Frequently asked questions: Female genital mutilation

Globally, about 200 million girls and women have been subjected to female genital mutilation (FGM). FGM is a traditional cultural practice and a form of violence against women and girls. Under the 2030 Sustainable Development Agenda, UN Member States have committed to ending FGM by 2030 (SDG Target 5.3). Though important strides toward abandonment of the practice and achievement of this target have been made, the current rate of progress remains too slow.  UN Women works to accelerate change by promoting stronger partnerships and collective action by women’s rights activists and organizations working on the front lines to end FGM. This approach is centered on the rights of women and girls and on addressing the gendered inequalites and unequal power relations at the root of the practice. 

What is female genital mutilation?

FGM is a form of violence against women which entails the partial or total removal of the female external genitalia or other injury to female genital organs for non-medical reasons. It is normally carried out between infancy and age 15. There are four types of FGM. One of the most severe and harmful forms involves the total removal of the clitoris, as well as the stitching together of the labia and the vagina with only a small hole for urination and menstruation. The practice has numerous immediate and long-term health consequences which impact women and girls’ sexual and reproductive health, including abnormal scarring, infections and abnormal scarring, debilitating pain, childbirth complications and/or death.

Why is FGM practiced?

The reasons behind FGM can be different from one country to another and the age when girls are cut varies. In some communities it is seen as a rite of passage into womanhood; in others it is a way to ensure women’s “purity” for her future husband and to suppress her sexual desires.  Many families believe that FGM increases women’s marriageability and is good for girls’ futures.  

“Why are we being told that as girls, when we get cut, we bring honour?” asks Natalie Robi Tingo, a community organizer for ending FGM. “That is not the truth. It is very painful, some girls die. Or, we get married. Our lives are basically taken away from us.” 

What are the consequences of FGM for women and girls?

FGM has significant immediate and long-term impacts on the health and well-being of women and girls, including many negative consequences for their sexual and reproductive health. Women may experience severe pain, excessive bleeding (hemorrhage), fever, infections, and other medical complications that in some cases lead to death. Long-term complications can include pain during urination, menstrual problems, pain during sexual intercourse and difficulties during childbirth, among others. Women who have undergone genital mutilation also report psychological impacts, including depression, anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder. The physical and psychological consequences of FGM can also negatively affect women’s educational and economic outcomes and social engagement. 

What needs to be done to end this practice?

4.2 million girls are at risk of undergoing FGM in 2023. Comprehensive approaches and partnerships to address gender discrimination and harmful social norms are essential to ending FGM. Efforts must centre on the rights of women and girls to have control over their bodies and live free of violence. This includes passing and strengthening laws that ban FGM; ensuring systematic data collection and monitoring of the practice; investing resources to implement laws and policies; supporting comprehensive services for women and girls who have undergone the practice; working with communities to understand drivers of the practice and to change harmful social and gender norms; and expanding community-based prevention efforts and building shared accountability to end the practice. All actors have a role to play in shifting attitudes related to FGM. It is crucial to support women’s rights organizations and advocates who have been leading the work and to deepen collaboration with influential actors such as religious and traditional leaders, as well as with men, boys, parents and guardians to champion a future free of FGM. 

What is UN Women doing to end to female genital mutilation?

UN Women believes that investing in preventing this practice and other forms of violence against women and girls is critical to upholding the rights of women and girls. UN Women works at various levels, engaging partners in the communities and countries across the region to help change social norms:  

  • We work with partners to address the issue from a holistic, strategic perspective. Ending FGM is one of the Collective Commitments under the Generation Equality Action Coalition on Gender-Based Violence. In 2022, UN Women convened GBV Action Coalition leaders and commitment makers from the region to share progress and identify advocacy priorities, including related to ending FGM. Key priorities for ending FGM included taking action on existing regional and national laws and policies, advocating for increased resources on the issue, supporting efforts of local anti-FGM activists and organizations, strengthening engagement with adolescents and fostering collaboration across initiatives, such as the UNFPA-UNICEF Global Programme on Ending FGM
  • We partner with traditional leaders, including cultural and religious authorities, who are using their influence, knowledge and power to put an end to FGM and other harmful practices, and to promote gender equality in their communities. 
  • With support from the EU-UN Spotlight Initiative, we are working with local civil society and women’s rights organizations to drive out the practice of FGM, for example in Uganda. The programme uses an evidence-based community mobilization approach created by the Ugandan NGO Raising Voices that has shown success in changing harmful social norms through its implementation in 30 countries across Africa and other regions. 
  • In Somalia, with support from the Government of Japan (LEAP programme), UN Women is engaging elders, religious leaders, women, men and young people in joint advocacy and improving access to services to end FGM and other forms of gender-based violence. The approach includes community outreach and activities to transform harmful social norms and attitudes.