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Female Genital Mutilation - facts, figures and what you can do

Plan UK wants to put and end to female genital mutilation (FGM). Here we provide statistics, look at the reasons and consequences, and explain how education is key to eliminating the practice.

What is FGM?

Worldwide, about 140 million girls and women are currently living with the consequences of FGM - Female Genital Mutilation. It is mostly carried out on young girls, sometime between infancy and age 15. According to the World Health Organisation, FGM - also known as female circumcision or female genital cutting - 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.

FGM has no health benefits and can harm girls and women in a number of ways. FGM is detrimental to the natural function of girls' and women's bodies and has both immediate and long-term health consequences, including haemorrhaging, infection and difficulties during childbirth. A complex range of social and cultural reasons are given to justify it.

FGM in figures

  • 20,000 girls in the UK are at risk of FGM every year
  • 3 million girls are at risk every year in Africa
  • 101 million girls aged 10 and above in Africa have undergone FGM
  • 140 million girls and women worldwide have undergone FGM

Why is FGM happening?

Female Genital Mutilation is practised around the globe by diverse groups. The reasons why FGM persists vary from country to country, but the over-arching cause is rooted in the power imbalance between men and women.

In most countries where the tradition is widely practised, FGM is seen as a requirement for achieving a 'good marriage match', because it is associated with purity and virginity. Community leaders also encourage the practice as part of cultural identity and sometimes use religion as a justification - although the practice is not prescribed by any religion and there are no guidelines for the cutting of female genitals in any religious text.

Reasons for FGM

  • custom and tradition
  • belief that it is a religious requirement
  • preservation of virginity/chastity
  • social acceptance, especially for marriage
  • belief that it improves hygiene and cleanliness
  • increasing sexual pleasure for the male
  • family honour
  • belief that it will enhance fertility.

What are the consequences of FGM?

The procedure is traditionally carried out by a woman with no medical training and using basic tools such as knives, scissors or even pieces of glass and razor blades. The immediate consequences of FGM are severe pain and infection. Sometimes girls and women can suffer complications such as urine retention, injury to adjacent tissue or fatal haemorrhaging.

Girls and women go on to experience pain for many years after they undergo FGM, during sexual activity and particularly in childbirth. This incessant pain coupled with the trauma suffered during cutting, means the practice also has deep psychological implications for many girls and women.

Women and girls who have undergone FGM are:

  • twice as likely to die during childbirth
  • more likely to give birth to a stillborn baby than other women as a result of obstructed labour
  • more susceptible to obstetric fistula (a severe medical condition that leads to incontinence)
  • more susceptible to uterine, vaginal and pelvic infections
  • more prone to suffering psychological damage and post-traumatic stress
  • likely to suffer extensive damage of the external reproductive system and sexual dysfunction.

Is FGM legal?

FGM is a violation of the human rights of girls and women, but often lies in a grey area between legality and criminalisation. The UN General Assembly has now adopted a Resolution banning Female Genital Mutilation, which calls the practice harmful and a serious threat to the psychological, sexual and reproductive health of women and girls.

Some countries like the UK, France and Liberia have in place the necessary legislation to make FGM illegal. But there are still countries where FGM is legal, for example Sierra Leone. Even in countries like Somalia, which has recently declared FGM illegal, it will take years before the law is actually implemented as many communities refuse to give up this deeply rooted cultural tradition.

FGM is usually performed on girls and women without their permission and often against their will. This means that the practice contravenes several international and regional treaties including the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the Convention on the Rights of the Child and the African Charter on the Rights and Welfare of the Child.

What we do

Plan raises community awareness of the consequences of FGM. Ensuring women are aware of the detrimental effects of FGM is a particularly important step towards ending FGM, as it is usually women who do the cutting and many mothers are under pressure to ensure FGM is practised on their daughters. Working with men and boys is equally important as they often have greater power and influence in their communities.

We work with community and religious leaders to build awareness about the negative consequences of FGM and to promote gender equality in their communities. We also help to publicise personal stories of girls and women who have suffered FGM, through radio shows, leaflets and music concerts.

Plan works to ensure there is better legal protection for girls and women. We work with government bodies to help them understand how FGM violates women's and children's rights and fulfil their responsibility for implementing laws and programmes to end it.

Plan provides support and advice to those living with the consequences of FGM. We train local health workers and traditional practitioners on the importance of girls' and women's rights and how to provide better medical and psychological support to survivors of FGM.

FGM and education

FGM keeps thousands of girls out of school every year. This can be because parents take them out of school to attend lengthy initiation ceremonies, in which FGM is a key part. It can be as a result of health complications girls suffer as a result of FGM. It can also be because once they have undergone FGM, most girls are considered ready to be married and, as a result, their schooling may be seen as less of a priority.

Keeping girls in education can have a huge impact on helping to combat FGM. In school, girls can learn about the severe negative effects of FGM and, in the future, can use this knowledge to help their own daughters. They can also learn about their rights and develop the skills and confidence to claim them. Plan invests in girls' education by training teachers and providing girls with scholarships, for example.

What you can do

Our projects focusing on FGM are financed by our Girls Fund.

Support our Girls Fund with a monthly donation and help stop FGM.

The Orchid Project: Why FGM happens
The Orchid Project: Impacts
World Health Organisation

  • Learn how Plan's projects are helping girls move themselves from poverty to a future with opportunity
  • Find out how Plan is helping to eliminate Female Genital Mutilation in Mali
  • Find out how Plan is supporting girls affected by Female Genital Mutilation and child marriage in Egypt
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