“It has left a lot of sad memories, which I can never forget about,” says Alifya.

When she was 7 years old, Alifya was told she had to have a worm removed from her body. She remembers being taken to an old building in her native Mumbai, then walking up the stairs and into a dark and dingy room.

There, she was laid down on the floor and, with no anaesthetic, her clitoris and prepuce were cut off.

Alifya screamed and cried from the pain. She bled for days afterwards, and had a hard time passing urine.

Female genital mutilation is practised all around the world. Known as khatna in Alifya’s Dawoodi Bohra community, it comes in many forms, encompassing any procedure that involves injuring or altering the female genitalia for non-medical reasons.

Female genital mutilation has serious, and sometimes fatal, consequences.

Immediate complications include severe pain, shock, haemorrhage, infection and urine retention. Haemorrhage and infection can be serious enough to cause death. Long-term physical risks include anaemia, cysts and abscesses, pain during sexual intercourse, increased risk of HIV transmission, and complications during childbirth that can threaten the life of mother and baby.

“It took about two, three weeks for me to heal. And I still remember that, very freshly in my mind. It’s really sad.” Sitting in her apartment in New York, Alifya blinks back tears as she tells her story.

The psychological impact can last long after physical wounds have healed. Girls and women who have undergone female genital mutilation can experience anxiety, depression, memory loss, sleep disorders and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

A woman receives FGM-related health services in Burkina Faso. © Abbie Trayler-Smith/Panos
The Y-PEER youth network in Egypt uses peer education, games and theatre to educate adolescents about sexual and reproductive health, gender-based violence and harmful practices including FGM. © Luca Zordan for UNFPA

Along with the scars it leaves on a survivor’s body and spirit, female genital mutilation alters and constrains the life trajectories of the girls and women who undergo it. Frequently a precursor to child marriage and an early end to schooling, the practice threatens a girl’s ability to build a better future for herself, her family and her community.

By reinforcing the limits that many societies place on girls and women, female genital mutilation perpetuates the kind of poverty that continues from generation to generation.

Whatever its form, female genital mutilation violates the human rights of women and girls to live free of discrimination on the basis of sex, and deprives them of the chance to make critical decisions about their bodies and their lives.

In her own family, Alifya has put an end to female genital mutilation.

“I am so proud of myself that I will not do this to my daughters,” she says. “I don’t think any other child in this world deserves to go through this.”

“I’m proud that she’s standing up for all these things that have happened to her,” says her 14-year-old daughter Insiya.

Alifya’s daughter, Insiya, 14. © Luca Zordan for UNFPA
  • Carried out by generations of parents eager to ensure that their children fit into the norms of their communities, its consequences mean that female genital mutilation in fact violates the principle of the best interests of the child.

    © Sheila McKinnon
  • The physical and psychological consequences of this form of violence against girls and women also make it a violation of the right to health – and, where it results in death, of the right to life.

    © Abbie Trayler-Smith/Panos
  • Female genital mutilation can range from pricking, scraping or cauterizing the genitalia, to removal of the clitoris and in some cases the labia, to infibulation – the narrowing of the vaginal orifice with a seal formed by cutting and repositioning the labia.

    Women who experienced infibulation are often cut open on the first night of marriage. Many must be cut again during childbirth to allow for passage of the baby.

    © UNFPA/Ollivier Girard
  • Asha Ali Ibrahim has been performing female genital mutilation in Somalia since 1997. The income she earns from the practice supports her entire family.

    Her busiest months are July and August – the ‘cutting season’ – when school holidays provide sufficient time for girls’ wounds to heal, and when families living abroad send their daughters home to undergo the practice. Her own granddaughter is set to be cut soon.

    © Georgina Goodwin for UNFPA
  • Female genital mutilation is most often performed by traditional excisers, usually older women from the community. But in some countries and communities, it is increasingly performed by health personnel.

    The sterile trappings of medicalized mutilation give a false sense of security, wrongly legitimizing the practice as sound or beneficial. And because health personnel often hold power, authority and respect in their communities, medicalization can further institutionalize the practice.

    © UNFPA Indonesia

Carried out by generations of parents eager to ensure that their children fit into the norms of their communities, its consequences mean that female genital mutilation in fact violates the principle of the best interests of the child.

© Sheila McKinnon
Next story Harmful norms

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