Female genital mutilation refers to a variety of mutilating operations performed on the external genitalia of girls and women. Usually the practice is conducted on young girls of seven to fifteen who are preparing for marriage. The degree of mutilation varies: circumcision (Sunna), the removal of part or all of the clitoris; excision, the removal of part or all of the clitoris and the labia minora; infibulation (sealing), the almost complete removal of the clitoris and of the labia minora and majora, following which the vagina is sewn up to leave only a small opening.
Although the severity of the effects on health varies according to the degree of mutilation, the practice is a major health problem. Immediate effects include shock, retention of urine and of menstrual blood with attendant infections, and infections resulting from the operation itself, which is often performed with unsterilized and inadequate equipment. Short term complications include tetanus, septicaemia, haemorrhages, cuts in the urethra, bladder, vaginal walls and anal sphincter. Later the woman may suffer scars that hinder walking for life, cyst formation, fistulas, sterility, and pelvic and chronic urinary infections. Almost all sexually mutilated women have hugely increased agony and difficulties in labour, incision of the vulva generally being necessary. The higher danger in childbirth greatly increases the chance of premature death.
The custom of sexual mutilation of young girls is a violation of the right of the child to be protected from bodily harm and mutilation. There is no religious basis for female sexual mutilation, and the practice is found in communities of different religions, namely Muslim, Christian and polytheistic communities. The practice is rooted in cultural heritage as a way to prepared girls for adulthood. The cultural importance can be so great that a girl who does not undergo the operation at puberty could bring shame to her family, and could be consider unclean, impure, and probably a prostitute; she might never be considered marriageable and thus would have no future in her own community. A girl who does undergo the operation, however, would probably have poorer health and would never be able to enjoy sexual relations (to a similar degree as uncut women) with her husband when she does marry.
It is claimed that the practice can be traced back to ancient Egypt. In the mid nineteenth century, the practice was advocated in Britain as a cure for hysteria, nymphomania, masturbation, melancholia, mania, epilepsy and other "female afflictions" which women were prone to in those times, causing many to be committed to asylums. For some it was a fashionable operation.
Female genital mutilation is a common practice across parts of Africa and the Middle East. More than 200 million women and girls alive today have undergone FGM in 30 countries across Africa, the Middle East and Asia. Every year an estimated 3 million girls are at risk of undergoing female genital mutilation, however as progress in eradicating FGM is not keeping pace with population growth, this number is expected to grow much higher.
FGM is frequently performed more than once, which means women and girls remain at risk even after they have undergone the procedure. This is why being at risk of FGM, or having already experienced it, is grounds for refugee status.