top
Visit Your Local PBS Station PBS Home PBS Home Programs A-Z TV Schedules Watch Video Donate Shop PBS Search PBS
speak truth to power
defenders images arts and human rights telling stories to effect change backstage pbs broadcast credits
defenders imagesorange  
 


Female Genital Mutilation (FGM), also known as female circumcision or female genital cutting, has been practiced for several thousand years in nearly thirty African and Middle Eastern nations. It is also practiced, to a lesser extent, in parts of Asia. The procedure varies in degree, ranging from cuts around the clitoris (rare), to (more commonly) the entire removal of the clitoris, the removal of the clitoris and labia minora, or the removal of the clitoris and entire labias, with the resulting wound stitched shut. In this last form, called infibulation, the opening that remains is generally no larger than a match head, leaving insufficient space for the passage of urine and menses.

The age at which girls undergo FGM ranges from seven days old to young adulthood; most commonly, it is performed between the ages of two and fifteen. The procedure often results in severe physical and psychological health consequences, both from the initial ordeal and from its aftermath. While sometimes performed within a medical setting (particularly in large cities) FGM often takes place in unsterile surroundings with female victims forcibly restrained and cut with rudimentary instruments (razor blade, knife, glass, etc).

The scarring and damage caused by this practice creates difficulty in both the woman's daily life and during childbirth; scar tissue is not as flexible as normal tissue and often leads to prolonged childbirth, causing potential harm to both mother and child. Other side effects include painful menses, blocked urination, chronic and/or acute infections, painful or impossible intercourse, infertility, fibroids, fistula, and ruptures of the urethra or rectum during sexual intercourse. Patient discomfort also often results in added challenges to health providers performing routine pelvic examinations. In some cases, routine examinations may be very difficult due to acute sensitivity or too restricted a vaginal opening. Many women who have undergone FGM adapt and live basically happy and healthy lives, in spite of the assault on their bodies. This is no reason, however, to condone the practice, performed mostly on young girls prior to the age of consent.

The specific origins of FGM are somewhat obscured by time. Most often the historic justifications cited are marital fidelity, controlling the woman's sex drive, preventing lesbianism, ensuring paternity, "calming" her personality, and hygiene. It is commonly considered an important rite of passage. In some regions, a celebration accompanies the event while in others there is no particular ceremony, gifts, or ritual. FGM is practiced, to some degree, by Muslims, Christians, Jews, and animists alike. In many cultures, sexual pleasure is considered to be for men alone. Overall attitudes can vary greatly between the various FGM practicing ethnic groups and cultures. Within some ethnic groups, adolescent sex is permitted, even encouraged, until circumcision is performed and "adult" responsibilities commence.

Parents adhere to the practice for a variety of reasons, ranging from fear for their daughter's marriageability and honor, to conformity and insistence by older relatives and the community. It must be understood that most parents feel strongly that having their daughter circumcised is healthy and in her best interests. For many women who have undergone FGM, it is an important rite of passage to be endured with dignity, as by their mothers and great-grandmothers before them, to confer enhanced social status as an adult. In cultures where opportunities for women to be so honored are few, circumcision becomes disproportionately significant, despite the pain and potential harm it brings.

FGM is illegal in most Western nations and, as of recently, in many African nations. Laws prohibiting the practice, however, often go unenforced. Consequently, FGM is still practiced underground in private homes or clinics, or by sending unsuspecting girls back to the parent's home country, often under the pretense of a family vacation, to be circumcised. FGM is even practiced in the U.S. to this day.

Sources: Female Genital Mutilation Network


Organization Links:


About.com’s site on FGM:
Information, resources, and links on FGM.

African Men United Against Female Circumcision:
AMUAFC seeks to promote the health of women in regards to female circumcision practices.

Amnesty International’s FGM page:
Includes general information on FGM--where it’s practiced, and why.

Female Genital Mutilation Education and Networking:
Includes general information, country reports, links.

Female Genital Mutilation Network:
Offering education materials, speakers, and general information on FGM.

Forward USA:
Dedicated to the abolition of female genital mutilation.

National Organization of Circumcision Information Resource Centers:
NOCIRC is a non-governmental organization (NGO) in roster status with the Economic and Social Council of the United Nations.

Tostan:
Provides educational programs dedicated to ending FGM. Funded by UNICEF.

Bibliography and Publication Links:

Amnesty International:
Selected bibliography offered by Amnesty International FGM page.

Dorkenoo, Efna. Cutting the Rose: Female Genital Mutilation: The Practice and Its Prevention.
London: Minority Rights Publication, 1994.

Dirie, Waris and Cathleen Miller. Desert Flower: the Extraordinary Journey of a Desert Nomad. New York: William Morrow, 1998.
Story of Somali model Waris Dirie’s journey.

Female Circumcision Bill
US Representative Pat Schroeder’s 1993 bill prohibiting female genital mutilation.

FGM Network bibliography
Contains in-depth listing of books and articles on female genital mutilation. Mostly anthropological in nature.

International Planned Parenthood article list:



back to top