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Friday, April 29, 2011

The Economic Impact of FGM: How Female Genital Mutilation Hurts Women and Society

International Museum of Women: Economica
Ola Faisal Hassan

Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) is one of the most controversial rites of passage in Sudan. Here, Sudanese student Ola Faisal Hassan gives background on FGM, shares interviews with women who have been affected by FGM, and explains how it relates to the economy.

What is FGM?

Practices of Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) differ, but the practice often involves excision or a clitoridectomy. This is called Khafd (reduction) in Arabic and is more popularly known in the Sudan by as Tahara (purification). It is the removal of the clitoris, with partial or complete removal of the external female genitalia to varying degrees. In some instances, the two sides of the vulva are stitched together with catgut, sutures or thorns, thus obstructing the vaginal opening except for a very small part--just enough to allow the exit of urine and menstrual blood.

FGM was declared illegal in Sudan in 1941, but the practice has continued with little interruption. Successive national surveys between 1979 and 1983 recorded that 96% of women have undergone FGM. In 1991, this percentage dropped to 89%, and in 2009 the UNICEF World Report on Children reported a drop to around 81%. This gradual shift in public attitudes toward FGM is due in large part to efforts to educate the Sudanese about the risks of FGM led by nongovernmental organizations coordination with many other autonomous organizations and individuals.

Why is FGM Practiced in Sudan?

 The reasons people practice or encourage female genital mutilation stem from a mix of cultural, religious and social factors within families and communities. For decades, FGM has been a social convention, and families feel social pressure to conform to what others do and perpetuate the practice. Local leaders, including religious leaders, community leaders, and even some medical personnel, can perpetuate the practice as well. The argument that it is a cultural tradition is one of the most prevalent in terms of continuing FGM.

FGM is often motivated by beliefs about what is considered proper sexual behavior, linking procedures to premarital virginity and marital fidelity. In many communities, FGM is believed to reduce a woman's libido, and thereby is further believed to help her resist "illicit" sexual acts. When a vaginal opening is covered or narrowed, the fear of pain of opening it, and the fear that this will be found out, is expected to further discourage premarital sexual intercourse among women with this type of FGM.

In Our Own Words

 I conducted several peer investigations among women in Sudan who were subjected to FGM, as well as uncircumcised women. Here are some excerpts from my conversations with them.


Mona is a middle aged housewife. She was circumcised as a young girl and is now the mother of an uncircumcised girl.

"I've made the vital decision not to subject my daughter to the horrific FGM I've gone through. I have suffered the physiological and psychological effects of the FGM both before my marriage and during the delivery of my daughter. My abnormal delivery incurred a lot of costs because I had to hire a specialist and then, during delivery, check into a private clinic to avoid any health consequences.

The worst result was that during delivery, because of the circumcision of my genitals the doctor had to pull my daughter very hard. My newborn daughter's right hand was almost paralyzed because of how hard she had to be pulled during deliver. This has resulted in extremely high financial expenses in the years after her birth in trying to cure her feeble right hand. We have tried physical therapy, and we even had to travel abroad to seek a cure for her hand, which represented an added cost for our family. Her handicap has even caused her a lot of psychological problems, especially during her primary study, which I'm afraid negatively affects her education and ultimately her future."


Nada is a new university graduate working as an accountant in a bank. She was recently married. She was (mostly) fortunate not to experience the horrific FGM process. She attributed not being circumcised to the fact that her parents are highly educated.

"Because the majority of females in our community were circumcised at the age of seven I have felt like a freak among them, and sometimes I was persecuted. However, when I became a teenager I was totally content and resolved with the ‘odd' situation I thought I was in. I had a normal menstruation, without any of the pain or infections that circumcised girls are susceptible to.

This normal feminine physiological life proved to be an asset for me when I started my career. My female colleagues at work had to take sick leave for several days each month during their menstruation. This reflected negatively on their attendance, and therefore they were not often promoted and in fact were sometimes demoted or lost their jobs altogether."

The Economic Impacts

 I believe that FGM is a burden on women, but also places an additional burden on a society's economy. Women who are FGM victims usually need more health care to deal with complications, which is a burden on the health service system run by the state. Women with FGM use a considerable share of the funds allocated for government hospitals in treating side effects caused by FGM.

Women and girls are also the backbone of the economy, especially when it comes to labor in the traditional agricultural industry that is so prevalent in rural societies in Sudan. Yet many women who have FGM experience longterm side effects, chronic infections, and pain that prevents them from participating in the economy or workforce. Therefore the side effects of the FGM and the health deterioration that follows in most case impedes economic growth in these areas. This is true for both rural settings, as well as for urban jobs as Nada described. When women are not able to participate fully in the workforce due to debilitating FGM-related health problems, it hurts the economy as a whole.