Focus on female genital mutilation

NEWS RELEASES – February 6th is the International Day of Zero Tolerance for Female Genital Mutilation (FGM). On this occasion, the International Center for Peace and Human Rights (CIPADH) examines this famous procedure that is considered a violation of girls’ and women’s human rights, and looks back on the many efforts made by the international community or local groups to promote the abandonment of FGM.    


FGM - source: UNICEF

What is Female Genital Mutilation?

Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) is defined as the set of “procedures that intentionally alter or cause injury to the female genital organs for non-medical reasons.” [1] Different forms of FGM exist, including the removal of the clitoris, the inner-and-outer lips of the vagina, or the sewing together of the two sides of the vulva. [2] This type of procedure generally occurs without any anesthetic and is performed by elders from specific communities in Africa, the Middle East and Asia, where FGM is particularly concentrated. [3]

The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that more than 200 million girls and women alive today have been cut, in approximately 30 countries. [4] Usually, the operation takes place between infancy and the 15th birthday. [5]

It has been recognized unanimously that FGM has no health benefits whatsoever, but is rather performed for cultural and social factors, for instance to prepare girls for adulthood and marriage or to control their sexual behaviors. [6] However, many risks are associated with Female Genital Mutilation. To start with, it often results in intense pain and excessive bleeding, at times leading to death. Long term, the consequences range from urinary problems to increased risks of childbirth complications, as well as psychological shock and sexual dissatisfaction. [7]  

For all these reasons, FGM is considered to be a violation of human rights to health and security, all the while reflecting deeply-rooted gender inequalities.

Actions led towards its elimination

The first large-scale action to end FGM was introduced in 1997, through the issuing of a joint statement from the WHO, the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) and the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA). These three organizations conjointly denounced the practice of female genital cutting and declared their support for its abandonment. [8] Following this, research was conducted, anti-FGM activism emerged, and laws criminalizing the practice were successfully passed in many states, including 18 African countries. [9] Overall, a decline of Female Genital Mutilation has been noted, but its prevalence remains high, thus prompting more recent initiatives. [10]

Indeed, in 2008, another interagency statement was issued, this time bringing together the OHCHR, UNAIDS, UNDP, UNECA, UNESCO, UNFPA, UNHCR, UNICEF, UNIFEM, and WHO. [11] The aim was here to call on states, communities, and civil societies to invest in women and girl’s rights by supporting specific objectives like education, greater public dialogue, the drafting of further laws and policies, and research/capacity building. [12] The commitment was again renewed in 2012, when the UN General Assembly passed a resolution to step up efforts towards the elimination of FGM. [13]

Although the anti-FGM fight is now global and enjoys widespread support, critics have pointed out its slow progress. [14] Some of the major challenges that have been found to impede the process of eradication include persistent cultural beliefs fueled by misconceptions, social pressure, and oftentimes the complicity of health care providers. [15]

Furthermore, some opposition to the combat in favor of the elimination of FGM has arised within western academic circles. FGM eradicationists have been accused of cultural colonialism, as their objective is to eliminate what some consider to be a culturally specific “tradition”.  [16]


Nonetheless, because of the consensual agreement that FGM is a threat to women’s and girls’ lives, health, and livelihoods, it appears essential to make sure the practice is not imposed on unwilling individuals by virtue of their sex. On February 6, it is therefore important to advocate not only against FGM, but more importantly in favor of women’s and girl’s bodily autonomy and integrity, and freedom of choice.   

By Manon Fabre – Research Assistant at CIPADH



[1] World Health Organization. Female Genital Mutilation.

[2] The Guardian. What is female genital mutilation?

[3] IBID

[4] World Health Organization. Female Genital Mutilation.

[5] IBID

[6] IBID

[7] IBID

[8] United Nations. Eliminating Female Genital Mutilation.

[9] IBID

[10] IBID

[11] IBID

[12] IBID

[13] World Health Organization. Slow progress in ending female genital mutilation.

[14] IBID

[15] IBID

[16] Nnaemeka, O. (Ed.). (2005). Female circumcision and the politics of knowledge: African women in imperialist discourses. Greenwood Publishing Group.