Why FGM happens
FGM is a social norm…
Not a religious requirement. It pre-dates all main organised religions including Christianity, Islam, and Judaism, and is instead a tradition, sanctioned by social norms. What this means is that it is held in place by an entire community, making it in some ways harder to destabilize and bring to an end, and in other ways easier to change by working with the whole community. Because it is part of most practising communities’ traditions, and has existed for generations, FGC is supported by men and women alike, often unquestioningly. Even when mothers are aware of the pain and other attendant issues that FGC can cause, and even if both parents are aware of the health risks involved, they will often still allow their daughter to undergo FGC due to the social sanctions in place.
These social sanctions include marriage, respect, and acceptance into the community. Many parents fear that a girl who remains uncut will not marry well, will be seen as dirty, and may even be ostracised by their community, or be viewed as promiscuous, and in some cases, even as potentially less fertile. All of these things can lead to uncut girls and women not marrying, and in some cases to social exclusion.
However, because cultures are constantly in flux, it is also possible for social norms to change, and there are communities around the world which are choosing to shift the norm from cutting to not-cutting, for example following participation in programmes delivered by our partner Tostan.
FGM is not a religious requirement…
And despite common misconceptions, it is not actually prescribed by any religion. It is not supported by any religious text, and a guideline for the cutting of female genitals does not appear in any religious texts whether Muslim, Christian, or Jewish. In fact, in Islam for example, Sharia law protects the rights of the child, and The Muslim Women’s League upholds that the practice of FGC is in strict violation of the Qu’ran (MWL 1999).
Just because FGC is not inherently a religious requirement does not mean it isn’t also supported by certain religious leaders such as priests or imams. This contradiction makes the work to end FGC even harder, but does not make it insurmountable. The work done so far in bringing an end to the practice shows that harnessing the power held by religious leaders can in fact prove crucial to the success in ending FGC. In Senegal, for example, religious leaders have been at the forefront of progress to end FGC, and Somalia has also benefitted from the influence of religious leaders in inspiring change. Read more about FGC and Islam.
FGM is thought to have originated…
In 2,200 BC, before the advent of either Christianity or Islam. The exact origins of the practice are unknown, although in all likelihood it originated in an area now known to us as Sudan. It’s possible that infibulation may have originally been carried out as part of imperial polygyny (the practice of a man being married to more than one woman), as a way to ensure paternity.
In 25 BC, the Greek philosopher Strabo wrote about the practice of FGC after visiting Egypt. In his Geographica, he writes about the custom of circumcision in boys, and excision of girls that is carried out around their fourteenth birthdays, as being one of the most ‘zealously pursued’ customs in the area. Reference to the practice also appears in the writing of Greek physician Aetitius of Amida in the fifth-sixth century, in his Sixteen Books of Medicine, which refers specifically to the practice being performed as a way to inhibit arousal in women, as well as being linked to the girls’ preparation for matrimony.
The practice is almost certainly also linked to slavery, although this came later in its history. In 1609, the Portuguese missionary Joao dos Santos found that women being sold into slavery in the area just inland from Mogadishu were being cut in order to ensure their virginity and chastity, thereby making them more attractive to slave owners, and thus worth more.
FGC is often linked to Early and forced Marriage…
And although there haven’t been enough studies carried out to firmly establish a link between the two, it is widely acknowledged that FGC and Early and Forced Marriage (EFM) are indeed linked. This conclusion has been arrived at as a result of 22 of the 30 countries where FGC is carried out also being recorded as countries where EFM happens at a much higher rate than elsewhere, according to the UNFPA.
This kind of correlation shouldn’t really come as a surprise, considering the similarities in social beliefs, pressures, and norms that lead to both FGC, and EFM. For example, rather than religious reasons being behind the continuation of FGC in many areas, it is instead seen as a safeguard against premarital sex, and as a way to control and promote female virginity. The same can also be said for incidences of EFM. Although this isn’t the case in every country or community where FGC is practised, it is for example, in the Maasai areas of Kenya and Tanzania where the procedure is carried out. Here, a girl is considered ‘mature’ once FGC has been carried out, which is usually between the ages of seven and 14, and is then married off quickly as a way to secure a dowry.