Geographies in Depth

10 things to know about female genital mutilation

Stéphanie Thomson
Writer, Forum Agenda
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“The time has come for us to eradicate this bad practice and protect the rights of girls and women in our country,” said Somalia’s minister for women’s affairs at a conference earlier this month. The bad practice she was referring to was female genital mutilation – procedures that intentionally alter or cause harm to the female genital organs for non-medical reasons.

The World Health Organization categorizes the procedure into four types: they range from the partial or complete removal of the clitoris to a procedure where the genitalia is sewn closed (which over 60% of women in Somalia are forced to undergo).

Although, as a UNICEF survey found, many people draw on cultural, social and religious justifications for the practice, it has been recognized as a human rights violation since 1993. And yet still, 3 million girls and women are at risk every year. Here are 10 more facts about a practice almost all nations have committed to wiping out.

1. The practice is concentrated in 29 countries

Female genital mutilation (FGM) is widespread across large parts of Africa and some countries in the Middle East. Somalia has the highest FGM prevalence rate in the world – 98% – making the practice almost universal in the country. Although Egypt has a lower prevalence rate of 91%, it is home to around 20% of the world’s FGM victims.

Figure 1: Female genital mutilation prevalence rates

Figure 1

Source: UNICEF

2. There are huge in-country variations

In some regions of Senegal, for example, only 1% of women have undergone FGM, while in others the figure is as high as 92%. These enormous differences can be explained by the distribution of ethnic groups and their different cultural and religious norms.

Figure 2: Percentage of girls and women aged 15 to 49 who have undergone FGM in Senegal, by region

Figure 2

Source: UNICEF

3. It’s not just an African problem

In the US, an estimated 507,000 women and girls are either at risk or have undergone FGM. In Europe, it affects around 680,000 women and girls. However, while it is outlawed, there have been very few prosecutions.

4. There are no health benefits

Unlike with male circumcision, there are no health benefits to FGM. In fact, it’s quite the opposite: the procedure comes with many risks. Victims are more likely to suffer bladder and urinary tract infections, and the procedure can increase the risk of infertility and complications when giving birth.

5. Most girls and women want to see an end to the practice

Other than a handful of exceptions, the majority of women in countries where FGM is practised would like to see it end. Except for in the Central African Republic, Uganda, Tanzania and Ghana, younger women (aged 15-19) are more likely to want to see FGM eradicated than older women (aged 45-49). Research by UNICEF has also found a strong link between women’s ability to exercise control over their lives and their belief that FGM should stop.

Figure 3: What girls and women (aged 15 to 49) think of female genital mutilation

Figure 3

Source: UNICEF

6. Most boys and men agree

Figure 4: What boys and men (aged 15 to 49) think of female genital mutilation

Figure 4

Source: UNICEF

7. Socio-economic factors play a role in its prevalence

FGM rates are lower among wealthier households and higher among the daughters of women with no education. It also appears to be more common in rural areas than urban ones. For example, prevalence rates in rural Kenya are four times as high as those in urban parts of the country.

8. Girls tend to be cut between the ages of five and 14

In half of the 29 countries where FGM is practised, the majority of girls are cut before they turn five. There are two notable exceptions: Mauritania, where on average girls are cut when they are one month old, and Guinea Bissau, where almost 20% of girls undergo the procedure after the age of 15.

9. Some progress is being made – but not nearly enough

In more than half of the 29 countries where the practice is prevalent, the risk that a girl will be forced to undergo FGM has declined. In some countries the decline has been steep: in Kenya and Tanzania, for example, young girls are three times less likely to be victims than their mothers were. But in many other countries, the decline has been unnoticeable; and in two others – Burkina Faso and Yemen – the figures have actually gone up in recent years.

Figured 5: Victims (aged 15-49) of female genital mutilation, two points in time

Figure 5

Source: United Nations Division of Statistics

10. But the world is committed to doing more

Every year on 6 February, the UN celebrates an International Day of Zero Tolerance for Female Genital Mutilation, with the aim of “enhancing awareness-raising campaigns and taking concrete actions against female genital mutilations”.

Have you read?
Why gender equality must include customary laws
How can we end violence against women and girls in East Africa?

Author: Stéphanie Thomson is an editor at the World Economic Forum.

Image: Prisca Korein, a 62-year-old traditional surgeon, holds razor blades before carrying out female genital mutilation on teenage girls from the Sebei tribe in Bukwa district, about 357 kms (214 miles) northeast of Kampala, December 15, 2008. The ceremony was to initiate the teenagers into womanhood according to Sebei traditional rites. REUTERS/James Akena (UGANDA)

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Geographies in DepthEquity, Diversity and Inclusion
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