Causes and Risk Factors

Some believe that female genital mutilation originated with the pharaohs of ancient Egypt, from which stemmed the most severe form of female genital mutilation: pharaonic circumcision. Others believe that the practice began with very wealthy men of other ancient empires, who, in an effort to ensure fidelity of their women, would guard them with eunuchs. Still others believe that certain religious beliefs have influenced people to use female genital mutilation to conform to perceived requirements of their holy books and to appease their deities. For many, female genital mutilation is simply a long-standing practice that has been passed on from generation to generation. 


Experts have noted the following reasons why people engage in the practice of female genital mutilation:

  • Sociological: Female genital mutilation is viewed as a rite of passage for a girl into womanhood, accompanied by celebrations and gift-giving. If a girl does not participate in this practice, she may be ostracized from the community. Although some beneficial skills are often learned as part of this rite of passage, including how to care for domestic duties and display proper etiquette, the practice of female genital mutilation is not a skill that will assist a girl in her development as a woman.
  • Health: Some believe that female genital mutilation enhances fertility and even child survival. (All available evidence indicates that the contrary is true. There is reliable proof that female genital mutilation, in fact, decreases the chances of fertility and child survival.)
  • Religious: Some believe that female genital mutilation is a religious requirement or necessary for protection against spells. No religions, however, actually require this practice.
  • Socio-economic and cultural factors:
  1. Viewed as a pre-requisite for marriage. In some communities, if a woman wants to marry a man, especially one of higher social status, she must undergo the procedure. In these communities, a man will likely not consider a woman for marriage unless she has undergone FGM.
  2. Economic pressure. Families looking to the financial benefits of having a daughter married feel pressure to have a girl undergo FGM in order to make sure she is marriageable.
  3. Source of income and social status for those who perform the “surgery.”  Some very respected individuals in the community, including physicians, nurses, midwives and barbers, may perform the procedure. Performance of the procedures results in a boost in reputation.

Despite such intense social pressure, some individuals and communities have made the conscious decision to refuse to participate in this practice or to let their children undergo it. They recognize that the benefits they achieve by allowing their daughters to grow and flourish without female genital mutilation are well worth any social sacrifices. (For more information on current and pending legislation against female genital mutilation, please see the Law and Policy section.)


Compiled from: Gerry Mackie & John LeJeune, Social Dynamics of Abandonment of Harmful Practices: A New Look at the Theory, United Nations Children's Fund Innocenti Research Centre (IWP-2009-06) (2009) (PDF, 42 pages); Child Protection from Violence, Exploitation and AbuseUnited Nations Children's Fund (6 March 2008).