Female Genital Mutilation between Human Rights and Tradition

Female circumcision is a form of gender-based violence and a fundamental violation of the rights of girls and women. The World Health Organisation (WHO) defines female circumcision, or female genital mutilation (FGM) as: ‘all procedures that involve partial or total removal of the external female genitalia, or other injury to the female genital organs for non-medical reasons.’ An important complication in ending FGM is that it is a deeply entrenched social norm, practiced in 29 countries in Africa and the Middle East. According to a statistical overview provided by UNICEF in 2013, more than 125 million of the girls and women living in these countries have experienced FGM (2013, UNICEF – Female Genital Mutilation/Cutting: a statistical overview and exploration of the dynamics of change).

Despite the absence of data collection, it is estimated that also in some EU countries women and girls are at risk of FGM. Because of this the practice has gained more attention in the EU during recent years.

 The WHO identified four major types of FGM:

  • The clitoridectomy is the partial or total removal of the clitoris;
  • The excision is the removal of all the clitoris and the inner labia (lips that surround the vagina), with or without removal of the labia majora (larger outer lips);
  • The infibulation is the narrowing of the vagina opening by creating a seal, formed by cutting and repositioning the labia;
  • Girls and women can be subjected to other harmful procedures for non-medical purposes, like pricking, piercing, incising, scraping and cauterising the genital area.

As was quoted above, female circumcision has no health benefits. Even more so, FGM alters the natural functions of the woman’s body and it can be harmful in many ways. Further, the procedure carries great risk and can generate immediate consequences such as severe pain, shock, haemorrhage, sepsis (bacterial infection), urine retention, and / or injury to nearby genital tissue. Additionally, FGM can produce long-term implications like cysts, damage to the external reproductive system, uterus or vaginal infections, complications in pregnancy and child birth or psychological damage. Because of the potential destructive effects, there are cases when it is necessary for circumcised women to undergo further surgeries later in life. (WHO – Female genital mutilation).

The age at which female circumcision is practiced differs from one ethnic group to the other. It can vary from shortly after birth to after delivering the first child, but mostly it is carried out on girls whose age is between four and ten. Although in urban areas female circumcision can be performed in a hospital, in rural African areas the procedure is often carried out by an old woman of the village with no medical training. Besides, often basic tools are used such as knives, scissors, razor blades or pieces of glass. The hygienic conditions in which the procedure occurs are, therefore, very poor most of the times.

The practice is supported by a wide range of motives and justifications which are deeply-rooted into the cultural and historical situation of the societies where FGM is mostly carried out.

The two main justifications for FGM are religion and tradition. Since it is mainly practiced in Muslim communities, female circumcision acquired a religious dimension. However, in the risk countries FGM is practiced by followers of different beliefs, such as Christians, Animists and Jews. It would be therefore wrong to identify the procedure only with the Islamic faith. Besides, it is not practiced by all Muslims. Even more important than perceiving female circumcision as a religious obligation, social pressure is imposed on individuals trough family and community members. Those who do not implement the practice would be excluded and ostracised from the community life.

It can be claimed that tradition and not religion is the main origin of the justifications supporting FGM. While many traditions promote social cohesion, others do great harm to the physical and psychological integrity of individuals. FGM is perceived as an initiation rite, a transition in status from girlhood to womanhood and marriageable age[1] ( Before the initiation through mutilation, the girls are kept in seclusion for at least two weeks and they get instructed about morality, social codes, being a good wife, behaviours around elders and other age groups (2009, African-Women.org – Myths and Justifications for the Perpetuation of FGM).

Among sociological reasons, the sexual and marriage factors are essential. In many Third World countries, marriage is necessary for a woman’s survival. Finding a husband and reproducing are the ways a woman can reach economic stability and social status. In order to get married a girl needs to be a virgin, otherwise both the girl and her family could face social consequences. FGM is considered as a way to ensure virginity. Alongside this justification, women are also believed to be weak when it comes to emotion and the control of their sexuality; circumcision is expected to control women’s sexuality. However, even though FGM may reduce physical feelings, it cannot reduce the desire and it is not assurance of chastity (Dr. Ashenafi Moges – What is behind the tradition of FGM?).

Psychological reasons play also an important role, particularly regarding gender identity.  FGM is often considered a necessary practice in order for girls to be considered a complete woman. Clitoris and labia are seen as ‘male parts’ of a woman’s body, and clitoris is also considered to be ugly on a girl. The practice eliminates any indication of maleness in a woman’s body and makes a woman feminine (Amnesty International – End FGM European Campaign).

Another justification for the practice of FGM is the fact that it contributes to the cleanliness and beauty of women, since an unmutilated woman is considered dirty and polluted. It is believed that secretions produced by the glands in the clitoris, labia minora and majora are bad smelling and unhygienic, therefore their removal makes the body clean. In reality, by closing the vulva and preventing the natural flow of urine and menstrual flow, FGM could lead to uncleanliness. (Dr. Ashenafi Moges – What is behind the tradition of FGM?).

As argued before, the practice of FGM is, in any form, internationally recognised as a violation of the human rights of girls and women. Despite that several actions have been taken to address the issue on an international level, they were mostly unsuccessful. The interventions were often external, and those who tried to tackle the problem ignored the social and economic context of the countries were FGM is practiced. Some actions taken by Western feminists and human rights activists were also met with resistance and negative reactions from locals; these initiatives were considered as condescending and derogatory toward their culture.  (1997, Frances A. Althaus – Female Circumcision: Rite of Passage Or Violation of Rights?)

The rights of women and girls, which the practice of FGM violates, are protected in several international and regional instruments such as the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR), Convention Against Torture, Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) and Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC), the European Convention of Human Rights and the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union.

Both national and domestic legislation did not prove to be successful in eliminating FGM. At the contrary, they forced to carry out the procedure in secret and unsanitary areas, increasing health risks for girls and women. (Jessica A. Platt – Female circumcision: Religious practice v. Human rights violation)

Some international organisations have therefore developed new ways to address the issue. They support local activist groups with funding, training and technical expertise instead of being directly involved. A positive way to address female circumcision can be through education and women’s empowerment. Educational groups in the countries where FGM is mostly practiced can give women knowledge about the operational procedure involved in female circumcision, the different forms of FGM, and inform them about the procedure’s potential health risks. (Jessica A. Platt – Female circumcision: Religious practice v. Human rights violation). In order to establish a balance between religious beliefs and the promotion of human rights,  the clinicalisation of female circumcision or the implementation of mild forms of circumcision that can be carried out in a hospital at the birth of a female child can be promoted[2]. ( The sunna, for instance, is a form of circumcision practiced in Somalia under sterile and anaesthetic conditions and which drastically decrease the possibilities of casualties).

Finally, circumcision through words can be encouraged. It is a way to implement the practice spiritually rather than physically through a programme of training, counselling and informing girls on anatomy, physiology, sexual and reproductive health, gender issues. The program is followed by a ceremony performed in front of the entire community which represents the rite of passage of girls into womanhood. Circumcision through words is a spiritual alternative which allows women to practice their religion without risking their health. (Jessica A. Platt – Female circumcision: Religious practice v. Human rights violation)

The practice of female circumcision derives from complex belief systems. Many efforts to eradicate the practice originated from outside the community often met with hostility from the community practicing them: the idea of ending their tradition is inconceivable, and Western pressures for change is perceived as culturally imperialistic. This is why actions to stop female circumcision are most likely to be effective when they originate within the culture that practices them. (1998, Lauren Hersh – Giving Up Harmful Practices, Not Culture).

Addressing FGM requires a long-term commitment and a collective effort. There are no easy or quick solutions. Female circumcision needs actions from different sectors and on different levels. The international community plays an important role in raising awareness on the issues, but legislation alone is not sufficient to end FGM. Engage the communities where the practice is widely spread, and adopt programmes that include empowering education – with a special focus on women’s empowerment – is a good way to develop knowledge and consensus at community level. (2008, WHO – Eliminating Female genital mutilation).





African-Women.org (2009), Myths and Justifications for the Perpetuation of FGM http://www.african-women.org/FGM/myths.php (Accessed: 25.07.2014)


Frances A. Althaus (1997), Female Circumcision: Rite of Passage Or Violation of Rights?

http://www.guttmacher.org/pubs/journals/2313097.html (Accessed: 26.07.2104)


Amnesty International, End FGM European Campaignhttp://www.endfgm.eu/en/female-genital-mutilation/what-is-fgm/why-is-it-practised/ (Accessed: 26.07.2014)


Lauren Hersh (1998), Giving Up Harmful Practices, Not Culture



Dr. Ashenafi Moges, What is behind the tradition of FGM? http://www.african-women.org/documents/behind-FGM-tradition.pdf (Accessed: 25.07.2014)


Jessica A. Platt, Female circumcision: Religious practice v. Human rights violation –  http://lawandreligion.com/sites/lawandreligion.com/files/Platt.pdf (Accessed: 26.07.2014)


Unicef (2013), Female Genital Mutilation/Cutting: a statistical overview and exploration of the dynamics of change


Unicef, Female genital mutilation/cutting

http://www.unicef.org/protection/57929_58002.html (Accessed: 26.07.2014)


WHO (2008), Eliminating Female genital mutilation

http://www.un.org/womenwatch/daw/csw/csw52/statements_missions/Interagency_Statement_on_Eliminating_FGM.pdf (Accessed: 26.07.2014)


WHO, Female genital mutilation http://www.who.int/mediacentre/factsheets/fs241/en/ (Accessed: 25.07.2014)



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on 3 August 2014

5 persons shared their opinion! Join the discussion!

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  • Patricia Papuc said on Reply

    Thank you Serena for a very informative article.
    Female genital mutilation is a concept that I simply can`t and don`t want to understand, despite all the excuses.( religion, tradtion, etc).
    It is a known fact that this practice is mostly performed in muslim countries. But If one analyses the Quran, one might discover in the Quran as in all the other holy books and civilizations( Ancient Babylon, Ancient China, Ancient Greece, Ancient Rome, Sanscrit, Tamil, Buddhism, Christianity, Confucianism, Existentialism, Hinduism, Humanism, Jainism, Iudaism, Mohism, Platonism, Scientology, Sikhism, Taoism, Wicca ) a rule, entitled the Golden Rule which states the following:” Do unto all men as you would wish to have done unto you; and reject for others what you would reject for yourselves” (Abu Dwad).
    Starting from this Golden Rule genital mutilation is an action invented by men, performed strictly on women to prevent them from having sexual urges or from feeling pleasure. I think this is the only reason behind this, even though I see many other explanations in the article (given by those who are pro this surgery), those explanations have no basis, since from a medical perspective there is no reason to perform such a surgery.
    I do believe in the importance of tradition, but at the end of the day, tradition is made by people. If we look in medieval times, people were executed for theft or for protests against their rulers. Should have we kept those traditions as well? Tradition can`t be be used as an excuse for everything, neither can religion in my opinion. Looking back again at the crusades, what was the point of fighting between christians and muslims? It was power and dominance disguised in religion.
    We are living in the year 2014 and we have something called the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and many other international treaties and documents that create a legal framework in order to protect our rights as human beings. There is even a Convention against Torture, Inhuman and Degrading Treatment or punishment and FGM represents for me exactly this. Girls are oppressed and this has to stop!!!
    I don`t think that this tradition can change quickly over night, by going to those countries and communities and telling them about human rights. I think this should be done step by step, starting from small communities, going door to door and talking to people. At the end of the day those families should understand that there is no need for that and they should also be explained the damages that these surgeries can have on their daughters not only from a physical perspective but also from a psychological perspective. I think that UNICEF and many other NGOS, focused on children should be more active, invest more time and money because this is for me one of the biggest issues of our time.
    I have a couple of questions for you Serena.
    What is your opinion about religion and tradition, when talking about FGM?
    Why do you think that there is still such a big number of countries performing it, countries that might have sign the Universal Declaration of Human Rights? Do you know all the countries that are still performing FGM?
    Is the international community making a collective effort to solve this issue in your opinion?
    Many thanks in advance.

  • Serena said on Reply

    Dear Patricia,
    thanks for your comments. I will start to answer your questions setting a basic principle: I believe FGM is a violation of human rights, a wrong practice that has to be stopped. However, I do not agree when you say you do not want to understand the practice. In my opinion, there is no way to address the issue without first understanding what lies behind it. This is why I listed some of the reasons FGM is still widely practiced in many countries – reasons, not excuses. I believe in the universality of human rights, but simply claiming them in declarations and treaties is clearly not enough to address the issues. When a practise is so deep-rooted into a country’s tradition we cannot expect them to put an end to it just because we (Western democracies) said so. I do not think that going to these countries and saying ‘This is wrong!’ will actually work. Education is the answer. Women empowerment (do not forget that FGM is mainly practiced on women BY other women – therefore it is necessary to focus on their education) . I am not saying that the international community is not doing an effort to solve the issue, but that they should invest time and money to actually promote the change within the community itself, not from the outside.

    There is still a high number of countries practising FGM: 28 in Africa, some in the Middle East (e.g. Yemen, Kurdish communities, Saudi Arabia) and in Asia. FGM is now being encountered even in European countries within immigrant communities.

    My opinion on religion and tradition is not different from yours. I agree with you when you say it is made by people and that needs to be changed when it damages human dignity. Again, the way to do it is not by simply ratifying a treaty. I recognise the importance of international declarations, but it would be naive to think that a law or a recommendation is enough to stop a practice that has such deep roots

  • Patricia Papuc said on Reply

    I do not think that this issue can be solved without understanding first what lies behind it. People should know more about it, because I don`t think you can really solve a problem without understanding it fully first.

    I also do not think that if you present them some treaties/ documents their life perspective will suddenly change. I agree with your point of view, education is the answer . But in your opinion who should offer them this type of education? Because in some countries they would be very reluctant if they would have people from” western countries” talking about human rights, etc…Do you think that they should be educated by their own people, by their own women? But then who would educate those women/ men?

    Another point that I made earlier was about the interference of the international community and I was actually thinking of the UN. My point is the following, if a state becames member of the UN, thus signs the accession treaty, accepts all the binding rules, how is it possible for that state to still tolerate such a medieval practice?

  • Serena said on Reply

    I believe – and this is my personal opinion, which does not lie on any feasibility study – that the international community could find those whitin the community who are willing to address the issue and start educating them. Then, provide them with the necessary support to ‘spread the word’.

    The fact that some member states of the UN disobey rules contained in human rights and other kind of treaties is unacceptable and needs to be changed. But then the question is: does the UN have adequate mechanisms of ensuring that the rules of a treaty are fully respected and implemented?

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