6 February is the International Day of Zero Tolerance to Female Genital Mutilation, a human rights abuse that affects 140 million women and girls worldwide

 Today (6 February) is the International Day of Zero Tolerance to Female Genital Mutilation. The WHO defines FGM as “all procedures involving partial or total removal of the external female genitalia or other injury to the female genital organs for non-medical reasons”. It estimates that 140 million girls and women worldwide are affected by the practice, the majority in 28 African countries, and around 500,000 in Europe. Three million girls are at risk every year, including approximately 20,000 in the UK.

FGM, or FGC (female genital cutting), is a human rights abuse and a form of gender-based violence and oppression. FGM can lead to fatal bleeding, recurrent urinary and vaginal infections, severely painful menstruation, cysts, infertility and problems having sex. Women who have undergone FGM are twice as likely to die during childbirth and more likely to give birth to a stillborn baby. It has also been shown to negatively impact women’s socio-economic opportunities, as it is linked to girls dropping out of school at a young age, and studies point to a range of psychological impacts, including anxiety and depression.

FGM is performed in different cultures for a variety of reasons, related to beliefs around beauty, gender roles, health, purity, religion, sex and morality. I very much recommend Alice Walker’s Possessing the Secret of Joy, which – while a work of fiction – is a powerful illustration of how the practice is used to control women’s sexuality, limit their role within society and subjugate them to men.

UK charity the Orchid Project and its partner Tostan use the term “female genital cutting” rather than “female genital mutilation”, and their explanation for this choice highlights the social pressures that lead to the practice being perpetuated – often by women who have undergone it themselves:

It seems counter-intuitive, but in our experience, if there is a dominant emotion involved in FGC, it is love–because not cutting your daughter risks her entire future. As explained by a former cutter turned Tostan advocate, Oureye Sall, in communities where FGC is practiced, community members will not eat food cooked by a woman who is not cut, will not accept water from her, will not even sit with her. She will have difficulty getting married. An uncut woman is viewed as unclean and therefore unable to participate fully in the community. With these social pressures, if a family chooses not to cut their daughter, they have risked severely damaging her social status. To imply that parents are actually “mutilating” their daughters through a decision made with love and concern for her well-being is unfair to them and risks alienating and offending them rather than convincing them to abandon the practice.

In the UK, FGM has been against the law since 2004. Forward, an African Diaspora women’s campaign and support charity, has information on what to do if you suspect a UK girl is at risk of FGM. Daughters of Eve, a non-profit working to “advance and protect the physical, mental, sexual and reproductive health rights of young people from female genital mutilation practising communities” also offer advice and support on the issue.

The UN aims to see female genital mutilation/cutting end “within a generation”; it can’t come soon enough.

Photo of an orange and black butterfly against a bright blue sky by rhett maxwell, shared under a Creative Commons licence.