Some things aren’t easy to talk about, but sometimes we have to tackle the tough stuff.

That’s why today, we’re writing about Female Genital Mutilation (FGM), a human rights issue that is often left out of the conversation about violence against women. And with International Day of Zero Tolerance to Female Genital Mutilation coming up on the 6th of February, now is as good a time as any.

It is estimated that worldwide, over 200 million women alive have undergone some form of FGM. This is over 8 times the population of Australia.

What is FGM?

For those who aren’t familiar with the practise, according to the UNFPA (The United National Population Fund), “FGM refers to all procedures involving partial or total removal of the external female genitalia or other injury to the female genital organs for non-medical reasons.” It is a violation of a woman’s rights, including the right to health, security and physical integrity, the right to be free from torture and cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment, and the right to life (as the procedure can sometimes result in death).

Although FGM most commonly occurs in 29 countries in Africa and the Middle East, it is a global issue and is sometimes practised in countries across Asia and Latin America, as well as among immigrant communities living in Western Europe, North America, Australia and New Zealand.

The reasons for practising FGM can vary across communities, but generally comes down to it being a cultural coming-of-age tradition. Some groups consider it a rite of passage, others as a pre-requisite for marriage, and some attribute it to religious beliefs. Plan International cites the idea among communities that it “preserves chastity, cleanliness, family honour and preserves a girl for marriage”.

The problem with this procedure is that there is no benefit and can have a serious impact on the health and wellbeing of women’s and girls’ bodies. Not only this, but it is generally done at a young age (between infancy and 15 years old), a time at which the child is typically not in a place to make an informed decision about her future or herself.

How it affects girls

Initial negative impacts can include severe pain, shock, haemorrhaging, bacterial infections, and open sores in the genital region. It can also lead to many long-term ramifications including recurring bladder and urinary tract infections, cysts, infertility, an increased risk of childbirth complications (which can lead to newborn deaths), and the need for later surgeries.

What’s being done?

So how are organisations working to stop this cruel practise globally?

One of the main focuses of current programs to stop FGM is to work with parents and local governments of communities to spread awareness of the dangers associated with FGM. They also work closely with religious and traditional leaders to dissociate the practise with religious beliefs. Educating influential profiles in the community is a first step towards changing the way people view the practise.

Projects are also working to increase awareness and education among the young people of these communities so the young women feel in control of their decisions and of their bodies and have the voice to speak up against the practise.

Other programs work with health workers to help empower them to resist pressure from their communities and protect the women who look to them as carers. It is key that they use their position in society as a platform to educate their patients of the dangers of the procedure.

In addition to this, many programs are engaging the media to increase conversation and open up a discourse about the topic.

There are many things that need to be done to reach zero tolerance of FGM globally, but improvements have been made in recent years and we remain hopeful that through education and increased awareness, communities worldwide will begin to reject this practise.

To learn more about FGM & the International Day of Zero Tolerance for Female Genital Mutilation, check out these helpful links:

If a podcast is more your thing, check out this incredible episode about a woman who experienced FGM herself and shares her story.