Female Genital Mutilation in Africa

Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) refers to a set of procedures that culminate in the removal of the certain parts of the female external genitalia. According to the United Nations (UN), approximately 200 million women and girls around the world have undergone the procedure (Obiora et al., 2020). In Africa, about 90 million women over the age of 10 years have undergone a form of mutilation. It is common in Africa as part of their social-cultural and religious heritage. FGM is widely practiced in over 20 countries in the continent of Africa, although its existence has been reported in other regions of the world (Obiora et al., 2020). Research has shown that it can cause physical and psychological problems, issues that are ignored in countries where it is prevalent. Common challenges associated with FGM include recurrent infections, bladder problems, chronic reproductive tract infections, excessive scar tissue, menstrual problems, human immunodeficiency virus, childbirth complications, perinatal risks, sexual health problems, and chronic genital infections.

On the African continent, FGM is a social, cultural, and religious phenomenon that has been in existence for many decades. As mentioned earlier, the practice involves the partial or total removal of certain parts of the female genitalia. There are four forms, namely clitoridectomy, excision, infibulation, and “others” that include piercing, pricking, or scraping (Obiora et al., 2020). The procedure has no medical benefits, and research has shown that it can cause severe mental and physical consequences on victims. Several studies conducted on the issue have concluded that the practice causes more harm than good, and should be discouraged. Many women who have undergone the procedure in Africa have revealed that they were forced by their families, mainly for cultural purposes.

In Africa, diverse ethnic groups implement the cultural components of the practice in different ways. In some regions, FGM is carried out on young girls between the ages of 6 and 8 years. A study conducted by Shakirat et al. (2020) showed that it is also done at birth, during puberty, or before a girl is married. The procedure in either undergone in a group of other females or individually. In cases where it is done in a group, the same instruments are used on all the women, increasing the risk of contracting infectious diseases such a HIV. In many cultures, FGM is conducted in a ceremonial manner; people gather to eat and drink, dance to music, and offer gifts to the women (Obiora et al., 2020). The individuals who conduct the procedure, commonly known as circumcisers, are usually religious leaders, elderly women, or traditional midwives. The most commonly used instruments include clippers, knives, razor blades, scissors, and hot objects (Muteshi et al., 2016). The health implications of FGM are dire because in many cases, it is conducted under unsterile conditions. It is very painful because anesthetics are not used. In many countries, the wound is sewn using crude instruments that inflict more injuries and increase the risk of infection (Muteshi et al., 2016). For example, in the case of infibulation, both sides of the labia majora are fused using thorns or stitches using a very painful technique. Many circumcisers apply herbal concoctions in order to speed up the healing process.

The reasons for conducting female genital mutilation defers from one African nation to another. In the majority of countries, it is done mainly for the preservation of cultural identity (Obiora et al., 2020). In communities that allow the practice, it is a mark of their cultural heritage, and therefore, it should be safeguarded (Ameyaw et al., 2020). In that regard, girls must undergo the procedure in order to be accepted as part of a specific cultural group. In other areas, women allow it because of the fear of being rejected or stigmatized by the community for rejecting their cultural beliefs (Awalola & Ilupeju, 2019). Other cultures argue that FGM improves the religious inclinations of women, and makes them more appealing for marriage. Mainstream religions such as Christianity and Islam have been cited as proponents of the practice in certain African countries (Awalola & Ilupeju, 2019). In overly traditional cultures, it is conducted as a rite of passage that marks the transition from a girl into a woman. Other reasons given for promoting the illegal procedure include the prevention of promiscuity, prevention of early neonatal deaths, the enhancement of a girl’s femininity, and the improvement of hygiene (Awalola & Ilupeju, 2019). Researchers from Nigeria and Kenya have shown that there is zero correlation between the practice and outcomes linked to sexual behavior.

FGM is associated with a wide variety of prominent perceptions that encourage its proliferation in African countries. In many countries, it is perceived as a traditional exercise that should be safeguarded. Moreover, some believe that it purifies them and preserves their chastity (Obiora et al., 2020). In West African nations, FGM is a way of preserving a family’s honor, preserving a girl’s virginity, enhancing fertility, and preventing promiscuity (Shakirat et al., 2020). In Egypt and Somalia, it increases a girl’s opportunities for marriages. In other areas, it is perceived as a way of giving women legal rights to inherit property and prevent death during childbirth (Muteshi et al., 2016). FGM is largely associated with social status because the families of girls who undergo the procedure receive more respect that the families who avoid it. In Sierra Leone, it is a requirement for social inclusion and acceptance into society (Ameyaw et al., 2020). As a result, parents ensure that their daughters undergo FGM in order to avoid social exclusion and earn them the status of honorable members of the community. Similarly, in Egypt, the practice is encouraged because it protects the honor of the family. Ameyaw et al. (2020) contend that the act of cutting is perceived as a sign of social and tribal peculiarity, which enhances social status and value. In Tanzania, the Chaga culture, values FGM highly, and charges a higher bride price for circumcised girls (Awalola & Ilupeju, 2019). In Nigeria, the practice is used to preserve a girl’s virginity and make her attractive for marriage. In countries like Somalia and Sudan, it improves hygiene and beauty.

Female genital mutilation, whether performed by a medical or a cultural practitioner is illegal in approximately 20 African countries. These include Nigeria, Kenya, Egypt, Ghana, Niger, Burkina Faso, Chad, Central African Republic, Benin, Ghana, Guinea, Mauritania, Ivory Coast, and Eritrea. Each of these countries has enacted a form of legislation that outlaws the practice. In 2003, the African Union adopted the Protocol to the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights on the Rights of Women in Africa (Maputo Protocol) (Obiora et al., 2020). This human rights statute protects the rights of women, including being safeguarded from female genital mutilation. It came into effect in 2005. However, the practice is common even in countries where it is illegal as it is conducted under the disguise of protecting cultural heritage (Awalola & Ilupeju, 2019). FGM is prevalent in the Horn of Africa, West Africa, Egypt, and Sudan. West African countries like Gambia, Burkina Faso, Guinea, Sierra Leone, and Mauritania have reported high cases (Muteshi et al., 2016). The most common form of FGM in northeastern nations is infibulation, and it is practiced in Djibouti, Somali, Ethiopia, and Sudan. According to the United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund (UNICEF), eight countries have the highest incidence rates. Somali leads with 98%, followed by Egypt, Guinea, and Djibouti with 90%, and lastly Sudan, Mali, Eritrea and Sierra Leone with 80% (Muteshi et al., 2016). In countries such as Cameroon and Uganda, the prevalence rates are 1%. In Kenya and Tanzania, the rates of FGM have decreased by 30% in the last three decades, indicating that it is being abandoned gradually (Muteshi et al., 2016). This has been achieved through intensive community activism and anti-FGM legislation. In the Central African Republic, Nigeria, and Liberia, reported cases have declined by 50% (Muteshi et al., 2016). The practice is gradually being abandoned as governments enact stricter laws and as international organizations get involved.

Female genital mutilation has serious physical and health consequences. The experience of the procedure is traumatic, and has the potential to cause psychological problems that affect mental health (Muteshi et al., 2016). For instance, psychologists have established a correlation between certain psychological and psychosomatic disorders to the experiences of FGM. These include loss of appetite, excessive with gain or loss, recurring nightmares, and sleeplessness (Muteshi et al., 2016). In other instances, researchers have linked the procedure with depression, memory loss, anxiety, and posttraumatic stress disorders (PTSD). Countries that have banned the practice argue that it is a violation of the civil, social, political, economic, and cultural rights of women and girls (Awalola & Ilupeju, 2019). It is an overt expression of gender inequality and discrimination that should be discouraged.


Ameyaw, E. K., Tetteh, J. K., Armah-Ansah, E. K., Aduo-Adjei, K., & Sena-Idrissu, A. (2020). Female genital mutilation/cutting in Sierra Leone: Are educated women intending to circumcise their daughters? BMC International Health and Human Rights 20(19), 1-11.

Awalola, O. O., & Ilupeju, N. A. (2019). Female genital mutilation; Culture, religion, and medicalization, where do we direct our searchlights for its eradication: Nigeria as a case study. Tzu Chi Medical Journal, 31(1), 1-4.

Muteshi, J. K., Miller, S., & Belizan, J. M. (2016). The ongoing violence against women: Female genital mutilation/cutting. Reproductive Health, 13(44), 1-4.

Obiora, O. L., Maree, J. E., & Nkosi-Mafutha, N. (2020). Female genital mutilation in Africa:Scoping the landscape of evidence. International Journal of Africa Nursing Sciences, 12(1), 1-12.

Shakirat, G. O., Alshibshoubi, M. A., Delia, E., Hamayon, A., & Rutkofsky, I. H. (2020). An overview of female genital mutilation in Africa: Are the women beneficiaries or victims? Cureus, 12(9), 1-16.

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