Use of term “Female Genital Mutilation”

  • This portion of the Knowledge Asset will use the term “female genital mutilation” (FGM) and explicitly rejects often substituted terms, “female genital cutting” or “female genital circumcision.” To use the terms female genital cutting or circumcision downplays the pain and suffering inflicted on women and girls subjected to this practice, as well as the severe physical and psychological health consequences. The terms “cutting” or “circumcision” also cause confusion between female genital mutilation and the common practice of male circumcision. Such use invites the argument that because both women and men are circumcised, often as children below the age of consent, female genital mutilation is not a discriminatory practice against women and hence not a human rights violation. This argument, however, is without merit. While both traditional male circumcision and female genital mutilation involve the removal of healthy tissue, FGM is distinguished by the severity of the practice, the devastating consequences of the practice, as well as the social message associated with the practice. (See: Female Genital Mutilation: A Guide to Laws and Policies Worldwide, Anika Rahman and Nahid Toubia, p. 21)

Almost all those who are subjected to FGM experience extreme pain and bleeding. Other health complications include psychological trauma, infections, urine retention, damage to the urethra and anus, and even death.…The consequences of FGM do not stop with the initial procedure. The girl or woman is permanently mutilated and can suffer other long-term physical and mental consequences.

(See: UNHCR Guidance Note on Refugee Claims Relating to Female Genital Mutilation, May 2009

  • In addition to increased risk during childbirth for both the mother and the baby, the Special Rapporteur on Torture has stated:

Depending on the type and severity of the procedure performed, women may experience long-term consequences such as chronic infections, tumors, abscesses, cysts, infertility, excessive growth of scar tissue, increased risk of HIV/AIDS infection, hepatitis and other blood-borne diseases, damage to the urethra resulting in urinary incontinence, [fistula], painful menstruation, painful sexual intercourse and other sexual dysfunctions (See: Human Rights Council, Report of the Special Rapporteur on Torture and other cruel, inhumane or degrading treatment or punishment, 15 January 2008

  • The common justifications for the practice of female genital mutilation are mired in the fundamental belief of the subordination of women and girls as well as the need to control women’s sexuality. (See: Female Genital Mutilation: A Guide to Laws and Policies Worldwide, Chapter 1)
  • Only the term “female genital mutilation” accurately reflects and distinguishes the severity of this harmful practice as a human rights violation.  
  • The term female genital mutilation was adopted at the 1990 third conference of the Inter-African Committee on Traditional Practices Affecting the Health of Women and Children, in Ethiopia. It is also used regularly by the United Nations in their documents and is consistently employed by WHO. (See: Eliminating Female Genital Mutilation: An Interagency Statement)
  • As such, legislation created to eliminate this practice and provide services to women and girls subjected to this practice should also use the more accurate term “female genital mutilation.”