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Female Genital Mutilation May Persist Despite Attempts to Curtail It

Late last month, Egypt formally banned all types of female circumcision. The decision came after 11 year-old Bedur Shaker died from the anesthetic used during the operation intended to “purify” her by removing her clitoris.1  The routine operation cost $9.  In response to public outcry following her death, the Egyptian Health Ministry announced a formal and absolute ban on the procedure, stating any circumcision “will be viewed as a violation of the law and all contraventions will be punished.”2

Interestingly, female circumcision, also known as female genital mutilation (FGM), was officially forbidden in Egypt in 1959.3  However, throughout the years the law had been expanded to allow various medical exceptions.  With an estimated 97 percent of the Egypt’s married women having undergone some type of procedure and 68 percent of mothers in support of FGM, it seems clear that these exceptions have been exploited.4   The new ban closes that loophole.

It is hard to know what kind of impact the new rule will have.  FGM has been practiced in parts of Africa, the Middle East, and Southeast Asia for centuries.  The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that between 100 million and 140 million women worldwide have undergone some form of FGM.5  Over half of all procedures performed were done in Egypt and Ethiopia.6  FGM varies widely, from removal of the clitoris or labia minora to infibulation, which includes the stitching/narrowing of the vaginal opening.7  The age at which FGM is performed also varies, from infancy to mature women.  According to the WHO, in Egypt 90 percent of girls who had undergone FGM were between five and 14 years of age.8 FGM procedures are often done in the home, with or without anesthetic.9

There are a number of complications associated with FGM, including severe pain, shock, failure to heal, abscess formation, excessive growth of scar tissue, urinary tract infection, painful sexual intercourse, increased susceptibility to HIV/AIDS, hepatitis and other blood-borne diseases, reproductive tract infection, pelvic inflammatory diseases, infertility, chronic urinary tract obstruction/ bladder stones, urinary incontinence, obstructed labor, and increased risk of bleeding and infection during childbirth.10

UNICEF cites several explanations for FGM, including a desire to control or reduce female sexuality, a rite of passage, hygiene or aesthetic reasons, a belief that the FGM enhances fertility, and religious beliefs.11  However, there is no doctrinal basis for the practice in either Islam or Christianity.  Egypt’s top Muslim and Christian clerics reiterated this as they backed the new ban.12  This harmful practice is considered a violation of human rights by organizations such as the WHO, Amnesty International, the Center for Reproductive Rights, and UNICEF.

Despite this, because of increased immigration, this issue is also becoming more prevalent in countries not normally recognized as having a problem with FGM.  Recently in Britain a midwife who treats victims at London hospitals said that she treats 400–500 young girls and women each year, and police estimate that as many as 66,000 girls in Britain face the risk of FGM.13  Further, while the current prevalence in the United States is not known, a 1990 study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimated that as many as 168,000 girls or women may be at risk.14  Recent worldwide estimates put the number of women at risk of FGM at 200 million each year. 

While Egypt’s ban is certainly a step in the right direction, it is clear that it will take more than just legislation to truly eliminate FGM.  ”Egypt’s efforts at ending this practice are laudable and we hope that other countries follow suit,” said William Smith, vice president for public policy at SIECUS, adding that, “It is important to remember that as these laws are passed it will be integral to implement grassroots interventions that lead to behavior change at the local and familial level."  Smith continued, "Female genital mutilation is a practice that denies women the real ability to make choices regarding their reproductive and sexual health, and is an undeniable affront to basic human rights that protect one’s life, physical integrity, and wellbeing." 


  1. “A little less purity goes a long way,” The Economist, 5 July 2007, accessed 24 July 2007, <>.
  2. “Egypt outlaws all female circumcision,” Yahoo News, 28 June 2007, accessed 24 July 2007, <>.
  3. Egypt Report on Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) or Female Genital Cutting (FGC), (Washington, DC: The United States State Department, 1 June 2007), accessed 23 July 2007, <>.
  4. “A little less purity goes a long way,” The Economist.
  5. World Health Organization, “Female genital mutilation: new knowledge spurs optimism,” Progress in Sexual Health and Reproductive Rights No. 72 (2006): 1.
  6. Ibid., 2.
  7. Ibid., 3.
  8. Ibid., 2.
  9. Egypt Report on Female Genital Mutilation.
  10. Female Genital Mutilation/Cutting, UNICEF, accessed 24 July 2007, <>.
  11. Ibid.
  12. “A little less purity goes a long way,” The Economist.
  13. D’arcy Doran, “Female circumcision a problem in Britain,” Yahoo News, 11 July 2007, accessed 23 July 2007, <;
  14. Wanda K. Jones, et al., “Female Genital Mutilation/Female Circumcision,” Public Health Reports, September/October 1997, 371.