The West is failing to enforce anti-FGM laws: Perspectives

The West is failing to enforce anti-FGM laws: Perspectives

Female Genital Mutilation (FGM), also known as Female Genital Circumcision (FGC) or “cutting” to those who practice it, is the intentional partial or total removal of a female’s genitalia. The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that over 200 million women have undergone this practice in 30 countries, mostly in the Middle East, Asia, and Africa. In the past three weeks, two major world players made bold comments regarding FGM, attracting the attention of international media. On September 15th, a committee of British MPs in the House of Commons declared in their report Female Genital Mutilation: Abuse Unchecked, “it is beyond belief” that while about 137,000 girls were subjected to FGM in 2011 in just Wales, there has not been one successful prosecution. FGM was made illegal in the UK 30 years ago[1]. According to the scathing report, when this “horrific crime” and “violent child abuse” is inflicted, it causes “severe physical and psychological pain and leaves survivors with lifelong health consequences.”

On the opposite end of the spectrum, an Egyptian MP stated on September 7th that women must undergo female circumcision in order to limit their “sexual appetites” and help curb men’s “sexual weakness” due to the widespread impotence of Egyptian men[2]. Though the practice was made illegal in 2008, the MP’s remark is indicative of the widespread cultural imperative within Egyptian society that demands female circumcision in return for societal acceptance. According to a 2015 Egyptian’s Health survey, 87% of women reported being cut[3]. Though Egyptian FGC has existed since the Pharonic period, there has recently been a slight decline among younger women, possibly in response to the 2008 prohibition.

FGC is thousands of years old and is practiced across thousands of unique cultures and tribes. The techniques and symbolic meanings vary drastically, therefore the the physical and emotional implications on the lives of women do as well.  According to some proponents, female circumcision is used to promote the health, beauty, and protect the virginity of a woman. As reported by Dr. Moges, many supporters claim medical benefits, such that FGC, “enhances fertility, controls and prevents waywardness of girls... the clitoris is dangerous and hinders intercourse, creates impotency, and kills baby at delivery”[4]. Those who oppose female genital mutilation cite that this practice is a massive violation of human rights, resulting only in lifelong harm. Western feminists critique that FGM is an extreme form of control over a woman’s sexuality. WHO (an organization that values Western medicine) recently released a report stating that FGM causes, “severe bleeding, pain with urination, later cysts, as well as complications in childbirth and associated with death of the newborn”[5].

Bettina Shell-Duncan is anthropology professor who specializes in FGC and speaks on the need to clarify cultural misconceptions. First and foremost, emphasizing that this practice is largely done by and for females. Unbeknownst to those unfamiliar with nuances of the practice, a great number of women feel pride partaking in this cultural tradition and in joining the ranks of their mothers, sisters, and ancestors. Even if a father does not wish to subject his daughter to “cutting”, his personal opinion is largely irrelevant as cutting is a collective decision made by a community, deeply embedded in societal function. Shell-Duncan believes that fostering a contextual understanding of motive is the first step the West should take to eradicate FGM. She claims it is imperative to realize that parents subject their daughters to the practice because they want the best possible future for their children – like most parents do – and they believe cutting will ensure this.

Shell-Duncan notes that when many refugees come to Europe they, “very quickly realize that … the future for their girls might not be best secured by being circumcised any longer”[6]. This is reflected in a recommendation from the MP’s House of Common’s report. The report calls for a commitment from those who come into contact with children-  especially those trained in health, education, and social work – to identify and report FGM. They assert that, “prosecutions will not be possible if we wait for daughters to report their parents to the police, which is unlikely to happen”[7]. Studies have found that many community workers ignore FGM when they see it. It is vital that community workers are properly educated so that they will to foster a commitment to identification and reporting.

The report admits that new policies on education and even the practices of targeting  girls and their parents through the legal system has proven to be ultimately unsuccessful. Shell-Duncan goes further in identifying that eradication programs need to reach out to extended families and authority figures in these communities who have influence over the acceptance of the practice within their cultural enclave. Female circumcision is a sacred cultural tradition that allows a girl to enter into the realm of womanhood. The Egyptian MP comments speak to how deeply embedded this tradition remains in the social order. If the West wants to eliminate the practice, it will require a massive shift in the way a culture understands women, physicality, and rites of passage.


In America there have been no prosecutions under the federal anti-FGM law since 2012, and only one criminal prosecution of FGM related activity[8]. According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, at least 150,000 to 200,000 girls have undergone FGM in the United States and these numbers remain in an upward trend. A recent report released by FBI estimated that at least 500,000 women in America are at risk of undergoing the procedure[9]. Both the UK and America publicly condemn FGM as a serious legal offense, whereas Egypt and other similar countries recognize FGM as a legal offense, but fail to publically condemn it. The UK is the primary Western country beginning to recognize the realistic challenges in actually  prosecuting FGM. This may lead anti-FGM cultures to creatively implement more effective policies that mustbegin with the refusal to see FGM as reductively barbaric, rather as a diversely practiced and deeply embedded social act.



[1] United Kingdom, Parliament, House of Commons. (2016). Female Genital Mutilation: Abuse Unchecked. London.

[2] Egyptian MP: Women must undergo FGM to control men's desires. (2016, September 7). Middle Eastern Monitor. Retrieved September 20, 2016, from

[3] Egypt, Ministry of Health and Population. (2015). 2015 Egypt Health Issues Survey. Cairo.

[4] Moges, A. (2003, September 15). FGM: Myths and Justifications. Lecture presented at Eighth International Meropolis Conference in Austria, Vienna.

[5] New WHO guidelines to improve care for millions living with female genital mutilation. (2016, May 16). World Health Orginazation. Retrieved September 20, 2016, from

[6] Khazan, O. (2015, April 8). Why Some Women Choose to Get Circumcised. The Atlantic. Retrieved September 20, 2016, from

[7] United Kingdom, Parliment, House of Commons. (2016). Female Genital Mutilation: Abuse Unchecked. London.

[8] Female Genital Mutilation in the United States: Protecting Girls and Women from FGM and Vacation Cutting [Scholarly project]. (2013). In Sanctuary for Families. Retrieved September 20, 2016, from

[9] FBI Reaching Out About Female Genital Mutilation (13 May 2016).  In Federal Bureau of Investigation. Retrieved September 21, 2016, from

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