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What is FGM?

By September 22, 2004News

– Release date: 23 September 2004

The Irish Family Planning Association recognises that all people have a right to enjoy the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health, including freedom from gender-based violence.

One such form of violence is female genital mutilation (FGM), also know as female circumcision or female genital cutting. FGM involves partial or total removal of the external female genitalia or other injury to the female genital organs that cause anatomical changes for non-therapeutic reasons.

The IFPA is a collaborative partner of the United Nations Population Fund and we are working to address the practice not only because of its harmful impact on the reproductive and sexual health of women, but also because it is a violation of women’s fundamental human rights. The basis for a rights approach is the affirmation that human well-being and health is influenced by the way a person is valued, respected and given the choice to decide on the direction of her/his life without discrimination, coercion or neglect of attention. We seek to address it in a holistic manner, within its cultural and religious context; however cultural arguments can not be used to condone harmful practices such as FGC.

The practice of FGM

FGM occurs mainly in Africa, parts of the Arab world, and parts of South-East Asia. The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that, in Africa, over 130 million girls and women living today have undergone some form of FGM. Women who have had the procedure are seen increasingly in Europe, Australia, Canada, and the USA, primarily among immigrants from affected regions. At current rates of population increase, and with slow decline in these procedures, at least 2 million girls are at risk of genital mutilation annually.

FGM is performed on girls between one week old through to adolescence and young womanhood. The motivation for the practice varies from setting to setting and reflects beliefs and cultural mores that include religious, health, and social factors. For example, FGM is believed to maintain cleanliness, increase a girl's chances of marriage, protect her virginity, discourage "female promiscuity," improve fertility, prevent stillbirth.

The WHO has classified FGM as follows:

  1. Type I – excision of the prepuce, with or without excision of part or all of the clitoris
  2. Type II – excision of the clitoris with partial or total excision of the labia minora
  3. Type III – excision of part or all of the external genitalia and stitching/narrowing of the vaginal opening (infibulation).

The WHO also lists several unclassified practices that may fall under the definition of FGM, such as: pricking, piercing, incising, or stretching of the clitoris and/or labia; cauterisation, by burning of the clitoris and surrounding tissue; scraping of tissue surrounding the vaginal orifice (angurya cuts); and cutting of the vagina (gishiri cuts).

Health consequences

The health consequences of FGM vary according to the type of procedure. The mutilation is often performed under unhygienic conditions, without an anaesthetic, by means of non-surgical instruments such as razor blades, knives, or broken glass. If performed without anaesthesia, FGM is extremely painful. Short-term complications include haemorrhage and infection that can result in fatal septicaemia, tetanus, or gangrene.

Long-term consequences include persistent pain, sexual dysfunction, chronic urinary tract infection, incontinence, and infertility. The resultant anatomical abnormalities may complicate childbirth, increasing both maternal and neonatal morbidity and mortality; a surgical procedure may be necessary to open the lower genital tract.

Genital mutilation may impact on a woman's right to enjoy her sexuality to the full. The procedure can have profound negative effects on the psychological and psychosexual development of a girl which, lasting into womanhood, may adversely affect her sexual life.

FGM poses a theoretical risk of increasing HIV transmission in countries where HIV prevalence is high. This risk could arise from the use of contaminated instruments, for FGM procedures or the management of FGM-related obstetric complications, or from genital tract trauma associated with intercourse.

The IFPA a member of the International Planned Parenthood Federation endorses the 1997 WHO/UNICEF/UNFPA joint statement that FGM should not be practised by health professionals in any setting.