Female genital mutilation: the world’s oldest form of patriarchy?

Female genital mutilation, otherwise known as female genital cutting (FGC) is a procedure in which female genitals are cut, injured or changed in some way. The practice is often done with inadequate equipment, in inappropriate locations, and by people with no medical qualifications, because it is illegal. This is perhaps the most difficult question to answer about FGM – why, when it is illegal, is it still prevalent in thirty countries in the world?

Issues and complications are suffered – during the procedure, in adolescence, in sexual intercourse and in labour. The pain is not temporary, it is a life sentence. The effects include, but are not limited to, HIV contraction, high infection rates, urine retention, potential infertility and psychological trauma. It is perhaps the psychological impact that has the greatest effect, yet is the most difficult to measure and allocated the least financial resources.

Map of Africa showing some countries highlighted

Countries where FGM is present, UNICEF, 2013


FGM globally

  • At least 200 million girls and women alive today in 30 countries have undergone FGM/C

  • 30 million girls are at risk of being cut over the next decade if current trends persist

  • Removal of the clitoris accounts for approximately 80% of all surgical procedures in Africa

There are three types of FGM widely practiced, each is more invasive and impactful than the last (all three variations can be seen in the following diagram).

Type 1 involves excision of the prepuce, with or without excision of part or all the clitoris and is often referred to as a clitoridectomy. Type 2 involves excision of the clitoris, with partial or total excision of the labia minoria, referred to in Sudanese Arabic as ‘Sunna’. Type 3 involves excision of part or all of the external genitalia, with stitching or narrowing of the vaginal opening.


There are many theories explaining the origins of FGM. Gerry Mackie hypothesizes that the practice began in ancient Meroe (modern-day Sudan) where infibulation was practised by highly polygynous, wealthy males. Signalling controlled fidelity and the certainty of paternity, FGM may well be the world’s oldest act of patriarchy.

Mackie explains that the practice was spread across social strata and along slave trade routes. Regions with a high prevalence of FGM do correspond to sites of ancient empires, which supports Mackie’s theory.  A claim can be made, using Mackie’s theory, that modern-day Sudan is the birthplace of the practice of FGM and therefore the ancient tradition will be hard to change there.

Consent to the procedure is an issue. In Sudan 86% of the female population have the procedure before turning ten. The Beja tribe performs the procedure on infants as young as 2-3 months old. It is not only performed on the young though. Women who have not been subjected to FGM at a young age are often pressured into having the procedure before entering marriage.

In a report published by the Danish Refugee Council carried out at Batil refugee camp, Sudanese women cited girls’ health, prevention of diseases and infection from germs, as well as traditional practice as the reasons for performing modern-day FGM.

Despite work done by a number of NGOs to raise awareness of the inaccuracy of the perceived health benefits the procedure is still performed.

In societies where socio-economic security is provided for women primarily through the institution of marriage, the requirement that women must be virgins to be considered eligible for marriage contributes to the continuation of the practice of FGM.

Sudanese health surveys show that there is little statistical difference between urban and rural environments when it comes to FGM practice, only the type varies (infibulation is more common rurally). However, girls and women from poorer households are four times as likely to support continuation of the tradition than those in wealthier households.

In Sudan it is commonplace for medical professionals to perform re-infibulation after a woman has given birth. It is the Sudanese-Arabic term for this procedure that really highlights the problematic perceptions. The term for re-infibulation is ‘adal’ or ‘al-adil’, which in this context means to rectify and improve.

If patriarchy is the cause of female genital cutting, why are women motivated to perpetuate the cycle with their daughters and female relatives? The most common motivation is the strong association between conforming to FGM and being eligible for marriage.

It is now widely acknowledged that FGM/C functions as a self-enforcing social convention or social norm

FGM may have even been spread to groups that did not previously practice it by those wanting to marry their daughters into social groups that did. If this theory is to be followed, then people began mutilating their own daughters believing it was in the best interests of their daughters to marry into more powerful and rich families and ensure a better quality of life.

The people who practice female genital cutting (FGM) are honourable, upright, moral people who love their children and want the best for them.

The origins of female genital mutilation may not be clear but the modern-day motivations of those continuing it are hopefully well-intentioned. However, it is a tradition which has no evidence of providing health benefits, contrary to this it has an extremely dangerous, life-threatening impact on women on girls.  There is not a single religion professing to having any connection between FGM and belief, and yet it is a cross-faith practice. It was born out of a patriarchal society and continued today by the poor in hopes of a more secure and prosperous future. It is unequivocally an act of violence against women and a violation of women’s rights which must be stopped.

Find out more:

Telegraph – Call the Midwife is helping to break the silence on FGM. Now, we need to end it altogether

New York Times – It’s Genital Genocide

Thumbnail image: Portrait of African girl in tribal village, Senegal | Photograph Vladimir Zhoga / Shutterstock


The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of Development in Action.


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