Female genital mutilation

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Overview

Female genital mutilation (FGM) is a practice that involves altering or injuring the female genitalia for non-medical reasons. It is internationally recognized as a human rights violation. Over 140 million girls and women have undergone some form of FGM, and if current trends continue, about 86 million additional girls be subjected to it by 2030.

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. These efforts should emphasize societal dialogue and the empowerment of communities to act collectively to end the practice. 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, health and integrity 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, among others.

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. 

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. 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 address 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 discuss, reflect and reach consensus on the issue. The health and human rights aspects of FGM should play an important role in these dialogues.

When communities choose to abandon the practice, they often participate in a collective public affirmation, 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.

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, several countries have passed legislation banning FGM and developed national policies to achieve its abandonment.