Female Genital Mutilation: Tradition or Torture?

Iona Jenkins

‘FGM violates a person’s rights to health, security and physical integrity, the right to be free from torture and cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment’ –WHO


Female genital mutilation comprises any procedure made without medical need to remove part or all of the external female genitalia.

There are no health benefits to FGM; it is recognised as a human rights violation internationally. Over 130 million women worldwide have undergone FGM.


FGM can be classified into 4 main types:

  • Type 1 – Clitoridectomy: partial or total removal of the clitoris and/or the prepuce (the fold of skin surrounding the clitoris).
  • Type 2 – Excision: partial or total removal of the clitoris and the labia minora, with/without excision of the labia majora.
  • Type 3 – Infibulation: narrowing of the vaginal opening through the creation of a covering seal. The seal is formed by cutting and repositioning the inner/outer labia, with or without removal of the clitoris.
  • Type 4 – Other: all harmful procedures to the female genitalia for non-medical purposes, e.g. pricking, piercing, incising, scraping and cauterising.


FGM is practised in over 29 countries, and is prevalent in areas of Central, West and East Africa, at a rate of above 90% of females mutilated in countries such as Somalia, Guinea, Djibouti and Egypt.

Since 1985, FGM has been illegal and considered a form of child abuse and human rights violation in the UK. In 2006, the UK Supreme Court ruled it as a form of torture, causing severe pain and suffering. However, unbeknownst to many, 60,000 girls in the UK are at risk of undergoing FGM, including 24,000 girls at high risk of undergoing FGM Type 3, whilst 137,000 women are living with the impacts of FGM in the UK. It may come as a surprise that the problem is not limited to areas of assumed deprivation, but affects many living in diaspora communities within a typically forward-thinking first world nation.

FGM was practised in the UK until the 1800s to prevent women from having affairs, and as a supposed ‘cure’ for lesbianism, thus was a way of establishing sexual control over women.

“The pain inflicted by FGM does not stop with the initial procedure, but often continues as ongoing torture throughout a woman’s life” – Manfred Nowak, UN Special Rapporteur on Torture.

As a major breach of human rights, FGM has severely debilitating physical and psychological health effects, which have a detrimental impact on quality of life.

Physical health complications include:

  • PAIN – FGM is normally performed without an anaesthetic, so girls can go into a state of shock due to the extreme pain and stress
  • BLEEDING – lack of proper stitches encourages blood vessel damage; blood loss can lead to death (haemorrhagic shock)
  • INFECTION – lack of environmental and instrumental sterilisation (knives, scissors, razors, or pieces of broken glass) can cause serious infections such as tetanus, septicaemia or HIV
  • URINATION AND MENSTRUATION DIFFICULTY – the procedure can cause lasting damage to the urinary tract and reproductive organs
  • INFERTILITY –related to cyst development, abscesses and genital ulcers
  • BIRTHING DIFFICULTY –due to reduced opening size and excessive scar tissue

Studies have also shown that women may be affected psychologically due to the emotional distress caused by FGM.

Psychological health complications include:

  • SEXUAL PHOBIA – reduced sexual desire and fear of penetration due to the pain involved
  • PTSD –includes symptoms such as anxiety, depression, flashbacks and nightmares
  • HELPLESSNESS – many women do not feel ‘whole’ or ‘normal’ after the procedure
  • DISRUPTED SEXUAL PLEASURE – clitoris removal results in decreased sexual pleasure; infibulation causes painful intercourse, resulting in negative effects to sexual relations and partnerships

No religion, including Islam, condones or promotes FGM, despite this argument often being used to justify FGM or attack religion.



Why, then, does FGM occur?

In some communities, parents expose their daughters to FGM to conform to social pressure. If a girl does not undergo the procedure in such communities, they may face social consequences including being seen as ‘unclean’, having ‘ugly’ genitalia or being unable to find a husband.

WHO recognises the practice as a ‘deep-rooted inequality between the sexes, [which] constitutes an extreme form of discrimination against women’.

Essentially, it is motivated by beliefs and myths regarding sexual behaviour, virginity and chastity. FGM controls a women’s sexuality, which is believed to be insatiable if the clitoris is not removed. It is also believed that the clitoris will grow to the size of a penis if not cut off.

In some communities, the external female genitalia are seen as ‘dirty’ or ‘ugly’ and so are sliced off to promote aesthetic appeal for males.

Furthermore, it is designed to heighten male sexual pleasure due to the reduced opening size. The idea that mutilation is somehow justified by the ‘benefit’ to men further proves that FGM is a method of male control over women and an egregious promotion of inequality.

Whilst FGM is part of culture and tradition for some communities, it should still be condemned; such arguments cannot be used to condone mutilation and violence against humans. It is possible to maintain traditions that do not inflict lasting, serious and unnecessary physical or psychological harm to young women.


How can FGM practice be prevented?

The problem is that many members of communities may suffer discrimination if they refuse to undergo FGM or force their daughters to. Thus, the perception of a community towards FGM must be altered; many individuals are reluctant to perpetuate the tradition but do so to prevent adverse outcomes.

Moreover, the provision of improved sexual and reproductive health services and child protection services in vulnerable communities will aid education of the problems with FGM, thus helping to discourage its practice.


Things YOU can do

  • Support and join campaigns to aid development of policies and legislation regarding FGM
  • Support the effort to prevent medicalisation of FGM by health professionals
  • Support gender equality and women’s rights in all communities
  • Support the empowerment of young peoples’ rights, so that they have increased power to end FGM in both home and diaspora communities


It’s happening right now, all over the world, and in the UK.



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