Female genital mutilation is a practice that involves altering or injuring the female genitalia for non-medical reasons. Internationally recognized as a human rights violation, Globally, it is estimated that some 200 million girls and women globally have undergone some form of female genital mutilation. Although the practice 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 female genital mutilation will continue to grow if the practice continues at current levels.

UNFPA estimates 68 million girls are at risk of being mutilated between 2015 and 2030. A more recent study estimates an additional two million girls to be at risk of this harmful practice due to COVID-19. Protecting girls will take a significant push to accelerate the elimination of this harmful, often deadly, practice.

Coordinated and systematic efforts are needed to end female genital mutilation, engaging whole communities and focussing on human rights and gender equality. The sexual and reproductive health needs of women and girls who are subjected to the practice and its consequences must be urgently addressed.

UNFPA, together with UNICEF, leads the Joint Programme on the Elimination of Female Genital Mutilation, the largest global programme to accelerate the elimination of this harmful practice. The programme currently focuses on 17 countries as well as supporting regional and global initiatives.

Topic summary

What is female genital mutilation?

Female genital mutilation refers to all procedures involving partial or total removal of the external female genitalia, or other injury to the female genital organs for non-medical reasons. It is a deeply entrenched – and deeply damaging – 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.

Female genital mutilation 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, 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, female genital mutilation was included in the Sustainable Development Goals under Target 5.3, which calls for the elimination of all harmful practices.

Yet it remains widespread. In 2023, UNFPA estimates that nearly 4.3 million girls are at risk of female genital mutilation. Population growth means that this number is projected to rise to 4.6 million in the year 2030, unless efforts to end it are intensified. If female genital mutilation continues at current rates, an estimated 68 million girls will be subjected to this practice between 2015 and 2030 in 25 countries where it is routinely practised and where relevant data are available.

In 2020 and 2022, COVID-19 compounded the vulnerability of girls and women, especially those at risk of female genital mutilation. The pandemic further entrenched the gender inequalities, economic disparities and health risks faced by women and girls and disrupted programmes to prevent female genital mutilation and other harmful practices. UNFPA estimates that due to COVID-19, an extra two million cases of female genital mutilation could take place over the next decade, which could otherwise have been averted – a 33 per cent reduction in progress towards ending the practice.

Why is FGM still practiced?

In every society where it is practiced, female genital mutilation 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 female genital mutilation may be considered an important part of a culture or identity, it can be difficult for families to decide against having their daughters subjected to it. 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 female genital mutilation may feel compelled to participate.

Encouraging abandonment

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

The decision to collectively abandon it requires a process in which communities are educated about female genital mutilation, and then discuss, reflect and reach consensus on the issue. The health and human rights aspects 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

According to recent UNFPA estimates, around one in four girls and women between the ages of 15 and 49 who have been subjected to female genital mutilation (or 52 million) were cut by health personnel. (In some countries, this can reach as high as three in four girls. This proportion is twice as high among adolescents (34 per cent among those between the ages of 15 and 19) compared to older women (16 per cent among those between the ages of 45 and 49).

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

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

What UNFPA is doing

In 2008, UNFPA and UNICEF established the Joint Programme on the Elimination of FGM, the largest global programme to accelerate elimination  of the practice 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 female genital mutilation and to empower communities, women and girls to make the decision to abandon it.

Now in its fourth phase of implementation, spanning 2022 to 2030, the Joint Programme confirms the commitment of UNFPA and partners to end this harmful practice by 2030. Since its inception in 2008, it has helped more than 6  million girls and women receive prevention, protection and care services related to FGM. Some 45   million people in more than 34,659  communities in 15 countries with high female genital mutilation prevalence have made public declarations to abandon it. And the Joint Programme helped 17 governments set up national response mechanisms. Following intensive capacity development initiatives, there have been 1,574  cases of legal enforcement to date.

UNFPA also helps strengthen health services to prevent female genital mutilation and treat the complications it can cause. UNFPA 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 female genital mutilation from religion and generate support for its abandonment. UNFPA also works with the media to foster dialogue about the practice and to change perceptions of girls who remain uncut.

With the support of UNFPA and partners, including communities, activists, feminist groups, religious leaders, medical doctors, governments, policy makers and community-based organizations, male genital mutilation – including in Egypt, Nigeria, Sudan and The Gambia – and developed national policies to achieve its elimination.

Last updated 18 January 2023

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%
* Ages vary by country

FGM Dashboard

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

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