Mzansi Afrika

From Johannesburg South Africa, a window on the world

Wednesday, March 23, 2005


Female Genital Mutilation (FGM), or female circumcision, is probably one of the most devastating of the traditional customs still affecting women in the world today. It can be hard to cover such a difficult topic sensitively and without sensationalising the issue. I hope I have managed to focus on FGM and shed some light on the issues in an ethical manner. If I haven't succeeded in doing so, I apologise, but I feel that this is an important issue that needs to be brought out into the open. This unfortunate practise is still widely carried out in certain parts of the world, especially in Africa. One of the trends in global FGM today is the progressive lowering of the age at which girls undergo the procedure. The issue was recently highlighted at a sub-regional conference in Djibouti.

Some communities carry out FGM for religious reasons, believing that their faith requires it, this is particularly true of Muslims who adhere to the practice. Although the purpose of FGM is to mark the transition from childhood to womanhood, ultimately the practice aims to reduce a woman’s sexual desire, so that she will keep her virginity until marriage. The more extensive procedure, involving stitching of the vagina, has the same aim, but reducing the size of the vagina is also intended to increase the husband’s enjoyment of the sexual act. There are various methods and extremes in the ways that FGM is carried out, the
descriptions are graphic and heartbreaking.

Health risks and problems caused by FGM are numerous and sometimes even deadly. Immediate effects can include bleeding and often haemorrhaging, sometimes leading to death. Also, damage to other organs, resulting from the lack of surgical expertise of the person performing the procedure, and the aggressive resistance of the patient when anaesthesia is not used. Infections, including tetanus and septicaemia can occur, through using unsterilised or poorly disinfected equipment.

Longer term effects can include chronic infections of the bladder and vagina, sometimes urine and menstrual blood can only leave the body drop by drop - the build-up inside the abdomen and fluid retention often cause infections and inflammation that can lead to infertility. Also dysmenorrhoea, or extremely painful menstruation, excessive scar tissue at the site of the operation, the formation of cysts on the stitch line, childbirth obstruction, and an increased risk of HIV infection.

As if these physical problems are not bad enough, the psychological effects can also be devastating. Women are often so traumatized that they can only associate their genitals with pain and possible death from childbirth. Also, the idea of sexual intercourse as a pleasurable activity is inconceivable for most of them.

Right: Twelve-year old girls from a Maasai community in Kenya. The traditional rite of FGM among the Maasai is performed between the ages of 12 and 14.

FGM is a cruel and sexist practice that helps to keep women subservient and disempowered. As a religious practice it enshrines and promotes the male domination of women. Sadly however, women are also involved in perpetuating FGM – but they seem to have no choice but to comply - if they don’t their daughters will be considered unmarriageable. In communities where FGM is practiced, no eligible man would consider marrying a girl who has not undergone the procedure, so FGM makes a woman culturally and socially acceptable. Also, in these communities women have few options open to them other than being a wife and mother, so there is great pressure to conform.

FGM is most widely practised on the African continent. It is found among more than half the communities in sub-Saharan African countries and in at least 26 out of 43 countries. The prevalence ranges from 98 percent in Somalia to 5 percent in the DRC. FGM is practiced in Nigeria, Djibouti, Mali, Sudan, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Sierra Leone and the Gambia. The Democratic Republic of Congo and Uganda have the lowest rate. It is also indigenous to some Middle-Eastern countries to lesser or greater extent, including Egypt, the Republic of Yemen, Oman, Saudi Arabia, and Israel. It also occurs in parts of Indonesia, Malaysia and Pakistan. FGM is also increasingly found in North America, Europe, New Zealand and Australia, owing to the large immigrant communities living in those parts of the world.

In Africa, thirteen countries have responded to the problem of FGM by implementing legislation against it: According to "Center for Reproductive Rights" there are 16 countries with criminal legislation against FGM. There have been reports of prosecutions or arrests in cases involving FGM in various African countries, including Burkina Faso, Egypt, Ghana, Kenya, Senegal and Sierra Leone. Ten industrialised countries that receive immigrants from countries where FGM is carried out have also passed specific laws criminalising the practiced.

According to IRIN, the UN news agency, “FGM is a practice that violates the basic human rights of women and girls and seriously compromises their health. Nevertheless, among communities that practise FGM it is a highly valued tradition, making eradication difficult. Nevertheless, there are also success stories. As individuals become better informed about the negative impacts of FGM, there has been a reduction in the practice and today there are few communities in which 100 percent of girls and women are circumcised.” Source:
Irin web report on FGM



  • The Female Genital Cutting Education and Networking Project
  • Promotion of initiatives to end Female Genital Mutilation
  • GAMS

  • In Sierra Leone: "When the president's wife sponsors the circumcision of 1,500 young girls to win votes for her husband, you know you've got a problem persuading ordinary people and the government that female genital mutilation (FGM) is a bad idea. And when the woman who is now Minister of Social Welfare, Gender and Women's Affairs, threatens to "sew up the mouths" of those who preach against FGM, you realise that you are facing a really big uphill struggle." (Irin)

    A personal testimony from Nigeria: "I got the first experience of this when I was as young as eight years. Just behind my father’s house in the village I heard a voice of a young girl shouting desperately for help inside a closed door. Out of curiosity and desire to render help I dashed out of my father’s house and stole into the building where the save-my-soul cry was coming from. I peeped through the keyhole. To the greatest surprise and shock of my life I saw for the first time in my life one of the evils women inflict upon
    themselves. " (
    Okumephuna Chinwe Celestine)

    Books: There is a growing body of literature around the subject of FGM. It includes "Dying for my Daughter" by Baba Jallo from The Gambia, and tells of his struggle to save his daughter from the practice. More books can be found on the FGCENP NGO website)


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