Over 200 million girls and women worldwide have undergone genital cutting (female genital mutilation/cutting FGM/C). It is believed that an additional three million new cases occur each year, usually involving infants or very young children. There is a history of female genital cutting in Europe as well. With people migrating from countries where FGM/C is prevalent, it has re-emerged as an issue in Europe.
Female genital cutting is primarily practised in the western, eastern and north-eastern regions of Africa, in some Asian countries and in the Middle East. Countries like Somalia, Eritrea, Sudan, Egypt, Guinea, Sierra Leone, Mali and Djibouti in particular are associated with high rates of FGM/C.
According to UNICEF, the prevalence of FGM/C has declined over the past three decades. The data in the map below relate to girls and women aged 15 to 49 who have undergone FGM/C (except Indonesia). The number of girls below the age of 14 who have undergone FGM/C appears to be decreasing. However, the pace of decline has not been uniform, nor have all countries made the same amount of progress – far from it. There is no recent data on FGM/C prevalence among girls below the age of 14 from Somalia, for instance, where the practice affects 98% of women and girls.
FGM/C has re-emerged as an issue in Europe due to migration from countries where the practice is very widespread. In this context, the fact that female genital cutting was also practised in Europe and the USA until well into the first half of the 20th century is often overlooked. Under certain circumstances, clitoridectomy was regarded as a “cure”. Conditions cited as justifying such a treatment included masturbation, “lesbian tendencies” and hysteria. The situation in Switzerland.
Genital cosmetic surgery could also be seen as a kind of genital cutting. Although there are clear differences between these surgical procedures and FGM/C (FGM/C is generally performed on minors, while genital cosmetic surgery is not usually), there are also some similarities: both involve a surgical intervention that is associated with health risks. Both contexts also involve social expectations, even social pressures, associated with having to change the female genitalia in some form.
FGM/C is illegal in Switzerland; genital cosmetic surgery is not.
Intersex people, whose anatomy is not considered typically male or female, should also be mentioned in this context.In some cases, it is not possible to assign a newborn to either male or female gender. This meant medical practitioners acted as soon as possible to “eliminate the ambiguity”, through surgery, an approach that is extremely problematic from a human rights perspective but one that was nevertheless considered acceptable for many years. Only very recently have things begun to change, thanks to the dedicated efforts of survivors and ethics specialists and to the recommendations of international human rights bodies.
UNICEF (2016a): Female Genital Mutilation/Cutting: A Global Concern. PDF
UNICEF (2016b). At least 200 million girls and women alive today living in 30 countries have undergone FGM/C. Source: UNICEF global databases, 2016, based on DHS, MICS and other nationally representative surveys, 2004-2015. Website