of FGC offends the international medical community, and is seen as a way for FGC supporters to continue the practice. Advocates have charged that doctors should not perform FGC, as their profession requires them to “do no harm” to their patients, despite cultural beliefs and practices.
The WHO and the United Nations Commission on Human Rights, along with several African and Asian nations, have called for an end to the practice of FGC. The WHO views the practice as a violent act against a girl that causes her serious lifetime problems. The American Medical Association (AMA) also rejects FGC and supports laws against it. There is also growing international support for condemning FGC and a call for severe penalties given to those who practice it.
Some cultures that practice FGC view it as their right. FGC supporters say that the Western practice of making breasts bigger and other plastic surgery is comparable to FGC.
These are the most popular approaches used to try to stop the practice of FGC:
Even if laws are put into place, though, they will likely do little to stop the practice of FGC. Also, in communities where FGC has a lot of support, prosecuting parents will cause extreme controversy.
Eighteen African countries enacted laws or decrees against FGC. Even countries with the highest rates of FGC have recently openly noted the need for banning this practice. Fines and jail sentences are typically minor, but most view any sanctions against FGC as a good start.
For more information about female genital cutting, call womenshealth.gov at 800-994-9662 (TDD: 888-220-5446) or contact the following organizations:
Female genital cutting fact sheet was reviewed by:
Caroline Bacquet-Walsh, UNICEF
Sandra Jordan, United States Agency for International Development
Francesca Moneti, UNICEF
Content last updated July 16, 2012.
Resources last updated December 15, 2009.