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Female Circumcision, Female Genital Mutilation - What is Female Circumcision?

Millions of Girls and Women Subjected to Painful, Disfiguring Cultural Practice


Rural Ethiopia Confronts Genital Mutilation Practice
Per-Anders Pettersson/Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Updated April 25, 2014
Question: What is female circumcision or female genital mutilation?

The short answer: Female genital mutilation, female circumcision and female genital cutting all refer to the practice of altering or removing external female genital organs for non-medical reasons.

Answer: A cultural tradition in 28 North African countries, parts of Asia and the Middle East, and certain immigrant communities in Europe and North America, female genital mutilation (FGM) is routinely performed on females from infancy through age 15 and (in rarer cases) women.

FGM includes some or all of the following: partial or total removal of the clitoris, the labia minor and/or the labia majora; narrowing or sealing of the vaginal opening; and any form of pricking, piercing, incising, scraping or cauterizing of the genital area.

Cultures that practice FGM argue that the removal of external genitalia promotes femininity and modesty by rendering girls 'clean' and 'beautiful.' They believe FGM promotes chastity by reducing the female libido and minimizes the chances of illicit sexual behavior, thus ensuring premarital virginity and marital fidelity. Those females that do not undergo FGM are often ostracized and considered unfit for marriage.

Currently the World Health Organization estimates that between 100-140 million girls and women worldwide have undergone FGM.

Frequently performed by traditional circumcisers with implements as rudimentary as a dull pen knife -- and without anesthesia -- FGM causes severe pain. It can lead to potentially life-threatening complications such as hemorrhaging, shock, tetanus and sepsis. The long-term effects include urinary tract and bladder infections, cysts, infertility, complications with childbirth and infant deaths.

In some areas, FGM is now being performed by health care providers, a growing trend that worries those in the human rights and medical fields.

In 2010, the American Academy of Pediatrics came under fire when they briefly suggested that doctors offer the option of a genital prick to immigrant families in the US seeking FGM. The AAP's attempt to demonstrate cultural sensitivity backfired as opponents of any form of FGM -- however small and symbolic -- spoke out against the decision, causing the AAR to reverse their position and once again oppose FGM.

Numerous health and human rights organizations have come out against FGM and called for an end to this form of violence against girls and women. They include Amnesty International, the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) and the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA).

In 2008 the World Health Assembly passed a resolution on the elimination of FGM. And of the 28 African nations that allow FGM to continue, 26 have ratified CEDAW -- the UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women -- which includes language that prohibits participating nations from continuing this type of culture-based gender violence and discrimination.

Belluck, Pam. "Doctors Reverse Stand on Circumcision." New York Times at NYTimes.com. 26 May 2010.
"Female genital mutilation." World Health Organization Media Centre Fact Sheet. February 2010.
"Female Genital Mutilation: A Fact Sheet." Women's Rights at Amnesty International USA. Retrieved 31 May 2010.
Raeburn, Paul. "AAP sputters, then retracts policy on female genital cutting." PsychologyToday.com. 27 May 2010.

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