Myths About Female Genital Mutilation (FGM)
Myth 1: FGM is one standard procedure.
The World Health Organization defines FGM as any procedure that “involve[s] partial or total removal of the external female genitalia, or other injury to the female genital organs for non-medical reasons.” It’s estimated that more than 200 million girls and women alive today have been cut — half of them are in Egypt, Ethiopia, and Indonesia — but that doesn’t mean they’ve all endured the same procedure. There are four main classifications of FGM.
- Clitoridectomy is the partial or complete removal of the clitoris
- Excision is any cutting and removal of the clitoris and labia
- Infibulation is the creation of a seal to narrow the vaginal opening by cutting and stitching the labia — infibulation may or may not include a clitoridectomy
- “All other harmful procedures to the female genitalia for non-medical purposes” — this includes pricking, scraping, cauterizing
The first two types of FGM are the most common.
Myth 2: Only teenagers undergo the surgery as a rite of passage.
Girls under the age of 14 make up 44 of the 200 million who have undergone FGM. In Gambia, 56% of girls in this age group have been cut, while nearly half the girls in Indonesia aged 11 or younger have undergone FGM — mostly as infants. The UN’s 2015 World’s Women report found that the majority of girls who were cut underwent the procedure before they even got to celebrate their fifth birthdays.
Myth 3: Girls understand and choose to undergo the procedure.
Young girls may not be able to fully comprehend the scope of the procedure, nor consent to it. Typically, FGM happens before adolescence to preserve a girl’s “purity” and prevent her from experiencing the sexual excitement believed to accompany puberty.
Myth 4: It’s not that common — at least, not anymore.
Based on data collected by the UN, 98% of women and girls between the ages of 15 and 49 in Somalia have been cut. Sierra Leone, Egypt, Eritrea, and Djibouti all have rates above 90%. Egypt alone is home to the largest number of FGM victims in the world (nearly a quarter). In many countries, the prevalence of FGM is lower for younger girls than older age groups, meaning some progress is being made; however, in countries like Guinea, Mali, Somalia, and Sudan the difference between age groups is slight, reflecting unchanging practices. In some places the prevalence of the practice appears to be increasing. The number of girls and women in the US who have undergone FGM has more than tripled since the 90s.
Myth 5: The procedure is performed by medical practitioners.
It is estimated that FGM is performed by a medical professional on one in five girls; however, the majority of FGM is done by community elders, practitioners of traditional medicine, relatives, and sometimes even barbers. Trained health-care providers are likely to use equipment like scalpels, but traditional healers often perform FGM using pieces of glass, razor blades, and thorns — without an anesthetic. Without access to medical supplies or facilities, traditional medicine practitioners resort to using things like dust to stop bleeding, and the unsterile environment in which the girl has the surgery and recovers may encourage infection and complications.
Myth 6: If the surgery is performed correctly, there is no long-term physical damage.
There are many possible complications that can arise from FGM surgeries, ranging from pain, infection, and excessive bleeding, to death. Even when performed “correctly” or by a medical professional, there are huge risks. Earlier this year a 17-year-old Egyptian girl died from the complications of an illegal FGM surgery performed by medical professionals in a private hospital.
Myth 7: It is possible to perform the procedure so that it does not harm girls.
Even less extensive forms of FGM are harmful to girls. The psychological damage from the invasion of their privacy and violation of their bodies causes life-long trauma. “I didn’t have a problem urinating [or] with my menstrual cycle, but I blacked out every time I had to have my vagina examined, because my body was remembering the trauma I experienced as a child,” FGM survivor and activist Leyla Hussein told the New York Times.
Myth 8: It’s a religious tradition.
Many people believe FGM has religious roots, including those who support and perpetuate the practice; however, it’s basis is predominantly cultural. There are no religious scripts that prescribe the practice. In most societies in which FGM is practiced, it is a cultural tradition that is an expression of religious tenants — primarily virginity and fidelity.
Myth 9: It is done for health reasons.
Some supporters of FGM claim the practice has health benefits. However, these beliefs largely stem from the idea that a female’s genitals are “dirty,” therefore, girls who are uncut are “unclean.” But the truth couldn’t be farther from that. In fact, there are a plethora of health risks associated with FGM, and no known benefits.
Myth 10: It only happens in developing countries.
FGM is a global problem. Though it is common practice in some developing nations like Somalia and Mali, the numbers FGM victims in countries like the US and UK are growing, with approximately 137,000 in England and Wales, and over half a million in the US.
Myth 11: It is comparable to male circumcision.
Some argue that FGM is just a female version of male circumcision; however, there are a few key differences (which is not to say that one is better, simply that they are different). While male circumcision is also controversial, it is actually prescribed by some religions, whereas FGM is not. Additionally, male circumcision is the removal of skin, and not the sex organ itself (as with the clitoris), and does not typically cause the same kinds of long-term health problems.