5 Things You Need To Know About Female Circumcision And Genital Mutilation

More than 200 million girls and women alive today have undergone procedures to alter their genitalia for non-medical reasons, known as female circumcision or female genital mutilation (FGM). Unlike male circumcision that’s typically done on baby boys, girls are cut up into their teenage years and the practice is steeped in sexist traditions. This practice is much more common than you think, and there are some things you should know about female circumcision and genital mutilation.

Often done by traditional circumcisers — not doctors — the procedure can be extremely dangerous. Even when a registered doctor is involved, it can still seriously injury or kill the girl put under the knife. On Sunday, a 17-year-old girl died of complications in an Egyptian hospital after a registered doctor administered a full anesthetic and began surgically removing her clitoris. The hospital in the Suez province was shut down while the authorities investigate because FGM was outlawed in Egypt in 2007. However, the law hasn’t eradicated the traditional practice, as evidenced by the teenager’s death.

International groups, including the World Health Organization (WHO), are taking steps to protect girls from the knife by raising awareness, strengthening health care responses, and researching the causes, consequences, and possible ways to stop it. In order to fully understand the issue and its implications, there are five things you need to know about FGM and female circumcision.

It Happens In More Than 30 Countries

Rural Ethiopia Confronts Genital Mutilation Practice
CREDIT: Per-Anders Pettersson/Getty

Although it may seem like a totally antiquated practice, FGM still takes place in 29 countries in Africa, as well as countries in the Middle East, Asia, South American, and even among diaspora populations in western countries, where it’s largely banned. About three million girls around the world are at risk every year, according to WHO.

It Was Common In The U.S. Not Too Long Ago

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Girls and women in the U.S. were once subjected to FGM too, with reports of it happening as late as the 1950s. Clitoridectomy (the removal or reduction of the clitoris) was performed in the U.S. and Western Europe to “cure” hysteria, epilepsy, mental disorders, masturbation, nymphomania, and melancholia (because cutting your clit off will cheer you right up). It wasn’t officially banned in America until 1996, and it wasn’t illegal to knowingly transport a girl oversees for the procedure until 2013.

There Are Different Types

Young woman wearing a veil, Cairo
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FGM is a broad term that encapsulates different types of female circumcision— clitoridectomy, excision, infibulation, and other forms such as incising, scraping, or pricking the genital area. Let’s break down the main forms, so we know what we’re talking about.

Clitoridectomy: The partial or total removal of the clitoris, and in rare cases, only the prepuce (the fold of skin surrounding the clitoris).

Excision: The partial or total removal of the clitoris and the labia minora, with or without excision of the labia majora.

Infibulation: The narrowing of the vaginal opening through the creation of a covering seal. The seal is formed by cutting and repositioning the labia minora or labia majora, sometimes through stitching, with or without removal of the clitoris.

It Causes A Lot Of Long-Term Health Problems

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Such an invasive surgery obviously comes with health risks, especially when performed by a community elder with no medical training. According to the United Nations Population Fund, FGM can lead to long-term consequences including complications during childbirth, anaemia, the formation of cysts and abscesses, keloid scar formation, damage to the urethra resulting in urinary incontinence, dyspareunia (painful sexual intercourse), sexual dysfunction, hypersensitivity of the genital area, and increased risk of HIV transmission, not to mention the potential psychological effects of having your genitalia altered or removed.

There Are Various Reasons It’s Practiced — And They’re All Very Sexist

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CREDIT: ROBERTO SCHMIDT/Getty

Because women are circumcised in differing communities around the world, there are various reasons why it’s a tradition — and they’re all incredibly sexist. Some cultures remove the clitoris and the labia for hygienic reasons, as they believe outer female genital organs are “unclean.” Others view it as a rite of passage for a girl to become a woman. The most prevalent reason though is to control women’s sexual desires and make sure they remain virgins until marriage and are faithful in marriage, with some communities even believing it increases men’s sexual pleasure. Anything to increase their pleasure, right?

Such a widespread issue is difficult to tackle, but it’s important that people understand what it is, where it’s happening, and why it’s so common in order to adequately talk about it.