What is Female Genital Mutilation?

Female genital mutilation (FGM) is the term for “all procedures involving the cutting or removal of external female genitalia for cultural or other non therapeutic reasons” (WHO 2010).

The different types of female genital mutilation known to be practised are as follows:

  • Type I Excision of the prepuce, with or without excision of part or all of the clitoris.
  • Type II Excision of the clitoris with partial or total excision of the labia minora.
  • Type III Excision of part or all of the external genitalia and stitching/narrowing of the vaginal opening (infibulation).
  • Type IV Unclassified: includes pricking, piercing or incising of the clitoris and/or labia, stretching of the clitoris and/or labia, cauterisation or introduction of corrosive substances or herbs into the vagina.

What are the consequences of FGM?

There is a wide range of complications associated with FGM, and these vary depending on the type of FGM. They can include the following:

Short term complications

Bleeding, infection, pain, shock, tetanus and damage to other genital areas.

Long term complications

Urinary infections, cysts, fistulas, infertility, painful menstruation, abscesses, and pelvic infections.

Childbirth complications

Difficulties with internal examinations during pregnancy and labour, prolonged labour, difficulties with delivery, bleeding at delivery and obstructed delivery which can lead to death of the baby.

Sexual complications

Fear and pain associated with sexual intercourse, difficulty or inability to have sexual intercourse, and decreased sexual pleasure and frigidity.

In addition, some women may experience negative psychological effects such as anxiety, fear, lack of trust and difficulty with body image.

Why is FGM performed?

FGM is deeply rooted in a complex social and economic framework. It is seen as a very beneficial custom and is supported by a wide range of beliefs, customs, values and sociological pressures. Some of the main reasons include:
Psychosexual reasons

Reduction or elimination of the outer genital organs is believed to attenuate sexual desire in a girl/woman, maintain her chastity and virginity before marriage, maintain fidelity during marriage, and increase male sexual pleasure.

Sociological reasons

FGM is commonly linked with identification with the cultural heritage, initiation of girls into womanhood, social integration, the maintenance of social cohesion, and family honour.

Hygiene and aesthetic reasons

The external female genitalia are considered by many groups to be dirty and unsightly and are removed to promote hygiene and provide aesthetic appeal.


FGM is believed to promote fertility, the child’s good health and child survival. It is also commonly believed that the clitoris is dangerous and unless removed it will poison a child at birth or grow long and dangle down.

Religious reasons

FGM is practised by Muslims, Catholics, Protestants, Coptics and animists. It has frequently been carried out by some Muslim communities in the genuine belief that it is demanded by the Islamic faith, however, the practice of FGM predates Islam and there is no substantive evidence that it is an Islamic religious requirement.

How many women and girls are affected by FGM?

The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that 200 million girls and women alive today have undergone FGM. An estimated 3 million girls are at risk of undergoing FGM mutilation every year and the majority of girls are cut before they turn 15 years old.

How long has FGM been practiced?

The earliest record of FGM was made by Strabo, the Greek geographer and historian who reported excision on Egyptian girls in 25BC. However, it is believed that FGM was occurring some centuries before this, and was spread by dominant tribes and civilizations as a result of tribal, ethnic, and cultural allegiances.

How is FGM performed?

FGM is most commonly performed by midwives, birth attendants and traditional circumcisors. The procedure is carried out using crude tools and instruments such as razors, knives and scissors. Anaesthetics or antiseptics are not generally used, however in urban areas FGM is being performed more frequently in hospitals by trained doctors and midwives.

What age is FGM performed?

The age at which FGM is performed varies widely, depending on ethnic group and geographical location. Among some groups FGM is performed as early as infancy, in other groups it doesn’t occur until adolescence, or occasionally in adulthood. The most common age for infibulation is between four and eight years.

Is FGM a religious requirement?

FGM is practised by followers of many different religions: Muslims, Catholics, animists, and Christian Coptics. It is practised by some Muslim communities in the belief that it is demanded by the Islamic faith. However, the practice of FGM predates Islam and there is not any substantial evidence in the Koran, or any of the religious texts supporting FGM as a religious requirement.

Is FGM illegal in Africa and other countries?

The UNFPA estimates that at least 59 countries have passed laws against FGM, including countries that receive immigrants from countries where FGM is practiced. These include Belgium, Italy, United States, United Kingdom, Canada, Denmark, Spain, Norway, Sweden and New Zealand. Some countries rely on existing criminal legislation to prosecute both practitioners of FGM and parents procuring the service for their daughters.

Of the 29 countries in Africa where FGM is traditionally practiced, 26 have laws prohibiting FGM. Among these, penalties range from monetary fines to a minimum of three months to life in prison, but many countries struggle to enforce these penalties. 

Is FGM practised in New Zealand?

There is no documented evidence that FGM is practiced in New Zealand. However, New Zealand has a growing number of refugees and migrants from countries that practice FGM, and many of these women have already undergone FGM.

Is FGM illegal in New Zealand?

In January 1996 the Government made the practice of FGM illegal under an amendment to The Crimes Act (section 204A) 1961. The Act states that it is illegal law to perform “any medical or surgical procedure or mutilation of the vagina or clitoris of any person” for reasons of “culture, religion, custom or practice.”

This means it is against the law to:

  • circumcise a woman, girl or female baby
  • remove or cut out any part of the female genital area
  • stitch up the female genital area
  • cut the clitoris or part of the clitoris
  • damage the female genital area in other ways

It is against the law to perform FGM even if the woman or girl wants it to be done.

Why is FGM illegal in New Zealand?

FGM is internationally recognized as a violation of the human rights of girls and women. It reflects inequality between the sexes, is a form of discrimination against women and is harmful to the health of women and girls. It is nearly always carried out on minors and violates a person’s rights to health, security and physical integrity; the right to be free from torture and cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment; and the right to life when the procedure results in death. New Zealand is also a signatory to the following International Instruments and conventions that encourage and oblige us to action against FGM:

  1. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (Article 25).
  2. The Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination against Women (Articles 2f, 5a,12).
  3. The Convention on the Rights of the Child (Articles 2, 19.2, 24.1, 37a, 24.3).

What happens if someone performs FGM in New Zealand?

If someone performs FGM, they are breaking the law and may be imprisoned for up to seven years. The punishment occurs whether the person performs the procedure, helps, or gets someone else to perform FGM.