Globally, it is estimated that at least 200 million girls and women alive today have undergone some form of female genital mutilation or FGM.
FGM is mostly carried out on young girls some time between infancy and age 15. Girls aged 14 and younger represent 44 million of those who have been cut.
FGM is born of gender inequality
There are many myths surrounding FGM, including the idea that it is a religious rite of passage when it is in fact a cultural tradition passed down through the generations and is practised by communities with different faiths.
However, female genital mutilation has its roots in the sexism and gender inequality of strict patriarchal societies. It is born of a perceived need to control women's sexual freedom in order for them to make ‘pure’ and well-behaved daughters and wives.
Even in places where the practice is illegal, often if a girl hasn’t been ‘initiated’ she is likely to face stigma from her community. In many contexts it is essential for marriage. That it is a tradition with thousands of years behind it makes ending FGM a particularly arduous task.
The patriarchy is strong but girls are stronger
Despite it being a deeply embedded cultural tradition or ‘norm’ in many countries, times are changing. Girls are learning increasingly more about the law, their rights and their bodies.
Advocates and activists in countries affected by FGM are boldly speaking out, spreading awareness of the harmful consequences and encouraging new, updated rituals.
These girls are the key to ending FGM for good. Meet them.
Bintou, 13, Guinea
"In Guinean society, being uncut is a rare exception," says Marie-Rose, a volunteer at Plan International’s ‘Save girls from FGM’ project, at an event that brings 15 cut and 15 uncut girls in a room together to discuss the importance of being united as Guinean girls.
"Uncut girls are often mocked or even insulted. They are called impure. At school, they are sometimes rejected by their peers. Breaking the silence around FGM is tackling these problems,” she says.
Bintou, 13, (right) shyly tells the group that she was not cut thanks to her father.
"He objected because he knew I was at risk. But he had a large part of the family on his back. My aunts do not want to talk to him anymore. Many at home think I should be cut."
"As an uncut girl, we are often teased by other girls, the neighbours or the family. It is not fair. But despite that, I know I'm lucky to have escaped FGM."
As the event draws to a close, the girls laugh, take pictures with their mobile phones, dance and clap their hands.
A young girl laughs at the front door. "Could you imagine that in our mothers' day? Never. But we are another generation. FGM will not divide us any more."
Alminesh, 16, Ethiopia
When Alminesh was 14 she was due to undergo circumcision but the procedure was stopped at the last minute.
We have learned that this tradition is completely unnecessary. A pure lie.
“My family was preparing the circumcision ritual without my knowledge, explains the now 16-year-old Alminesh surrounded by verdant hills in her home of Bonazuria, Ethiopia.
“When I was little, I thought that circumcising girls was completely normal and that it was done to everyone. The whole family gets together and after the ritual everyone eats and celebrates together,” Alminesh says.
A few days before she was due to undergo circumcision, Alminesh's family got some surprise visitors. The news of the forthcoming FGM had made it to the ears of one of our partner organisations, who understood the need to act fast.
"They came to tell my parents about the dangers of FGM. They also warned my parents that they may be prosecuted if they circumcise me,” Alminesh explains.
In Ethiopia, FGM was forbidden by law in 2005. However, it is not enough for just the laws to change, social norms must also be transformed in order to bring the tradition to an end. That's why members of the Uncut Girls' Club discuss the consequences of FGM and empower their peers to reject it.
“We have learned that this tradition is completely unnecessary, a pure lie,” Alminesh's mother says.
In her youth, she herself underwent FGM but if everything goes to plan, she will be the last in her family to endure it.
“Now that I know how wrong it is and how much harm it has caused me, in childbirth for example, I deeply regret having it done. This is why I have not allowed my children to go through the procedure. I will also be telling other members of our community how harmful FGM is.”
Amel, 12, Egypt
Amel, 12, is a proud Egyptian and likes to spend time with her friends like many other young people. But she is part of an overwhelming minority in Egypt: she has not been circumcised.
“I want to eradicate FGM from my village because it has many harmful effects on society,” she says. “It hurts a lot of girls.”
If one of our friends is due to be circumcised we advise her against it.
Amel refused to be circumcised after a friend bled to death as a result of being cut. She has also attended sexual and reproductive health awareness sessions at the Tamouh community development association - a local partner of Plan International.
After learning about the negative impacts, Amel convinced her parents to let her choose what happens to her body. But with 91% of girls and women in Egypt being cut, she knows many won’t be so lucky.
“We are trying to inform each other. If one of our friends is due to be circumcised we advise her against it,” she says.
Despite its high prevalence in Egypt, Amel is optimistic that FGM can be stopped.
“Awareness will be spread by word of mouth in order to eradicate this harmful practice,” she says.
Learn more about female genital mutilation
Learn where it happens, why it happens and different ways communities are working together to end it.