Cover Your Tracks

Content warning: The following content, pages and associated links describe in detail potentially emotionally distressing content around FGM.


The background on FGM?

Female Genital Mutilation is a practice that involves changing, altering or removing part of a girl or a woman’s natural external female genitalia. This practice is not done for medical or health reasons.

What are the different types of FGM?

There are four different types of FGM. The different types are:

FGM Type I: the removal of parts or all of the clitoris and/or the clitoral hood is removed. This is also known as a clitrodectomy.

FGM Type II: the removal of the clitoris and the inner lips (labia minora). This is also known as excision.

FGM Type III: the removal of the clitoris, inner and outer lips; the vaginal opening is then closed over leaving a very small opening. This is also known as infibulation.

FGM Type IV: any other harmful practice to the genitalia including pricking, piercing or pulling.

Other terms for FGM

Many different communities and countries practice FGM; this means that there are lots of different names for FGM including local names in different languages. Some of the most common terms for FGM are:

  • ‘Female circumcision’ – although this is a common term, it is also a very problematic term. This is because some people hearing it might think that FGM is similar to male circumcision, when this is not the case. Male circumcision and FGM are too very different practices – with FGM causing more harm.
  • ‘Female genital cutting’
  • ‘Sunna’ – this is an Arabic word meaning in the way of the Islamic Prophet (PBUH); however some FGM affected communities use it to refer to certain types of FGM. This is also a problematic term as it creates the impression that FGM is a religious or an Islamic requirement. FGM is not a requirement for any religion including Islam; there is no evidence in any of the holy texts about FGM.
  • ‘Khitan’
  • ‘Bondo’
  • ‘Halalyis’

These are just some of the many names and terms for FGM.

How does FGM usually happen?

FGM is usually performed when girls are very young. The average age that FGM takes place is when girls are between 5 and 8 years old. However we know that this depends on the community and FGM can happen at any age. There are some communities where FGM can happen to babies and in some other communities FGM is linked to puberty and so happens at 12 or 13 years old.

FGM is usually performed by older women in the community. These women, usually known as ‘cutters’, ‘circumsiors’ or ‘excisors’, tend to not have any medical training. The way that they become ‘cutters’ is usually through inheritance; this means that someone in their family is a ‘cutter’ and they pass that skill set on to them.

As FGM is not usually performed by a medically trained professional, it means that it is usually performed without anaesthetics (medication to numb an area to stop someone from feeling pain or to put a person to sleep) and usually the equipment is not sterilized (medically cleaned).

In some communities a doctor or a medical professional may perform FGM – this is known as the ‘medicalization’ of FGM. Although people believe that this will make the practice safer this is not always the case. There can still be very serious health consequences for girls and women. If a medical professional practices FGM they are breaking their ‘do no harm’ oath, as FGM is a human rights violation, as it violates girls’ and women’s rights to life, physical integrity and health.

Where does FGM usually happen?

FGM is practice that happens all around the work; UNICEF estimates that 125 million women and girls have already undergone the practice.

FGM is known to happen in at least 29 countries in Africa, these are: Benin, Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Central African Republic, Chad, Cote d’Ivoire, Democratic Republic of Congo, Djibouti, Egypt, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Gambia, Ghana, Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, Kenya, Liberia, Mali, Mauritania, Niger, Nigeria, Senegal, Sierra Leone, Somalia, Sudan, Tanzania, Togo, Uganda and Zambia.

Source: Waris Dirie Foundation

It is also prevalent among specific ethnic groups in Asian countries, including India, Indonesia, Malaysia, Pakistan and Sri Lanka. FGM also occurs in the Middle East, there is evidence it occurs in Oman, the United Arab Emirates, Yemen, Iraq, the State of Palestine and Israel (UNFPA).

In South America specific communities in Columbia, Ecuador and Peru are known to practice FGM.

FGM also occurs globally and we know that women and girls are at risk of or affected by FGM in Australia, Canada, the United States of America, in countries all around Europe and in particular in the UK.

Why do people practice FGM?

FGM has been around for centuries. There is evidence that a type of FGM used to happen in Ancient Egyptian times. Different communities and individuals may have many different reasons for why they believe in the practice of FGM. In addition in some communities individuals may face immense pressure to conform and practice FGM and those that do not practice it or speak out against the practice may be ostracised or isolated from their communities. In most cases people practice FGM because they believe that it is in the best interest of the girl or women.

Some of the reasons people practice FGM include:

  • Tradition and Culture: some people don’t question FGM and continue the practice because it is deeply ingrained in their culture; for some individuals everyone they know goes through the practice and it is seen as a normal part of a girl or woman’s life.
  • Religion: some individuals believe that FGM is in an important part of their religion, although there is no evidence that any religion supports FGM.
  • Sociological reasons: in some communities FGM is seen as part of girl’s initiation into womanhood and into her community. In some communities if a girl or a woman does not go through FGM she will always been seen a child - irrespective of how old she is.
  • Hygiene and Beauty: in some communities the natural external genitalia is seen as dirty or ugly and so girls are encouraged to have these parts of the body removed so that she can be ‘clean’ and ‘beautiful’.
  • Marriage: in some communities women who have not had FGM may be seen as unmarriagable. In some communities where women depend on men and marriage for economic security, women may feel that they are acting in their daughter’s best interest by forcing them to undergo FGM. In addition for many of the ‘cutters’ performing FGM is a major source of income and so they will continue to support FGM for their own interests.
  • Controlling behaviour: in many communities they believe that a girl or a woman who has not undergone FGM will not be able to control her sexual behaviour. Therefore some communities practice FGM because they believe that it is a way to ensure virginity prior to marriage and fidelity during marriage. In some communities they also believe that FGM is a way to increase men’s sexual pleasure.

More information can be found here:

World Health Organisation