Female genital cutting (FGC), also known as female genital mutilation (FGM) and female circumcision, is a severe breach of human rights, violating our right to physiological and psychological integrity.
Some 25 per cent of the affected women and girls die during or after female genital mutilation. Even the non-fatal consequences are irreversible and lead to lifelong suffering for survivors. The procedure is generally carried out without anaesthetic, causing intense pain, which in turn leads to a high degree of traumatisation. Further possible psychological consequences are anxiety disorders, insomnia, concentration problems and depression. The physical consequences depend on the type of circumcision; they include blood loss, fistulas, abnormal growths, infections such as HIV/AIDS, chronic pain, infertility, incontinence, problems when urinating or menstruating, severe risks for mother and baby during births, and other gynaecological problems.
Only a proportion of affected women can benefit from therapies or reversal operations, and in any case these cannot undo the effects, but merely alleviate the problems. This misogynist practice is also a major obstacle to girls fulfilling their potential, not only because of the physical and psychological consequences but also because of its close connection to lack of schooling, child marriage, polygamy and domestic violence.
Those carrying out this practice justify it for reasons of culture, offering enough supposed advantages. So it continues. These arguments draw on tradition, religion, medical myths and economic reasoning.
For example, the claim that this practice is a ‘tradition’ leads to the argument that breaking with tradition is an insult to the elders and a sign of having no gratitude towards our ancestors, roots and the source of our life. Although there is no religion that expressly instructs its followers to carry out female genital cutting, the practice is seen by many as one of spiritual cleansing. The medical myths include the belief that a circumcised vulva is more hygienic or even that directly touching the clitoris can be deadly. And one economic argument relates to improved chances of finding a husband and receiving a higher dowry: this can actually be a matter of survival in communities where the woman’s status depends on her husband.
Worldwide extent of female genital cutting
According to UNICEF (2018), female genital cutting (FGC) is carried out in 30 countries on 3 continents; more than 200 million women have been mutilated in total. This number is certainly too low, since comprehensive studies have only been carried out in the Southern Sahara region, Iraq and Egypt, so the figures for the Middle East and South-East Asia might be as high again. Each year some three million girls, generally younger than 15, face the risk of going under the knife.
Female genital cutting also in Germany and Europe
The practice of female genital cutting has spread with migration to Germany and other European countries. It is a well-observed phenomenon that diaspora members often stick more strongly to traditions and rituals than the populations in the countries they come from, partly as a sign of respect for their origins and partly due to fear of opposition within their diaspora communities. The issue of needing to clearly belong to a specific community, and indeed to actively prolong the survival of this group, can therefore be a motivation to subject daughters to this practice. According to one 2017 study funded by the German Family Ministry, some 48,000 girls and women living in Germany are victims of female genital cutting.
Out of respect to those affected, it is not advisable to describe women as “mutilated”. Neither is it suitable to compare this cutting to the relatively harmless practice of male circumcision. So the terms “circumcised” and “circumcision” are also generally avoided. In English “female genital cutting” (FGC) is therefore the preferred term in many circumstances.