At least 125 million women and girls have undergone female genital mutilation (FGM) in Africa and the Middle East, according to a UNICEF report issued on Monday. In 50 percent of the countries practicing FGM — roughly 29 across the two regions — the procedure involves girls under five years old. In other countries, FGM occurs when girls are between the ages of 5 and 14.
The World Health Organization (WHO) defines FGM as “all procedures that involve partial or total removal of the external female genitalia, or other injury to the female genital organs for non-medical reasons.” Also known as “female genital cutting (FGC),” most FGM occurs in Africa and a few Middle Eastern countries, although it does take place in parts of Central and South America. There is no one reason that the practice is continued; in places where FGM does take place, it is considered a social norm.” Many believe the practice preserves girls’ virginity by suppressing “sexual desire” — the reason most Westerners associate the practice with — and can also signal a transition into womanhood when performed on older girls. Families often force FGM upon their daughters as a means to render them more desirable for marriage, and to conform to social expectations. Girls are often perceived as “dirty” if they are not cut.
All told, numerous consequences are commonly associated with the procedure, with “severe pain, shock, [and bleeding]” among some of the immediate effects. Moreover, because FGM disturbs girls’ anatomy, it has a litany of long-term impacts. Women and girls who undergo FGM often experience infertility, difficulties during childbirth, and painful intercourse. Long-lasting infections can develop in the bladder, pelvis, and reproductive system. In addition to physical harm, FGM can also take a toll psychologically. Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), for example, is a prevalent issue among girls who undergo the process.
UNICEF found that the prevalence of FGM varies across the 29 countries referenced in its report, and grouped them into five tiers to reflect those rates. For example, eight countries have high percentages — above 80 percent — of girls who are cut. Somalia and Egypt, for instance, claim that 98 percent and 91 percent of girls are cut, respectively. Egypt alone hosts one in five of the total number who have been subjected to the procedure. Other nations included in the study have much lower rates of FGM, such as Uganda and Cameroon, in which only 1 percent of girls undergo cutting. The process is currently illegal within the United States.
The international children’s organization is not alone in assessing FGM as detrimental to the health and well-being of young girls. FGM ultimately strips freedoms away from those subjected to the process, Amnesty International argues, including the rights to “physical and mental integrity, freedom from violence…freedom from discrimination on the basis of sex, and freedom from torture,…inhuman and degrading treatments, [and] life (when the procedure results in death).” As such, the procedure can be considered a human rights violation, UNICEF says, under the U.N. Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) and possibly the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Activists are currently working with government bodies, non-governmental organizations, and civil society groups to eradicate FGM through legislation, educational messaging, and localized advocacy.
According to the organization, 30 million additional girls will suffer from FGM if discourse continues as is. “FGM/C is a violation of a girl’s rights to health, well-being and self-determination,” UNICEF Deputy Executive Director Geeta Rao Gupta said in a blog post from the organization announcing the report. “What is clear from this report is that legislation alone is not enough. The challenge now is to let girls and women, boys and men speak out loudly and clearly and announce they want this harmful practice abandoned.”
February 6 marks International Day of Zero Tolerance to Female Genital Mutilation.