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Female Genital Mutilation in West Africa – An Evaluation of Cultural, Social, and Religious Factors

Female Genital Mutilation in West Africa – An Evaluation of Cultural, Social, and Religious Factors


Female genital mutilation refers to all the practices encompassing complete or partial removal of the external female genitalia for non-medicinal reasons. Across the globe, more than 200 million females are genitally mutilation, particularly within Sub-Saharan Africa, Asia, and the Middle East (WHO, 2022). In Africa, 33 countries still practice the act today, all distributed dominantly in West Africa and others in the Northern, Eastern Africa regions. Generally, female genital mutilation has significant devastating and harmful impacts on the victims, and no conscious lady would freely consent to the act. However, the obligation to conform to cultural, social, and religious beliefs has mainly driven most females to undertake the activity willingly or forcefully. Statistically, the majority of the females undergo the procedure within infancy to adolescent age of 15 when they cannot make their own choices.

Female Genital Mutilation in West Africa

Among the established 33 countries in Africa that the practice is actively undertaken, West African countries constitute Guinea-Bissau, Mauritania, Gambia, Senegal, Mali, Burkina-Faso, and Nigeria. According to UNICEF data, female genital mutilation statistics in West Africa vary from a lower percentage of 2% in Niger to a record high of 97% in Guinea. Still, Mali, Sierra Leone, Gambia, and Burkina Faso have approximately over 75% prevalence within the region (Ahinkorah et al., 2020). The picture below represents Africa’s geographical female genital mutilation statistic, clearly representing the approximated percentages of victims aged 15 to 49 years in West African countries.

C:\Users\User\Downloads\Women and girls, aged 15-49, who have undergone some form of FGM.png

Figure 1: Female genital mutilation geographic victims’ statistic (UNFPA, 2022)

Female genital mutilation is widely acknowledged as a human rights violation firmly established in cultural ideas and views spanning decades and generations. Traditionally this activity is undertaken by recognized traditional circumcisers, birth attendants, and generally older women. However, in recent times trained caregivers like community health extension workers, midwives, and doctors supporting the practice are among the circumcisers regardless of being professionals. Usually, female genital mutilation is carried out using scissors, specific curve knives, glass bits, razor blades, or scalpels.

There are four categories of female genital mutilation identified by the World Health Organization. Clitoridectomy, also identified as type 1, refers to the partial or whole elimination of either the clitoris, prepuce, or both. Meanwhile, excision regarded as Type II is characterized by part or complete elimination of the clitoris and Labia Minora and Labia Majora. Infibulation, considered type III, involves narrowing the vaginal orifice with a covering seal created by either repositioning or removing the Labia Minora and Majora. Finally, type IV encompasses all non-medical cuts to the female genitalia that cause injury. They include treatments like incisions, scrapings, piercings, and prickings (WHO, 2022).

Evaluation of the Cultural, Social and Religious Factors for Performing Female Genital Mutilation

In every society that female genital mutilation is practiced, it is often manifested deeply in cultural, social, or religious beliefs. Female genital mutilation in communities actively practicing it usually get approval from both women and men, and those who question or resist the norm, without a doubt, are condemned, harassed, and socially ostracized. Despite growing awareness of its insignificance and health complication, this practice is still being carried out because of its perceived social good. That undoubtedly signifies the deeply entrenched gender inequality in such societies where females’ rights are openly violated. The reasons for the continued practice of this act can be classified into five categories;

Psychosexual Motives

This encompasses reasons that suggest that the act controls women’s sexuality. A majority of the communities claim women’s sexuality would be insatiable if genitalia parts such as the clitoris were not removed. Among the Yoruba community of Nigeria, circumcising their girls preserves the girls’ virginity until marriage and eradicates infidelity afterward. In girls, particularly among such communities, Virginity confers the girl’s family significant honors and is typically the primary condition for receiving a bountiful bride price. The high bride price is attached to the rather misconceptions of the act being perceived to increase sexual pleasure for their husband, making the woman more fertile and able to conceive more children than usual while also increasing the chances of the children surviving through infancy (Awolola & Ilupeju, 2019).

Sociological and Cultural Aspects

Specific communities within the West African countries view female genital mutilation as a rite of passage into womanhood. As an intrinsic community cultural heritage, this initiation process prepares the girls for marriage; a norm passed down from one generation to another. Such communities performed the act to girls mainly between 10 to 19 years of age. In Guinea, these sociological and cultural motives traverse through ethnicity were the Peul, Malinke, Soussou, Guerze, Toma, and the Nalou ethnicities view the act as an initiation into marriage. Among these communities, the deep connection that the tradition has with female genital mutilation ensures that most girls undergo the process as those who resist are mocked by their peers and would have difficulty finding husbands or living in their parents’ house forever. Among the Ivory Coast females, this act signifies status and responsibility in society. Genitally mutilated females would receive a heightened recognition of social standing and permission to speak out in public or address other females of the age group (UNFPA-UNICEF, 2020).

Hygiene and Aesthetic Purposes

Female genital mutilation in certain communities is performed to raise hygiene and the aesthetic appeal of the females. They perceive the external female genitalia as naturally ugly and dirty therefore should be removed to boost its hygiene and aesthetic appearance. A study conducted among the countries in the West African region attested to this as it found out that 17% of the women in Guinea, 21% in Mali, and 13% in Mauritania believe that a lady undergoing female genital mutilation’s hygiene is improved and are then considered clean (Malhi, 2018). However, this study was mainly among the rural communities with relatively high illiteracy levels.

Religious Factors

Female genital mutilation has often been associated with either Islam or Christianity, even though their documentation in the holy books of these religions is nonexistence. Therefore, communities undertaking this act have always used religion to justify the continuation of the activity. Muslims of Mali, Mauritania, Guinea, and Niger have always invoked religion more to mandate the practice. Its continuity among these Islamic communities is linked to the role of older women as the moral guards of society, therefore protecting the community from infidelity. While Christian women also undergo the activity majority justifies it to tradition rather than religion (UNFPA, 2022).

Health Impacts of Female Genital Mutilation

Scientifically, female genital mutilation has no health benefit and is an unnecessary evil that harms girls and women in numerous ways. The process damages the female genital tissues causing injuries and excruciating pain. Besides, the victims risk immediate hemorrhage and infections such as tetanus which could be fatal. Moreover, female genital mutilation is known to cause serious lifetime health problems and pain. Victims have often experienced long-term health problems such as scarring, cysts, tissue damage, and infertility. It has also been discovered to cause significant complications during menstruation, childbirth, urination, or sexual intercourse. That is more common with the women who undergo infibulation type of female genital mutilation, which makes the vaginal opening narrow, complicating childbirth and sexual intercourse (Awolola & Ilupeju, 2019). Likewise, urinary retention is also common with the infibulation form of the activity.

Furthermore, female genital mutilation also has long-lasting ramifications on the mental health of girls and women. Unwilling young girls whose parents coerced into the activity are likely to feel bitter, betrayed, and humiliated. Eventually, they could get into an endless cycle of self-criticism and self-doubt due to being different from other ordinary uncut girls. Anxiety and stress might also kick in for girls who recognize the health implications of the practice manifesting on a long-term period. The sexual dysfunction caused by the infibulation is likely to put stress on the marriages of the victims. Female genital mutilation leaves psychological blemishes in the long term, and victims are likely to experience anxiety disorders, depression, and post-traumatic conditions (Ahinkorah et al., 2020).

Solutions for Eradicating Female Genital Mutilation in West Africa

Tradition and culture are essential aspects in a society responsible for shaping people’s perspectives and behavior patterns. However, traditions like female genital mutilation are harmful and should be abolished in any society. Nonetheless, its deep-rooted nature makes it a complex challenge that requires a multidisciplinary approach to reduce and eventually minimize.

Firstly, awareness campaigns and education to the locals of the practicing communities will equip them with the relevant information to remain firm and decide against the act rather than rely on taboos and beliefs associated with the continuation of female genital mutilation (Osterman et al., 2018). Awareness should be created by disseminating factual information on the medical, social, and psychosexual complications of female genital mutilation, the evident abuse of women’s fundamental rights through the practice, and the apparent insignificance of the activity. Furthermore, education on the medical, socio-cultural, and religious benefits of abolishing the act can help sensitize the communities on the benefits of abandoning the practice.

Additionally, men’s and young people’s involvement in communities can also be used to achieve zero tolerance and female genital mutilation abandonment. That can be achieved through collective social initiatives like the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) concept of “FGM champions.” Through this initiative, young and active vanguards are given the responsibility of informing community members about the dangers of female genital mutilation and the legal repercussions and reporting any proprietors to the appropriate authorities. In Lagos State, Southwest Nigeria, the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) in November 2017 established and trained an energetic and robust youth team to advocate against female genital mutilation. They go from school to school, spreading awareness about female genital mutilation (UNFPA, 2022).

Further, the legislative or legal approach is also an essential instrument in the fight against female genital mutilation. It provides the platform for perpetrators and their accomplices to be punished. Notably, most countries have laws criminalizing and prohibiting all forms of female genital mutilation; however, the problem lies with the victims’ little awareness of these laws. Most victims do not seek justice as they are unaware of their legal rights, particularly female genital mutilation. Guinea’s government has had legislation prohibiting female genital mutilation since 1965, in addition to the Children’s Code and the Criminal Code, both of which were enacted in 2008 and2016, respectively. The country also adopted a new constitution in March 2020, which prohibited female genital mutilation (UNFPA-UNICEF, 2020).

Likewise, in Mauritania, the General Child Protection Code of 2018 adds to the criminalization of female genital mutilation. However, these two cases are similar in lacking dynamic implementation and enforcement strategies. Therefore, the governments of these countries should attempt to address the challenge proactively by developing national strategies, including establishing national and regional councils on female genital mutilation to eradicate the heinous practice (UNFPA-UNICEF, 2020).

Finally, there is also the need to strengthen the healthcare response by creating and implementing guidelines, policies, and training. That will provide the platform for healthcare practitioners to give medical care and counseling to victims of female genital mutilation and speak out on eradication of the practice. Therefore, a united effort by the government health institutions, non-governmental organizations, and professional bodies can help achieve significant improvement in the West African countries in eradicating female genital mutilation.


Female genital mutilation is practiced across various geographical regions of Africa. The prevalence is exceptionally high in West African countries such as Guinea, Sierra Leone, Mali, and Burkina Faso. It is a life-threatening health problem that thrives based on societal, cultural, and religious beliefs. It embodies the apparent violation of women’s fundamental rights to good health care, life, and protection, as well as their right to be protected from all types of discrimination or torture and their right to gender equity and equality. In this region, multifaceted interventions involving significant efforts oriented at lobbying and instructional tactics such as focus group campaigns, peer teaching, a collaboration of healthcare organizations at the national and community levels can help eradicate the practice in such societies. Moreover, legislative tools for women capacity-building through education and media activism could all address this problem of the continuing female genital mutilation practice. Nonetheless focus should also be on research to look into the factors that influence whether people want to keep doing it or stop doing it, utilizing more precise assessments in low and high female genital mutilation prevalence countries.


Ahinkorah, B., Hagan, J., Ameyaw, E., Seidu, A., Budu, E., & Sambah, F. et al. (2020). Socio-economic and demographic determinants of female genital mutilation in sub-Saharan Africa: Analysis of data from demographic and health surveys. Reproductive Health17(1). https://doi.org/10.1186/s12978-020-01015-5

Awolola, O., & Ilupeju, N. (2019). Female genital mutilation; culture, religion, and medicalization, where do we direct our searchlights for it eradication: Nigeria as a case study. Tzu Chi Medical Journal31(1), 1. https://doi.org/10.4103/tcmj.tcmj_127_18

Osterman, A., Winer, R., Gottlieb, G., Sy, M., Ba, S., & Dembele, B. et al. (2018). Female genital mutilation and noninvasive cervical abnormalities and invasive cervical cancer in Senegal, West Africa: A retrospective study. International Journal of Cancer144(6), 1302-1312. https://doi.org/10.1002/ijc.31829

Ravneet Malhi. (2018). Female Genital Mutilation (International Day of Zero Tolerance for Female Genital Mutilation Editorial Comment). International Healthcare Research Journal1(11), 332-333. https://doi.org/10.26440/ihrj/01_11/141

UNFPA. (2022). Female genital mutilation (FGM) frequently asked questions. United Nations Population Fund. Retrieved 11 March 2022, from https://www.unfpa.org/resources/female-genital-mutilation-fgm-frequently-asked-questions#instruments.

UNFPA-UNICEF. (2020). FGM Elimination and COVID-19: Sustaining the Momentum (pp. 2-96). New York. Retrieved from https://www.unicef.org/media/107641/file/FGM%20COVID-19%20case%20study.pdf

WHO. (2022). Female genital mutilation. Who. Int. Retrieved 11 March 2022, from https://www.who.int/news-room/fact-sheets/detail/female-genital-mutilation.


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