Female genital mutilation

Overview

Female genital mutilation (FGM) is a practice that involves altering or injuring the female genitalia for non-medical reasons, and it is internationally recognized as a human rights violation. Globally, it is estimated that 200 million girls and women alive today have undergone some form of FGM. Although FGM is declining in the majority of countries where it is prevalent, most of these are also experiencing a high rate of population growth – meaning that the number of girls who undergo FGM will continue to grow if efforts are not significantly scaled up.

To promote the abandonment of FGM, coordinated and systematic efforts are needed, and they must engage whole communities and focus on human rights and gender equality. They must also address the sexual and reproductive health needs of women and girls who suffer from its consequences.

UNFPA, jointly with UNICEF, leads the largest global programme to accelerate the abandonment of FGM. The programme currently focuses on 17 African countries and also supports regional and global initiatives.

What is FGM?

FGM refers to all procedures involving partial or total removal of the external  female genitalia or other injury the female genital organs for non-medical reasons. It is a deeply entrenched social and cultural norm in many places.

The practice can cause short- and long-term health complications, including chronic pain, infections, increased risk of HIV transmission, anxiety and depression, birth complications, infertility and, in the worst cases, death.  It is internationally recognized as an extreme violation of the rights of women and girls.

FGM violates human rights principles and standards – including the principles of equality and non-discrimination on the basis of sex, the right to freedom from torture or cruel, inhuman or degrading punishment, the right to the highest attainable standard of health, the rights of the child, and the right to physical and mental integrity, and even the right to life.

In 2012, the United Nations General Assembly unanimously adopted the first-ever resolution against female genital mutilation, calling for intensified global efforts to eliminate the practice. In 2015, FGM was included in the Sustainable Development Goals under Target 5.3, which calls for the elimination of all harmful practices.

Why is FGM still practiced?

In every society where it is practiced, FGM is a manifestation of deeply entrenched gender inequality. It persists for many reasons. In some societies, for example, it is considered a rite of passage. In others, it is seen as a prerequisite for marriage. In some communities – whether Christian, Jewish, Muslim – the practice may even be attributed to religious beliefs.

Because FGM may be considered an important part of a culture or identity, it can be difficult for families to decide against having their daughters cut. People who reject the practice may face condemnation or ostracism, and their daughters are often considered ineligible for marriage. As a result, even parents who do not want their daughters to undergo FGM may feel compelled to participate in the practice.

Encouraging abandonment

Collective abandonment, in which a whole community chooses to no longer engage in FGM, is an effective way to end the practice. It ensures that no single girl or family will be disadvantaged by the decision. Many experts hold that FGM will only end through collective abandonment.

The decision to collectively abandon FGM requires a process in which communities are educated about FGM, and then discuss, reflect and reach consensus on the issue. The health and human rights aspects of FGM should feature prominently in these dialogues, and local and grassroots organizations should play an important role in raising awareness and educating communities.

When communities choose to abandon the practice, they often participate in a collective public declaration to keep their girls uncut, such as signing and circulating a public statement or hosting festivities to celebrate the decision. Neighbouring communities are often invited to these events so they can see the successful process of abandonment, helping to build momentum for collective abandonment elsewhere.

Medicalization

About 1 in 5 girls who have been subjected to FGM had the procedure performed by a trained medical professional. In some countries, this number is as high as 3 in 4 girls.

FGM can never be “safe” and there is no medical justification for the practice. Even when the procedure is performed in a sterile environment and by a health care professional, there can be serious health consequences immediately and later in life. Medicalized FGM gives a false sense of security. Trained health professionals who perform female genital mutilation are violating girls’ and women’s right to life, right to physical integrity and right to health. They are also violating the fundamental medical mandate to "do no harm," and it represents a threat to efforts to abandon the practice.

UNFPA is working to mobilize health workers, including midwives, to resist social pressure to perform FGM, and serve as advocates for prevention and protection in the communities they serve. . 

What UNFPA is doing

In 2008, UNFPA and UNICEF established the Joint Programme on FGM/C, the largest global programme to accelerate abandonment of FGM and to provide care for its consequences. This programme works at the community, national, regional and global levels to raise awareness of the harms caused by FGM and to empower communities, women and girls to make the decision to abandon it.

UNFPA helps strengthen health services to prevent FGM and to treat the complications it can cause. UNFPA also works with civil society organizations that engage in community-led education and dialogue sessions on the health and human rights aspects of the practice. The Fund works with religious and traditional leaders to de-link FGM from religion and to generate support for abandonment. And UNFPA also works with media to foster dialogue about the practice and to change perceptions of girls who remain uncut.

With the support of UNFPA and other UN agencies, many countries have passed legislation banning FGM – including, in 2015, Nigeria and The Gambia – and developed national policies to achieve its abandonment.

Last updated 2 February 2017.

Women and girls, aged 15-49, who have undergone some form of FGM

Girls born between 2010-2015 will experience
Girls born between 2010-2015 will experience
Girls born between 2010-2015 will experience
Legend
  • 0% - 24.9%
  • 25% - 49.9%
  • 50% - 74.9%
  • 75% - 100%

FGM Dashboard

Percentage of women aged 20-24 who got married before age 15

Legend
  • 0% - 24.9%
  • 25% - 49.9%
  • 50% - 74.9%
  • 75% - 100%
Source: Demographic and Health Surveys