Definition and Terminology
A 2013 UNICEF report states that more than 125 million girls and women worldwide have undergone genital cutting. FGM/C is prevalent throughout west, east, north and north-eastern regions of Africa, as well as in parts of Asia, the Middle East, and among migrant and refugee communities from these regions living in Europe, Australia, New Zealand, Canada and the US.
FGM/C is comprised of procedures that surgically alter female genital organs for non-medical reasons. The procedure is generally carried out on young girls between infancy and 15 years of age, most commonly before just puberty. In some countries, for example Sierra Leone, there are efforts to make it illegal until a girl is 18 and can consent. These laws have had perverse effects, encouraging circumcision before such laws can take effect.
In certain circumstances, adults, including married women who are pregnant, may be forced to undergo FGM/C. Traditionally an appointed woman will do the cutting. Although this woman will unlikely be medically trained to ‘western standards’, it is likely that she will be traditionally trained and seen as skilled in the procedure. It is unlikely that anaesthetics or antiseptics are used, as enduring pain is considered integral to the meaning of the ritual. Other procedures harmful to the female genitalia include pricking, piercing, cutting, pulling, scraping and burning the area. Instruments used include knives, scissors, scalpels, pieces of glass or razor blades. However, the trend towards medicalization is increasing and it has been estimated that in some countries, healthcare providers perform more than 18% of all FGM/C. The practice of FGM/C is common across all social classes, all levels of education and among many religions, though no religion requires it.
The cutting is often part of a weeks-long ceremony, during which girls are educated as to their responsibilities in the community as a wife and mother, prove their courage in enduring the pain of cutting, and then take a vow not to speak of their experiences during this initiation. Many who practice FGM/C believe that it will make a girl chaste and faithful to her husband, maintain her health, is cleaner and, most importantly, will make her marriageable. This is an important reason for many parents to subject their daughters to FGM/C, they usually have their daughters’ best interest at heart but take away their right to choose in the process. Oftentimes, FGM/C is not a one-off experience, but is repeated later in life as women may be defibulated or reinfibulated at marriage or child birth.
The World Health Organization’s Fact Sheet provides a full outline of key facts, procedures, risk groups, cultural, religious and social causes, and international response.
There are four main types of FGM/C:
Removing part or all of the clitoris and/or prepuce.
Removing part or all of the clitoris and the inner labia (lips that surround the vagina), with or without removal of the labia majora (larger outer lips).
3. Infibulation (pharaonic):
Narrowing of the vaginal opening by creating a seal, formed by cutting and repositioning the labia.
Other harmful procedures to the female genitals include pricking, piercing, cutting, pulling, scraping and burning the area.
The health risks involved with FGM/C may include great pain, haemorrhage, trauma to adjacent organs, infection, shock from blood loss, urinary retention, tetanus, cysts, abscesses, infertility, incontinence, psychological problems, pain during sex, difficulty during childbirth and even death. Especially infibulated women often have problems with obstructed labour which threatened the lives of both mother and child.
Laws on FGM/C worldwide
Article 38 of the 2011 Council of Europe Convention on preventing and combating violence against women and domestic violence (Istanbul Convention) criminalises ‘inciting, coercing or procuring a girl [or woman] to undergo’ FGM/C. Furthermore, it establishes in Article 44 that parties to the Convention will prosecute those who commit this offence ‘where the offence is committed against one of their nationals or a person who has her or his habitual residence in their territory’ and that parties to the Convention will ensure that ‘jurisdiction is not subordinated to the condition that the acts are criminalised in the territory where they were committed.’ However, this Convention has neither been signed, nor ratified by all EU Member States.
The US outlawed FGM/C with the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act of 1996, making it punishable by to up to five years in prison. In 2013, the law was amended by the Transport for Female Genital Mutilation Act , prohibiting anyone from knowingly transporting a girl out of the country for the purpose of undergoing FGM/C. The Act was designed to address the problem of ‘vacation cutting’, in which girls living in the United States are taken to their parents’ country of origin (typically during school breaks) to undergo the procedure.
International and regional human rights conventions aimed at the eradication of FGM/C, like the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC), the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR), the African Charter on Human and People’s Rights (Banjul Charter) and the Protocol to the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights on the Rights of Women in Africa (Maputo Protocol) have been widely ratified, both by FGM/C-practising and non-practising countries, but in case of the former, often remain merely symbolic.
Cultural relativism and justifications for FGM/C
It is important for lawyers to be warned of a movement to counter efforts to eradicate FGM/C. Despite the UN’s ‘universal’ ban on FGM/C in 2012, there have been efforts not only to explain FGM/C, but to justify it, and indeed to promote it. These proponents of FGM/C claim that non-African campaigners against FGM/C fail to understand the cultural significance of circumcision in the communities in which it takes place.
From her web-based platform , Sierra Leonean academic, Dr Fuambai Ahmadu, an anthropologist, US citizen, and a gender adviser to the Vice President of Sierra Leone, is promoting FGM/C as authentic ‘African’ culture wrongly denigrated by ‘sexist, racist’ westerners who are funded by ‘western’ donors, all of whom are labelled as neo-colonialists and ‘racists’. As she puts it:
With utter disregard for differences in cultural, social, and historical contexts and experiences of womanhood, the bodies of circumcised African women are measured and devalued (by anti-FGM activists and increasingly by our own women) against a Euroamerican universal prototype.
It is not possible to draw any conclusions about the degree of influence such ideological attempts to misinterpret anti-FGM/C campaigning as neo-colonialist and racist have had, but in a 2014 interview Dr Ahmadu said:
“As descendants of Africans with our history of enslavement, imperialism and colonialism, we have to be very careful when we are shamed into forgetting or denigrating our culture, our past, and our traditions. By labeling circumcised African women as “mutilated” and “oppressed” and our cultures as “barbaric” – some feminists even say “sadomasochistic” – the financiers of anti-FGC campaigns who are largely white, educated, middle-class or wealthy women and men continue to define for us who we can and cannot be as African women, how we can or cannot feel, what we can or cannot do, and what we can or cannot appreciate about our histories, our bodies and our own sexual organs”.
On the other hand there are women who are African by birth and upbringing who are fighting against FGM/C. For example Dr Comfort Momo, originally from Nigeria set up the African Well Women’s Clinic, dedicated to caring for women affected by FGM/C at Guy’s Hospital in London, in 1997. For more Anti-FGM/C NGOs see our FGM/C Resources by Country list.
FGM/C advocates frequently compare FGM/C to male circumcision as practised by Muslims and Jews, but also by those not belonging to either faith group practising it for its perceived medical, aesthetic and hygienic advantages. This comparison serves to argue that FGM/C is no different from male circumcision and that FGM/C practising countries in fact promote gender equity by modifying the genitals of both males and females. What these advocates fail to mention, however, is that the two procedures are nothing alike. Similarly, FGM/C is compared to female genital cosmetic surgery as practised primarily in the western world to argue that what is termed ‘mutilation’ in the ‘third world’ in called a ‘designer vagina’ in Europe and North America. This, however, does not address fact that those who undergo FGM/C often do so against their will.
United to End Female Genital Mutilation offers the Self Study Modules e-Learning Tool, a free online course that provides information and practical advice about FGM/C. Although primarily designed for health and asylum service staff working in Europe, the course will also be of use elsewhere around the world, including women’s organisations and shelters. The user can choose between two course ‘streams’: one focusing on asylum and the other focusing on health. Each module contains further reading and resources hyperlinked to the page. A short quiz is offered after each module to ensure that the user fully understands the material covered. Each of the six modules can stand independently and they may be completed in any order.
Together the two streams are comprised of six modules:
(1) Introduction to Female Genital Mutilation;
(2) FGM, Gender Identity, Roles and Power Dynamics in the Context of Migration;
(3) The Consequences of FGM on Women’s Health;
(4) FGM as Ground for International Protection;
(5) The Health Context: Communication Techniques in Supporting Women Affected by FGM;
(6) The Asylum Context: Communication and Interviewing Techniques.
The UK Home Office also offers a free training on FGM/C. It is aimed at professionals safeguarding chidlren against FGM/C in the UK, however, it gives a comprehensive overview of the social and cultural context of FGM/C and is therefore also of interest to workers in the asylum system.
The Global Alliance Against FGM offers an FGM/C literature database, an FGM NGO mapping tool, a News section, and country sheets with a compact compilation of the basic information about the FGM/C situation per country.
Short Training Films on FGM/C
The videos tell the stories of refugee women who have undergone FGM/C and are engaged to end this practice. These women explain their experiences of flight, asylum and integration in the EU.
Too Much Pain (Part 1) The Voices of Refugee Women on FGM
Too Much Pain (Part 2) What is FGM?
Too Much Pain (Part 3) – FGM and Asylum Claims
Too Much Pain (Part 4) What is an age and gender sensitive approach to FGM asylum cases?
Too Much Pain (Part 5) The need for an age and gender sensitive reception system
Comic Relief Special BBC3: By Nawe Ashton
Mini Documentry by Journeyman Pictures
FGM/C Case Law and other Reference Documents
Please click here. Please note this is a work in progress.