5 common myths about FGM

Female genital mutilation (FGM), also known as female genital cutting, is a form of gender-based violence that continues to be practiced across the world, despite being internationally recognized as a violation of human rights of women and girls.

There are many misconceptions about the harmful – and at times fatal – practice of FGM, including what it is, why it persists and whether it can ever be eradicated.

Here are 5 of the most common FGM myths debunked.

Myth #1: FGM is one standard procedure

Fact: The World Health Organization identifies 4 types of Female Genital Mutilation procedures which range in risk and severity – all procedures involving partial or total removal of the external female genitalia or other injury to the female genital organs for non-medical reasons.

Myth #2: FGM is no different from male circumcision

Fact: Male circumcision is a common procedure in some communities involving the removal of the foreskin on genitalia. The health consequences of male circumcision are drastically different when compared to FGM. According to the World Health Organisation, circumcision of male babies results in “a very low rate of adverse events, which are usually minor (0.2-0.4%)”.

Female genital mutilation, on the other hand, is the cutting and/or partial or total removal of genitalia itself. It is estimated that FGM is performed by a medical professional on one in five girls; more often, however, it is performed by community elders, practitioners of traditional medicine, and relatives in rural settings. It is also often performed in unsanitary environments using old knives, razor blades, scissors or broken glass, and without anesthetic. The average age for girls to undergo FGM is between 7 and 10 years old.

Adverse effects of FGM include painful intercourse, menstrual blockage, urinary blockage and infection, wound infection, septicaemia and even death. In fact, women who have undergone FGM are twice as likely to die during childbirth and are more likely to give birth to a stillborn baby than those who haven’t.

Girl standing in market with hands on hips

“After I was cut, my life changed. My dreams for the future were gone. I was told I had become an adult and that I needed to have a husband. I was 13 years old. Lots of men came to our house to propose but I didn’t want to get married so I said no. I wanted to stay in school and study.” –  Beatrice, FGM survivor from Tanzania

Myth #3: FGM is a religious custom

Fact: FGM is a cultural tradition, not a religious one.

The practice is not cited in any religious texts; however certain communities have come to perceive the practice as a symbol or demonstration of faith.

Around the world, FGM continues to be practised due to discriminatory social and cultural norms that uphold the idea that it preserves a woman’s virginity before marriage, and prevents her from being unfaithful once married.

In addition, certain communities believe that girls are “clean” or “beautiful” only if they are cut. At the root of these beliefs is gender inequality – a perceived need to control female sexuality to preserve family honour.

Myth #4: FGM only happens to a small percentage of girls

Fact: 200 million women and girls alive today have undergone some form of FGM – that’s 5 times the entire population of Canada.

The practice exists in virtually every part of the world but incidence of FGM is highest in many parts of Africa, many Middleast countries and in some parts of South and South East Asia.

Myth #5: FGM can’t be stopped

Fact: It is possible to end FGM.  Progress can be slow, but that doesn’t mean there haven’t been significant strides in upholding girls’ right to protection from this harmful practice.

According to a recent study, rates of female genital mutilation have fallen dramatically among girls in Africa since the 1990s, especially in East Africa – dropping from 71% of girls under 14 in 1995, to 8% in 2016.

In North Africa, the rate fell from almost 60% in 1990 to 14% in 2015.

West Africa also saw a significant drop, from 74% of girls in 1996, to 25% in 2017.

Working with communities to end FGM – once and for all

Plan International works with parents, community leaders, government authorities, children and young people to raise awareness, challenge lawmakers, help transform behaviour and put an end to harmful traditional practices that violate girls’ sexual and reproductive health and rights, including FGM.

A key aspect of our work centres on promoting gender equality as many harmful traditional practices, such as FGM, are often rooted in gender inequality.

Group of girls

Empowered girls in Guinea are learning more about their rights and raising their voices against the practice of FGM.

Our approach emphasizes youth engagement, and creates spaces for young people, and especially girls, to raise their voices and involve their communities and governments in defending and upholding their rights.

You can learn more about how we’re working to end FGM in communities like Guinea here.