According to the definition of the World Health Organization (WHO), FGM “comprises 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” (WHO: Female genital mutilation Fact sheet, updated February 2016).
The WHO classifies FGM into four main types:
In order to capture more precisely the variety of procedures, several sub-divisions were added to this typology. You can find the complete fact sheet here.
Depending on the type, FGM has various effects on women and girls. It is internationally recognised as a violation of women’s basic human rights and a form of child abuse.
Short-term health risks of FGM:
Long-term health risks from types I, II and III can include:
The fact that FGM is carried out by health care providers (according to UNICEF, “more than half of girls in Indonesia underwent the procedure by a trained medical professional” (UNICEF 2016)) might reduce the risk of immediate complications, but the long-term consequences are equally serious or even worse than when the procedures are performed traditionally. The WHO strongly urges health professionals not to perform such procedures.
For more detailed information, please visit the WHO's website.
Due to a lack of statistical evidence, the exact number of girls and women affected by FGM is still unknown. But according to UNICEF’s most recent publication, there are at least 200 million girls and women alive today who have, at some point in their lives, undergone FGM. Another 3 million girls are estimated to be at risk of being subjected to FGM every year.
The practice of FGM is widespread in large parts of Africa, some countries in the Middle East and Asia, and in some communities in Latin America. As UNICEF’s study shows, more than half of the 200 million women and girls affected by FGM live in only three countries – Indonesia, Egypt and Ethiopia.
However, when talking about prevalence rates, it is important to keep in mind that they may vary considerably - even between neighbouring countries or within a country itself. Besides, it is possible that the prevalence rate declines while the total number of girls and women having been subjected to FGM is increasing. This effect is due to population growth, which is why UNICEF states the following: “If trends continue, the number of girls and women undergoing FGM will rise significantly over the next 15 years”.
For further information about FGM in a global perspective, please refer to these publications:
Prevalence in the EU
FGM is also affecting girls and women living in the European Union, a fact that has long been neglected by European decision-makers. This is why there is still a lack of reliable data that would allow to properly evaluating the total number of girls and women affected by or at risk of FGM within the EU.
So even though there is a growing awareness of the problem at the European level, the exact number of women and girls living with FGM in Europe is still unknown. The European Parliament estimates that there are around 500,000 girls and women currently living in the EU who already have undergone FGM, with another 180,000 at risk of being subjected to the practice every year.
As all Member States differ in their immigrant community profiles, the prevalence rates vary widely between the Member States. Correspondingly, the number of girls at risk of FGM varies, too.
CHANGE Plus targets African diaspora communities from – amongst others – Burkina Faso, Eritrea, Ethiopia, the Gambia, Guinea Bissau, Guinea Conakry, Mali, Sierra Leone, Senegal, Somalia and Sudan in four EU Member States (France, Germany, the Netherlands, Portugal).
If you want to get more specific information about FGM in EU Member States, please consult the reports below:
FGM is practised for a variety of reasons. There are cultural, social and religious factors for the continuation of the practise. While several factors can collude, they can differ from one region to another as well as over time, too.
Among the most commonly cited reasons are:
In general, we can say that FGM is sustained by social pressure and unequal gender relations. A lack of knowledge about its consequences as well as taboos around sexuality further contributes to its preservation.
On this website, we use the term Female Genital Mutilation or FGM to talk about all procedures that intentionally alter or cause injury to the female genital organs for non-medical reasons (WHO 2016). Other terms to describe these practises include – amongst others – “Female Genital Cutting (FGC)” and “Female Circumcision”. It is important to note that none of these terms is completely neutral and that they are not interchangeable.
Especially “FGC” and “Female circumcision” are controversial terms. Some argue that they do not accurately reflect the extent of harm caused by all types of FGM or that they imply equivalent severity with male circumcision. Others prefer “FGC” to “FGM”, because affected women often identify as “circumcised” and not as “mutilated”.
When talking to affected women and girls or when addressing practising communities, we recommend using the terms they are using themselves in order to facilitate communication and to avoid judging.
In the same vein, attributes such as “brutal” or “barbaric” are not appropriate at all, because they depreciate practising communities, reproduce racist stereotypes and reveal a Eurocentric perspective.
FGM is internationally recognized as a violation of the human rights of girls and women. As such, it violates a whole string of fundamental rights: It is nearly always carried out on minors and therefore constitutes a violation of the rights of children. It violates the right to health, physical integrity and life (when the procedure results in death). Furthermore, FGM is conflicting with the right to be free from cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment.
At the European level, FGM has been outlawed, too. There are three decisive documents:
To see which countries have signed and ratified the Istanbul Convention, please check this list.
FGM is at the intersection of different fields of law. Therefore, depending on the context and the national legal framework, prosecution (and prevention) takes place on a different basis.
In some European countries, FGM is legally banned through specific criminal provisions (e.g. in Germany, Italy and the UK) whereas in other states it is banned through provisions in the Penal Code that penalise bodily injury and mutilation (e.g. in France and the Netherlands).
However, a report on FGM related court cases in Europe published in 2015 by the European Commission, identifies a number of trends common to several EU Member States, the first being the application of the principle of extraterritoriality when it comes to FGM. It means in effect that under certain conditions, legal proceedings can be undertaken even if an act is committed outside the country that opens the legal process.
The same applies for the removal of the principle of double incrimination, which makes it possible to take proceedings even in case the act of FGM is not criminalised in the country where it is committed. Given that in most cases, girls and women have been subjected to FGM in their countries of origin before moving to the EU, or are subjected to FGM while travelling outside the EU, this has far-reaching consequences for jurisdiction.