Peeled apple to stand for female genital cutting
(C) Love Matters | Rita Lino

Female genital cutting

Female circumcision, or cutting, is an age-old tradition. Depending on the tradition, a girl or woman may have part or all of her external genitals removed.

It’s a 5.000-year-old tradition whereby a young girl or woman has parts of her genitals cut. FGC is especially practiced in Northern and Eastern Africa. Girls are usually cut between the ages of four and puberty. It can also happen much later or earlier (even a few days after birth).

Depending on the local customs, a girl or woman may have part or all of her external genitals removed.

What is female genital cutting?

There are four different types of FGC, according to the World Health Organisation.

The first type involves the removal of parts of the clit or the entire clitoris. This is called a clitoridectomy. The second type is similar, but additionally, the inner labia are removed. Sometimes the outer labia are also cut off. The second type was – and sometimes still is – practised by, for example, the Kikuyus in Kenya.

With the third type, which is also called ‘infibulation’, all of the clitoris and the inner and outer labia are cut off, and the wound is stitched shut. 

The fourth type is a variation of type three but goes one step further: parts of the vagina may be stitched shut or tightened through chemicals, or is alternatively pierced, burned or scarred. Any additional harmful procedure to the vagina is also type four. This type is seen most among women of Kenya’s North Eastern tribes.

All of the types have slight variations, depending on the local traditions. 

Most of the cut women fall into categories one and two; categories three and four are most common in Eastern Africa. It’s estimated that 15 per cent of all cut women in Africa underwent infibulation (type three).

illustration of the different types of FGC

Reasons for the cut

The reasons behind parents wanting their girls to be cut are mostly cultural. In many cultures in Northern, Eastern, and Western Africa, being cut is a rite of passage for young girls and improves their chances of getting married. It’s thought that FGC will keep a girl a virgin and keep her from sexual activity before marriage. Some also think that it’s more hygienic and that a girl or woman should be flat, rigid and dry.

Religious beliefs also play a role. Some Christian and Muslim communities believe that the cut is related to the teachings of their religions. Although FGC isn’t approved by either Islam nor Christianity, supposed religious laws (e.g. the mention of ‘Sunnah’) are used to rationalise the practice.

One of the myths around FGC makes people believe that the cut will actually enhance a woman’s fertility and promote child survival. Another myth claims that cutting a girl will cure or prevent STDs like gonorrhoea.

It’s also believed that FGC will keep a girl or woman from having sex before marriage and that it increases a man’s pleasure.

The Pokot, for example, believe that a woman’s firstborn child won’t survive unless she’s circumcised. If the mother is not circumcised she won’t have linked herself to the ancestors by getting their blessing through the shedding of blood, and therefore it’s thought the baby has to die. There are also myths that a clitoris will continue to grow until it touches the ground if it isn’t cut. Others think that an uncut woman is too sexual – and that she might get up to cheating when her husband isn’t around.

Circumcision, cutting, or mutilation?

Female circumcision is called different names depending on who’s talking about it. Because of the serious health consequences associated with it and the violation of girls’ and women’s rights, female circumcision is also called female genital mutilation (FGC). Other people have adopted the more neutral term of female genital cutting (FGC) to acknowledge that it’s a procedure, while not giving the false impression that it’s similar to male circumcision.Circumcision, cutting, or mutilation?

At Love Matters, we’re aware of the on-going debate between age-old traditions and human rights. We’re also aware that any form of genital modification – cutting, pricking, burning, or stretching of the female genitalia – can cause serious lifelong health problems.

These health problems can be so severe that we agree that female genital mutilation is an appropriate term for these different procedures. Yet, for the purposes of helping ‘circumcised’ young girls and women (and their partners), we’ve made a conscious decision to use the terms female circumcision and female genital cutting (FGC). Our rationale behind this decision (described below) isn’t to deny the serious health consequences, but to provide helpful information to suffering people without re-traumatising them.

Our rationale

Young girls and women who have been ‘circumcised’ are often not aware of the associated health risks of these procedures. Even if they were, they still often face other difficulties.

In some cultures, baby girls are cut soon after birth. In other cultures, girls and women may have never met someone who hasn’t been cut, so being circumcised is normal, and not the other way around.

Calling someone’s genitals mutilated or abnormal may just reinforce the trauma. 

First of all, a young girl or woman may not have known she was ‘mutilated’, but once she does may feel ashamed of her genitals. Secondly, and more likely, she may be left feeling betrayed by her family, community and/or religion since the procedure is often done without proper consent. Lastly, finding out that she may continue to unnecessarily suffer from FGC’s effects for a lifetime, may just add to the burden.

Contemporary practices

Female circumcision’s origins can be traced back to ancient Egypt. It’s believed to have spread by trade routes from Egypt to West Africa and to Indonesia with the arrival of Islam. Its practice predates Islam, Christianity and Judaism.

Today FGC is most commonly practised in 28 African countries, as well as in parts of Oman, United Arab Emirates, and Yemen. To a much lesser extent, it’s also found in certain communities in India, Indonesia, Malaysia, Pakistan, and Iraq. With the advent of migration from these countries, immigrants have continued this practice in their new home countries: Canada, the US, the Netherlands, Italy, Sweden, the UK, and Australia.

Since only 20 per cent of all Muslims practice female circumcision, it can’t be seen as a strictly Muslim observance. Some Christian and Jewish communities also practice it.

In Kenya, 38 of the 42 tribes are still practising FGC or have done so in the recent past. Most FGC happens among women of Somali descent and those living in Northern and Western Kenya where it’s particularly prevalent among Kisii and Maasai women. Luo and Luhya women are the least likely to be cut.

FGC is usually done by a circumciser within the community, but can also be done by relatives. On occasion, it also happens in hospitals – but such cuttings are rejected by some communities as it’s seen as an impure ritual. In Kenya, close to 80 per cent of all circumcisions are performed by a ‘traditional’ circumciser who has little or no medical training.

The ritual

All cultures have their own rituals when it comes to FGC. But it’s usually accompanied by celebrations, as it’s regarded as a very important point in a girl’s life. The Pokot, for example, sacrifice a tree for the girl who is cut. A very straight tree is chosen, to indicate the straight and special path a girl is to follow in her life. The girls and their mothers also need to shave their heads, as hair is often seen as a sex symbol. Men have their own rituals but usually stay away from the women during this time. Often, FGC is done to many girls at once.

Is FGC the same as male circumcision?

In short: no.

Male circumcision involves removing the foreskin that covers the head of the penis. To be comparable, female circumcision would only remove the clitoral hood. But most types of female circumcisions involve more than this. Complications associated with FGC, which can continue through a lifetime, are also much more severe than those of male circumcision.


FGC can be dangerous and cause lifelong health and emotional problems for women who have been cut. If the procedure isn’t done in a clean environment with sterilised medical tools, serious infections can result. Such infections can even kill, especially if the infections aren’t tended to.

Once the wounds have healed, other problems may arise. Women who have been cut can have a higher frequency of urinary tract infections, vaginal infections, menstruation problems, pain during sex, and chronic pain. Incontinence, fistulas and cysts are also common. FGC can even result in infertility.

During childbirth, being cut can cause real risks for both baby and mother. With types three and four of FGC, the vagina is often too tight to allow the baby to pass through. A prolonged and obstructed labour can cause all kinds of complications for both mother and baby, with the most severe being death.

Women who have been cut are more likely to get small wounds and tears around their vaginas when they are having sex. Especially with types three and four circumcisions, men have to use more force to enter the vagina which causes pain. Because of these wounds, there is a higher risk of getting infected with STDs such as HIV if no condom is used. Other infections are also common.

Another complication can be a fistula. A fistula is a hole between the vagina and bladder or anus. Fistulas lead to incontinence whereby you can no longer properly control your urine flow or bowel movements. It also comes with other medical and social consequences.

Fistulas are often the result of complications while giving birth to a baby. One cause can be that the baby doesn’t come out easily because the opening of the vagina is too tight, which is often the case with women who have undergone types three or four of female genital cutting. So when women don’t have medical help while giving birth and there are problems, a hole can form between the bladder or anus and the vagina. This hole is called a fistula.

Because the fistulas are holes between the bladder or anus and vagina, women with fistulas are incontinent, which means that they are constantly leaking urine and stool. The accompanying smell makes people think they are unclean. In turn, families may push away their daughters or husbands reject their wives, making the women social outcasts. Fistulas can also cause other medical problems.


Often with women with a type three or four cut, their opening is too small for having sex or a baby. So the opening has to be cut open to be big enough for a penis or a baby to pass through. Then, after she has given birth or had sex, the raw edges of the vagina are stitched back shut again. This is called ‘reinfibulation’.

Doing this several times, for example after having several children, can cause thick scarring of the tissue around the vagina, which in turn can cause even more problems and pain. And of course, with such open wounds, the likelihood of infection increases during sex and labour.

Using excessive force during sex to be able to enter the vagina can also cause more tears, wounds, and pain.

FGC and pleasure

Many cut women wonder whether they’ll ever experience the pleasures of sex.

For women who have been stitched shut, it can be hard to enjoy sex. The opening that is left is very small, and often too small for a penis to enter without pain (using lots of lubrication can help with this). Nevertheless, there are women who report having a normal and enjoyable sex life even with this kind of FGC. Sexual pleasure is different for every woman. So some women who have been cut can still experience pleasure.

For women with category one and two FGC, it’s harder to reach orgasm than for women who haven’t been cut since the clitoris is one of the main pleasure centres for women. Many women achieve orgasm most easily by stimulating the clitoris. However, you can still have an orgasm even when you don’t have a visible clitoris. The outer part of the clitoris is only a small part of a much bigger organ, goes deep within the body. With an understanding and patient partner, you should be able to have pleasurable sex – it’s a matter of trying what you like and what makes you feel good.

It seems that women who have been cut before they became sexually active are better able to adjust. Women who are already sexually active when they undergo the procedure have more sexual difficulties, according to studies. Men can also experience difficulties during intercourse with a cut woman. Because the vaginal opening is so small, thrusting can be painful and even cause wounds and infections on the penis. Being gentle and using lube can be helpful.

Generally, women who have been cut aren’t less likely to have sex, though, studies show. Neither do they seem to start having sex later than their uncut counterpart. This research goes against one of the key arguments for FGC: that it keeps women from having more intercourse or having sex earlier.

Reversing the cut

A surgical procedure called ‘defibulation’ or ‘deinfibulation’ reopens the vagina of women with types three or four FGC. It restores the vagina to its normal size, and may also include removing some of the scar tissue and restoring the labia.

With pregnant women, this is usually done around the 20th week. This way, the tissue has time to heal before the baby comes out. Doing this will also decrease the risk of miscarriage.

There are some surgeons who are experimenting with new techniques to restore the clitoris. Tissue from the clitoris still inside the vagina can be used to make a new clitoris on the outside. However, this procedure is still relatively new and not yet widely done.

Women who have undergone this procedure usually feel far less pain during sex, pass urine more easily and have fewer problems during their menstruation. Also, having defibulation done before giving birth greatly reduces the risks for both mother and baby.

FGC in numbers

The World Health Organisation estimates that between 100 and 140 million young girls and women have undergone some form of female circumcision. It’s thought that an additional two to three million female circumcisions still take place every year. But because the ritual is often performed in secret or is even illegal, collecting information on FGC and estimating how often it is actually performed is very difficult.

In Kenya, it’s estimated that two out of every five women are cut. It’s thought that in Northern Kenya, there are areas where as many as 98 per cent of the women have undergone FGC. On average, half of the country’s women over age 45 have been cut, while the percentage is lower for younger women. In 2008, it was estimated that 13 per cent of those women cut had undergone infibulation.

Attitudes and law

In 2010, the Kenyan Parliament instated the Prohibition of Female Genital Mutilation Act. Offenders can now be imprisoned for up to seven years or pay a fine as high as KSh 500.000. Before that (since 2001) it was only illegal if done on women under the age of 18.

Attitude shifts are taking place. According to UNICEF in a report from February 2013, numbers are going down. The report also states that men are beginning to speak up to end this age-old tradition, claiming that they won’t mind marrying uncut girls and alternative rites of passage should be found. For some men, FGC also comes with additional costs: it’s not unheard of that men have to sell their livestock to pay for C-sections and emergency surgery when their wives suffer the consequences of FGC during labour.

Because most girls are married off immediately after the procedure and have to drop out of school while they are essentially still children, FGC is often associated with a lack of education for girls and women and criticised for this.

Of the Kenyan women who have been cut, almost 60 per cent believe that they gained nothing from the cut, 24 per cent thought it gained them social acceptance and 15 per cent said it helped them remain a virgin. On the other hand, 90 per cent of the uncut women said FGC had no benefits at all. With the exception of women in the North Eastern province, the overwhelming majority of Kenyan women think that the practice should stop.

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Recent Comments (23)

  1. I could not resist…
    I could not resist commenting. Exceptionally well written!

    1. Thank you Monte, we…

      Thank you Monte, we appreciate the feedback.

  2. I really love this page …
    I really love this page
    Thumbs up ?.
    Love matters is the best!!!

    1. Thank you Precious, keep…

      Thank you Precious, keep reading our articles.

  3. I love to read more of this…
    I love to read more of this articles

    1. Hey Felix, keep exploring…

      Hey Felix, keep exploring the website for more exciting and informative articles.

    1. Thank you for the feedback. 

      Thank you for the feedback. 

  4. Am 32 right now and i rem…
    Am 32 right now and i rem when this thing forcefully happened to me.i still hold a grudge to my dad for making me go through that hell..i guess mine was the removal of the physical clit as i had just completed primary was such a shameful not sure of the labias but i dont have a clit like i see others hanging ouside and i hate it..however,am married and i enjoy sex well well(he rubs my clit area and i get an orgasm) but never had an orgasm through penetration.upto date hubby doesn’t know am cut,i have never brought about the chat so if he knows i dont know.

  5. We are so sorry you had to…

    We are so sorry you had to go through a very difficult ordeal Msoo but we are so glad and thankful that you have the courage to open up to us about your experiences and we are all the more glad that despite what happened, you are able to still experience sexual pleasure. It is very understandable for you to be upset and hold a grudge with you dad for having put you through it and we know it is easier said than done, try and take into consideration that he thought that what he was doing was best for you based on the social and cultural practices he was brought up with even though what happened was not right. We now live in a time where people of these cultures are now learning that this is not right and are slowly adapting and having gone through it yourself, you can take heart knowing that tomorrow, should you be blessed with a daughter, she will not face the same fate. With regards to your hubby, if you would like to, have an open and honest discussion about it. Follow this link and go through it with him: , it will guide you and him together to help you get an understanding of what you can both do to experience an orgasm through penetration. We hope it helps! Have a wonderful week and stay safe!

  6. Am 21 right now and I…
    Am 21 right now and I remember when this thing was forcefully done to me by my grandmother,I still hate her upto date ,mine was removal of clitoral hood,it was such a painful act I,upto date I am a virgin and I have never been laid by any guy ,, though I have my boyfriend who loves me Soo much and I have never opened to him about it,I do experience sexual urges so much but I still fear to engage in sex with him ,what do I do to overcome this please

    1. Hi Lizzie, thank you so much…

      Hi Lizzie, thank you so much for getting in touch with us and we are so sorry you had to go through such a difficult time with your grandmother. We also appreciate your courage to open up and share with us what happened to you. Furthermore, it is even more amazing that despite what happened, you have found someone that you still have sexual urges and would like to share your sexual experiences. If you would like to share this sexual experience with him, have an open and honest conversation with your partner and explain to him your thoughts and feelings. It is understandable that talking to him puts you in a very vulnerable situation but do not despair, click here to find out more how to talk to your partner about sex:

      Good luck and have a wonderful week ahead!

  7. Am 26 yetad of age, i…
    Am 26 yetad of age, i remember i was 10 when this shameful act was done to me the main mastermind being my mother. Am still a virgin till now, though i have a boyfriend we’ve been together for almost 2 years now, I’ve always had this fear to have sex and i thank him for his patient. We tried to have sex once and it was so painful even before he could penetrate and i had to bail out. I opened up to him and he understood my situation. We tried severally taking it slow and the same thing still happened, when the tip of his penis touches my vagina i feel a nice sensation but when he tries to penetrate it starts getting painful. Am almost resigning to the idea that ill never have/enjoy sex in my life, i know it’s only a matter of time before he breaks up with me which is understandable. I once mentioned to him getting drunk(even though I’ve never tasted alcohol) for me to loose conscious and do it but he was very much against it claiming i will wake up feeling more worse and regretting everything. Breaking my virginity has been my worst fear. Please help me on what to do.

    1. Hi Dee, thank you so much…

      Hi Dee, thank you so much for reaching out to us and sharing your story. So sorry to hear that you have been through so much. It is rather normal for some women to experience pain during penetration. The causes could be varried and you may need a doctor to help you diagnose the issue. Your partner not wanting to have sex with you while you are drunk is actually well informed as a drunk person is not able to give consent. Please try and see a medical practitioner as soon as you can for a proper diagnosis and advice on the way forward.

  8. Am 30 years old, before now…
    Am 30 years old, before now I have always been afraid of sex and so have lost so many relationship cos I can’t go intimate. 2016 I was so inlove with this guy but my constant resistance brought hurt and because I didn’t want to loss him I gave in and it was so painful. All through the three years we dated was war because of my saveral episodes before and intercourse.
    I knew I was cuted after birth but I never know it’s effects and I didn’t tell my man, rather I thought he rough handles me cos I will have tears under and be in pain for days after each sex. And he too will be in pains and have bruises there, so he got tired of the experience and gradually my relationship died.
    Thanks for this enlightenment.

    1. Hello Muna, thank you so…

      Hello Muna, thank you so much for reaching out to us and sharing your story. We are so sorry that you went through such a hard time but we are glad to hear that our information has been of help to you. If you can, please see a medical practitioner on any possible remedies that may be of help.

  9. How does the FGC affectthe…
    How does the FGC affectthe periods?

    1. Hi Am Vyee, 

      the typical,…

      Hi Am Vyee, 

      the typical, Type 1 and 2 FGC does not affect periods. Type 3 FGM/C may cause some girls and women to have painful menstrual periods and may cause menstrual blood being retained in the vagina. Some women are left with only a small opening for urinating and menstrual bleeding. They may not be able to pass all of their menstrual blood. This can cause pain and periods that are longer than normal. Some women may also have infections over and over again.

  10. Did I read kikuyus somewhere…
    Did I read kikuyus somewhere? Kikuyus does not engage in some retrogressive traditions!!

    1. Hi Den Is, 

      This is a…

      Hi Den Is, 

      This is a blanket statement. Some Kikuyus still practice FGM/FGC. On the other hand, this is what the article says, ‘In Kenya, 38 of the 42 tribes are still practising FGC or have done so in the recent past. Most FGC happens among women of Somali descent and those living in Northern and Western Kenya where it’s particularly prevalent among Kisii and Maasai women. Luo and Luhya women are the least likely to be cut.’ 

    1. I am happy to hear that. Keep coming to Love Matters for more educative information.

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