Female Genital Mutilation – Truths and Lies

Athanasia Zagorianou, Global Education MagazineAthanasia Zagorianou

Strathclyde University, Glasgow. Master in Human Rights Law.

e-mail: nassia_izago@yahoo.gr


Abstract: This article examines and analyzes the controversial issue of Female Genital Mutilation (FGM). With goal to find the truths and the lies around the issue, this article provides a description and an analysis of important factual information regarding the practices of FGM and its (FGM’s) relation to the cultural and religious norms of a society. In addition, it offers an interesting theoretical discussion on the issue within the frame of two core theories, Universalism and Cultural relativism. Aim of this paper is not only to condemn the FGM practices around the world but also inform the readers properly on its harmful consequences on women’s/girls’ health and rights. Based on the factual data and the discussion on FGM’s origins, it becomes obvious that FGM does not have any actual religious basis. Although it is referred to as a society’s cultural or religious custom through the study of the relevant academic literature, I reached the conclusion that FGM derives mostly from outdated beliefs of individuals. These beliefs have been passed and preserved over the years in many civilizations and as a result have become an integral part of people’s lives and cultural traditions. In many cases, the refusal of a woman to be subjected to FGM is the reason why she can be refused the chance to be educated, get married and finds a job as FGM practices have been associated with a woman’s purity, cleanliness, maturity and absolute obedience to her husband. Even though international human rights laws as well as some domestic treaties have promoted and prohibited these practices against women, it is a fact that FGM is still apparent in many countries of the contemporary world.

Keywords: FGM, Culture, Religion, Women’s Rights, Human Rights, Universalism, Cultural Relativism, International Human Rights Law

Γυναικείος Γεννητικός Ακρωτηριασμός –Αλήθειες και Ψέμματα

Απόσπασμα: Αυτό το άρθρο εξετάζει και αναλύει το επίμαχο ζήτημα τουΓυναικείου Γεννητικου Ακρωτηριασμού (ΓΓΑ). Με στόχο να βρούμε τις αλήθειες και τα ψέματα γύρω από το θέμα, αυτό το άρθρο παρέχει την περιγραφή και ανάλυση σημαντικών δεδομένων σ΄ ότι αφορά τις πρακτικές του ΓΓΑ και τη σχέση του με τις κουλτουραλιστικές και θρησκευτικές νόρμες μίας κοινωνίας. Επιπρόσθετα, προσφέρει μία ενδιαφέρουσα θεωρητική συζήτηση του θέματος μέσα στο πλάισιο δύο βασικών θεωριών, του Οικουμενισμού και του Πολιτιστικού Σχετικισμού. Σκοπός της παρούσας μελέτης δεν είναι μόνο να καταδικάσει τις πρακτικές του ΓΓΑ σε όλο τον κόσμο, αλλά και να ενημερώσει σωστά τους αναγνώστες σχετικά με τις επιβλαβείς επιπτώσεις αυτών των πρακτικών στην υγεία και τα δικαιώματα των γυναικών/κοριτσιών . Με βάση τα δεδομένα και τη συζήτηση γύρω από την προέλευση του ΓΓΑ , γίνεται φανερό ότι ο ΓΓΑ δεν έχει καμία βάση θρησκευτικού περιεχομένου. Παρά το γεγονός ότι αναφέρεται ως πολιτιστικό ή θρησκευτικό έθιμο μιας κοινωνίας, μέσα από τη μελέτη της σχετικής ακαδημαικής βιβλιογραφίας , έφτασα στο συμπέρασμα ότι o ΓΓA έχει κυρίως τις ρίζες του σε ξεπερασμένες πεποιθήσεις ατόμων. Αυτές οι πεποιθήσεις έχουν περαστεί και διατηρηθεί με το πέρασμα του χρόνου σε πολλούς πολιτισμούς και ως αποτέλεσμα έχουν γίνει αναπόσπαστο κομμάτι της ζωής και των πολιτιστικών παραδόσεων των ανθρώπων. Σε πολλές περιπτώσεις , η άρνηση μίας γυναίκας να υποβληθεί σε ΓΓΑ είναι ο λόγος για τον οποίο μπορεί να της αρνηθεί το δικαίωμα στο να μορφωθεί, να παντρευτεί και να αποκατασταθεί επαγγελματικά καθώς οι πρακτικές του ΓΓΑ έχουν σχετιστεί με την γυναικεία αγνότητα, καθαρότητα , ωριμότητα και απόλυτη υπακοή στον συζυγό της. Παρόλο που το διεθνές δίκαιο ανθρωπίνων δικαιωμάτων , καθώς και ορισμένες εγχώριες συνθήκες έχουν προωθήσει και απαγορεύσει αυτές τις πρακτικές σε βάρος των γυναικών , είναι γεγονός ότι ο ΓΓΑ είναι ακόμη εμφανής σε πολλές χώρες του σύγχρονου κόσμου.

Λέξεις-κλειδιά: ΓΓΑ, Πολιτισμός, Θρησκεία, Γυναικεία Δικαιώματα, Ανθρώπινα Δικαιώματα, Οικουμενισμός, Πολιτιστικός σχετικισμός, Διεθνές Δίκαιο Ανθρωπίνων Δικαιωμάτων



Women’s rights have been globally established as human rights through the signatory and ratification of numerous important International and domestic human rights treaties, agreements, conventions and declarations. International and regional legal documents have covered and concentrated on the various aspects of women’s rights such as domestic abuse, gender inequality, discrimination etc.

Culture, an important factor for every state’s operation around the world, can easily affect and inspire the masses. A fact that sometimes might have serious consequences on individuals’ physical and mental health, as many cultures have their own philosophies and strong views on issues such as health, illness, healing etc.

In some cultures, the role of women in the society is very limited and the compliance with social standards can be extremely oppressive and detrimental to the mental and physical health of women. It is not unusual for cultural norms and traditions to be linked with sexuality, alcohol or nutrition. The status of women, which has been an everlasting issue, has given rise to a variety of controversial situations as the broadly known issue of Female Genital Mutilation/Cutting (FGM/C).

FGM is an issue that has been intensively criticized by the international community since the reason that it is practiced is not medical and the girls and women that are subjected to it do not receive proper medical care (WHO, Fact sheet N°241).

Female Genital Mutilation

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), Female Genital Mutilation (FGM/C) is defined as “every procedure that involves a part or total removal of the external female genitalia for non-medical reasons.”(WHO, Fact sheet N°241).

Based on the study of the publication of Royal College of Nursing (RCN), Middle East, South East Africa as well as twenty-eight countries of Africa are some of the most common areas where FGM takes place (RCN, 2006, p.5). Moreover, women and girls are also subjected to FGM due to immigration of individuals in Europe, Canada, Australia and the United States (RCN, 2006, p.5)

According to WHO, FGM has been classified into four types, the first type is Clitoridectomy (utter or partial amputation of the clitoris), the second is excision (utter or partial amputation of external female genital organs i.e. clitoris and labia majora1), the third is called infibulation (the removal of all outer female genitalia organs i.e. clitoris labia majora and labia minora) and sewing or tightening the vaginal hole and the fourth and last type has been characterized as any-other non-medical, hurtful method on the female genitalia (e.g. piercing, stretching, cauterization of some genital parts etc.) that can endanger the physical health of a girl or a woman(WHO, Fact sheet N°241).

The 2005 United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) Innocenti underlines that the number of girls and women that have been subjected to FGM reaches “[the] 130 million worldwide [while] three million women annually [are] exposed to these practices”. (Unicef Digest Innocenti, 2005, p. vii)

The biggest issue with FGM is the dramatic and disastrous consequences of these practices on women’s health and rights. During the conduction of FGM many young women and female children have died from profuse blood loss, insufferable pain or shock (WHO, 2008 p.11). FGM is mainly conducted by traditional circumcisors that in most cases do not have any surgical or even medical skills (Castledine, 2006). Most importantly it has been noted that the surgical instruments used during the FGM procedure are not sterilized, a fact that can cause serious and sometimes even fatal infections and diseases such as septicemia and HIV (human immunodeficiency virus) (Alston, et al, 2007 p.547).

Women usually confront the dangerous consequences of this procedure during pregnancy and childbirth. However, the practices of FGM do not only irreversibly hurt the psychical health of women and girls but also their mental health as the traumas suffered in childhood (due to the FGM procedure) are in a lot of cases one of the most important reasons for psychological issues that appear later in their lives (Unicef Digest Innocenti, 2005, p.17). It has been noticed that many of these women face problems manifested in the form of depression, lower self-esteem, issues with their sexual life, a constantly compulsive need to urine etc. (Royal Australian College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists, 1997, p. 38).

Although the age of the girls that are subjected to FGM hinges on the customs of every country, the most common age is between five and puberty. Countries as Eritrea, Nigeria, and Mauritania are some of the countries that practice FGM on girls that are less than five years old, while in countries such as Central African Republic, Somalia and Egypt FGM is practiced on girls most commonly between five and fourteen years old.(UNICEF, 2013, p.50) Based on the above information regarding the age that FGM takes place, it is obvious that the issue does not only revolve around the rights of women but also around the rights of female children.

The practices of FGM violate some of the most important human rights treaties regarding children’s and women’s protection against violation and maltreatment. Gender equality, which is covered in Article 2 of the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC), the right of children to the highest attainable standard of health (Article 24(1), CRC), the prohibition of all forms of mental and physical violence and maltreatment (Article 19(1), CRC) and the prohibition of torture or inhuman or degrading treatment (Article 5 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR)) are only a small sample of fundamental rights that have been deprived from female children and women through the years due to FGM.

Some of the major reasons that these harmful practices are still taking place during the 21st century are high poverty, lack of education, lack of medical care and proper information on the issue. Although the consequences of FGM as I have already noted above are irreversibly harmful for women, a lot of them choose and support FGM as it is known that their disobedience can deprive them from their right to primary education and can stigmatize them in their local society.

Culture – Religion and FGM

It has been claimed that FGM has its origins in a number of different religious, cultural and social perspectives that have been endorsed, maintained and practiced by families and societies for non-medical reasons through the years. However, based on the study of different academic sources and researches it has been proven that FGM does not have any specific origin.

The little data that helps with tracing the origins of FGM claim that the third type of FGM, infibulation which is also considered one of the most extreme types in relation to the others, derives from the Egyptian Pharoah, while it has been recorded that clitoridectomy (the first type of FGM) was taken into practice in the Western world during the 50s’ as a therapy for women that have been diagnosed with hysteria, nymphomania etc. (Royal Australian College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists, 1997, p.16 & Castledine, 2006).

In many societies, the practice of FGM is required for the acceptance of women in the society and prepares them for adulthood, parenthood and marriage while it also gives them more chances to have access to a better marriage and educational perspectives (Alston et al, pp.550-551). In other societies, FGM has been related to the sexuality of a woman. In particular, FGM has been used as a limitation to a woman’s sexuality in order to supposedly keep her away from her intense sexual tenses. In these occasions FGM symbolizes a woman’s purity or her absolute obedience to her future husband (Bourdanne, 2005).

Although the practices of FGM have been preserved and promoted as part of a society’s predominant culture and religion, it is a fact that there are not religious documents or holy books referring to any kind of obligation of a woman to be subjected to FGM (Preston D. Mitchum, 1993, p.593). According to the article Female Genital Mutilation by Nahid Toubia, FGM is not related to the religion of Islam or any other religion but “[it] was spread by dominant tribes and civilizations, often as a result of tribal, ethnic and cultural allegiances” (Julie Peters, Andrea Wolper, 1995 p.230).

Following from this point, one can see that the practices of FGM have their origins in a complicated and wide system of beliefs and ideas that have been embraced by societies throughout the years. From my point of view, the relation of the issue to culture or religion could not justify FGM’s heinous effects that are irreversibly dangerous for a woman’s physical and mental health. It would be at least negatively challenging and scandalous to try to defend these harmful practices relying on a society’s anachronistic religious and cultural beliefs and theories. Even if the practices of FGM were grounded on actual and commonly accepted religious or cultural basis, this could certainly not be used as a form of excuse or justification for this custom’s (FGM’s) acceptance and integration in a society.

The obligation of the states to protect women and female children from these hurtful practices has been legally covered by numerous human rights treaties such as The African Charter on the Rights and Welfare of the Child (Article 21), the CRC (Article 37(1)), the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) and many others. According to these articles, member-states of these treaties are required to adjust or remove traditions that endanger an individual’s life.

In order to adequately comprehend the issue it would be interesting at this point to have a careful look at the relevant article of CEDAW. Particularly, Article 5(a) of CEDAW requires the states-member of the Convention

  1. to modify the social and cultural patterns of conduct of men and women, with a view to achieving the elimination of prejudices and customary and all other practices which are based on the idea of the inferiority or superiority of either of the sexes or on stereotyped roles for men and women.”(Article 5(a), CEDAW).

At least half of the African countries have adopted legislation against female genital mutilation. Serious concerns have been expressed that these criminal practices have been transferred to European countries through immigration. Among other states, Britain and Sweden are the two states that have passed legislation for the prohibition of these cruel cultural practices. Particularly, in the UK FGM became a criminal offence under the protection of the Female Genital Mutilation Act 2003 and Prohibition of Female Genital Mutilation (Scotland) Act 2005, Acts that have been replaced the previous Prohibition of Female Circumcision Act 1985 (Kathy French, 2009, p. 198).

FGM – Universalism and Cultural Relativism

The issue of FGM and its cultural or religious dimensions has also been discussed within the frame of the known debate between cultural relativists and universalists.

Without any intention to misinform or mislead the readers regarding the idea of these theories and their values and with only aim to examine the issue of FGM within this long-term debate, I have to mention at this point that the general theory of cultural relativism is not essentially consistent with customs or ideas that constitute a violation of human rights. The idea of cultural relativism is mostly based on the respect of cultural diversity among the states (Sandra Danial, 2013 pp. 4-5). For this reason, I have to point out that even though cultural relativists support and promote cultural determination and diversity of individuals, they have held a neutral position on the issue of FGM (Sandra Danial, 2013 pp. 4-5). However, I consider it really interesting to try to shoot down some of the arguments that could be used support FGM within the idea of cultural relativism.

In order to discuss the issue of FGM in the frame of these two theories (Universalism and Cultural Relativism) it would be necessary to write a few words for the principles that they represent. Based on the theory of universalism, “all human rights are universal, indivisible and interdependent and interrelated”. Principally, human rights are applicable to all people, irrespective of location, gender, ethnicity, race, culture, political system or any other type of diversity (Alston et al, 2007, p 517-518). For this reason, every international human rights treaty uses in its transcripts the universal terms as “everyone” or “no one” refer to individuals instead of the word “citizens” (Alston et al, 2007, p 517-518).

On the other hand, the theory of cultural relativism is based on the idea that there are no objective criteria by which people with different social and religious norms and perspectives can be distinguished. The basic principle of cultural relativism is the respect of diverse culture and traditions (Sandra Danial, 2013 pp.2-3). Every society has its own internal system of values which often are in conflict with the universal values of human rights. For these reasons, it (cultural relativism) supports the local autonomy and opposes against the global imposition of the western model.

Objections regarding the idea of universalism have not been raised only from relativist philosophers but also from social scientists and governmental representatives in international conferences such as the Vienna’s Conference in 1993 where the issues of culture and women rights within the frame of the two theories (cultural relativism and universalism) were discussed (Sciolino, 1993). Although the idea of universalism has been intensively criticized by the advocates of cultural relativism as a western idea that represents only the western perspectives and not the universal ones, it is a fact that the theory of universalism has worthily promoted and protected humanity through the years.

While it is important to recognize the cultural determination of many women around the world regarding different human rights issues that have been subjects of debate between universalism and cultural relativism such as the issue of Islamic veil (e.g. jihad) in the Western world, I consider it necessary to note that FGM practices are nothing alike. Even though FGM has been parallelized to male circumcision or other cosmetic surgeries that women have undergone in the Western World, it is a fact that in contrast to cosmetic surgeries, FGM is not a woman’s choice but a decision that is taken by her family, community in accordance with the cultural and social standards of her society. Additionally, women subjected to FGM are usually less than fourteen years old which means that they are still children or teenagers that in most cases are not properly aware for the procedure and its consequences on their health, an important factor that significantly contributes to their vulnerability.

It is my firm belief that human rights representatives should respect and take into account the diversity of cultures and religions on every human right issue that comes up. But what happens when culture becomes the reason for women’s health violations? FGM has to come to an end and this should not be negotiable even within the frame of cultural relativism and universalism. FGM practices should be an issue that concerns not only the women subjected to it but also all of us as it constitutes an important violation of human rights and a serious threat against public health and human dignity.


During the writing of this article my belief that religion has nothing to do with harmful practices against female children and women was enhanced significantly. I believe that FGM is mostly related to deep anachronistic perceptions of individuals among states. Although the law has made some progress in the effort to eradicate the spread and existence of this custom, it is obvious that the impunity of these traditional practices is still intensively apparent. It seems that in this case prejudices and cultural norms are stronger than laws.

At this point, as far as I am concerned, proper information and counseling to families and children regarding the dangers of FGM would be more useful than the observation of laws.I would propose the operation of free institutions, coordination of campaigns and obligatory seminars at schools that would be sponsored by the government of every state in the world. Their purpose would be to appropriately inform and advise families and girls on the practices of FGM and its harmful dimensions.

To conclude, some ideas for future analysis could be the financial factors behind FGM, discussion of cultural-religious norms of non-Western countries within the debate of cultural relativism and universalism, the practices of FGM and their spread in the Western World through immigration and others. Most importantly I consider that this article gives rise for further analysis not only on the issue of FGM and its dimensions but also on other violations against women’s and children rights.


Alston, Goodman, Steiner, (2007), International Human Rights in Context’, Law, Politics, Morals (3rd, Oxford University Press)

Castledine J, (2006). Female Genital Mutilation: An Issue Cultural Relativism or Human Rights? Mount Holyoke College, International Relations Program

Dr Bourdanne H, (2005). ‘Excision’ Tearfund International Learning Zone(TILZ) Retrieved from: http://tilz.tearfund.org/Publications/Footsteps+21-30/Footsteps+24/Excision.htm

French K, (2009). ‘Sexual Health’ Essential Clinical Skills Nurses series, 1st ed. Wiley-Blackwel

Mitchum D, P, (2013). Slapping the Hand of Cultural Relativism: Female Genital Mutilation, Male, Dominance, and Health as a Human Rights Framework, 19 Wm. & Mary J. Women & L. 585

Peters J, Wolper A, (1995). Women’s Rights, Human Rights: International Feminist Perspectives, Psychology Press

Royal Australian College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists, (1997), Female Genital Mutilation

Sandra Danial S, (Spring, 2013).Cultural Relativism vs. Universalism: Female Genital Mutilation, Pragmatic Remedies, Prandium – The Journal of Historical Studies, Vol. 2, No. 1,The Department of Historical Studies, University of Toronto Mississauga

Sciolino E, (1993).U.S. Rejects Notion That Human Rights Vary With Culture, The New York Times, Retrieved from:http://www.nytimes.com/1993/06/15/world/us-rejects-notion-that-human-rights-vary-with-culture.html?src=pm

UNICEF, (2005). Changing a Harmful Social Convention: Female Genital Mutilation/Cutting, Digest Innocenti, Retrieved from: http://www.unicef-irc.org/publications/pdf/fgm_eng.pdf

UNICEF, (2013). Female Genital Mutilation/Cutting: A statistical overview and exploration of the dynamics of change, Retrieved from: http://www.unicef.org/media/files/FGCM_Lo_res.pdf

WHO, (2008). Eliminating female genital mutilation, An inter-agency statement OHCHR, UNDAIS, UNDP, UNECA, UNESCO, UNFPA, UNHCR, UNICEF, UNIFEM, WHO

WHO, (2012).Female genital mutilation, Fact sheet N°241 Official Website Retrieved from: http://www.who.int/gender/genderandhealth/en/index.html

1labia majora are called the external skin folds


This article was published on 8th March: International Women´s Day, in Global Education Magazine.

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