What is female genital cutting (FGC)?

The terms female genital cutting (FGC), female circumcision and female genital mutilation (FGM) all describe the cultural practice of partially or totally removing the external female genitalia. The minor form of FGC is when the clitoris is removed. The most severe form of FGC is when all external genitalia are removed and the vaginal opening is stitched nearly closed. Only a small opening is left for urine and menstrual blood.

Female genital cutting (FGC) is performed on infants, girls and women of all ages. The age at which girls are cut can vary widely from country to country, and even within countries. Most often, FGC happens before a girl reaches puberty. Sometimes, however, it is done just before marriage or during a woman's first pregnancy. In Egypt, about 90 percent of girls are cut between 5 and 14 years old. However, in Yemen, more than 75 percent of girls are cut before they are 2 weeks old. The average age at which a girl undergoes FGC is decreasing in some countries (Burkina Faso, Côte d'Ivoire, Egypt, Kenya and Mali). Researchers think it's possible that the average age of FGC is getting lower so that it can be more easily hidden from authorities in countries where there may be laws against it. It is also possible that FGC is performed on younger girls because they are less able to resist.

The practice of FGC is a cultural tradition performed across central Africa, in the southern Sahara, and in parts of the Middle East. Most women who have experienced FGC live in one of the 28 countries in Africa and the Middle East where FGC is practiced. Almost one-half of women who have experienced FGC live in Egypt or Ethiopia. To a lesser degree, FGC is practiced in Indonesia, Malaysia, Pakistan and India. Some immigrants practice various forms of FGC in other parts of the world, including Australia, Canada, New Zealand, the United States and in European nations.

It is estimated that between 100 million and 140 million girls and women worldwide have received FGC. There are more than 3 million girls at risk of having FGC each year. It is unknown how many women in the United States have received FGC.

Why is FGC practiced?
There are many reasons FGC is practiced, including social, economic and political reasons. Those who support FGC believe that it will empower their daughters, ensure the girls get married, and protect the family's good name. In some groups, FGC is performed to show a girl's growth into womanhood and, as in the Masai community, marks the start of a girl's sexual debut. It also is performed to keep a woman's virginity by limiting her sexual behavior. FGC is believed (by those who practice it) to stop a woman's sexual desire. In some groups, women who are not cut are viewed as dirty and are treated badly.

Although many people believe that FGC is associated with Islam, it is not. FGC is not supported by any religion and is condemned by many religious leaders. The practice crosses religious barriers. Muslims, Christians, and Jews have been known to support FGC on their girls. No religious text requires or even supports cutting female genitals.

There are also many superstitions about FGC, such as:

  • The clitoris will continue to grow as a girl gets older and so it must be removed.
  • The external genitalia are unclean and can actually cause the death of an infant during delivery.

FGC is often part of a community's tradition. Most parents who support FGC believe they are protecting their daughter's future marriage prospects, and not hurting her. It is seen by parents as part of a girl's upbringing.

Laws against FGC
The United States. There is a federal law that makes the practice of FGC on anyone younger than 18 years of age illegal within this country. It is a felony punishable by fines or up to a 5-year prison term. Some argue that such sanctions only force young women to return to their homeland where the surgery may not be performed in sanitary or safe conditions. As more people from cultures practicing FGC come to Western nations, this controversy has grown.

Internationally. International health organizations and women's rights advocates generally believe that lasting change towards FGC can only take place with the support of the governments and local communities within affected countries. Pressure from outside those countries has little chance for success if there is no educational and legal support from within their borders.

The WHO and the United Nations Commission on Human Rights, along with several African and Asian nations, have called for an end to the practice of FGC. The WHO views the practice as a violent act against a girl that causes her serious lifetime problems. The American Medical Association (AMA) also rejects FGC and supports laws against it. There is also growing international support for condemning FGC and a call for severe penalties given to those who practice it.

This answer is based on source information from The National Women's Health Information Center.

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Important: This content reflects information from various individuals and organizations and may offer alternative or opposing points of view. It should not be used for medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. As always, you should consult with your healthcare provider about your specific health needs.