Recent court case shines light on the horrors of female genital mutilation
International groups have fought to abolish the cultural practice of female genital mutilation (FGM) for decades, but a new US court ruling has shocked and discouraged activists.
“The judge’s ruling that the federal statute against FGM is unconstitutional sets a precedent that cutting girls genitals is not a concern." Amanda Parker, AHA Foundation. (iStock)

A judge of the Supreme Court in the USA has acquitted medical professionals accused of performing female genital mutilation (FGM) on children as young as 7, reports CNN

The case was initially heard in April 2017 and is the first of its kind to be brought under America's genital mutilation law, a law which deems FGM a criminal act. 

Despite the illegality of the practice, US district judge Bernard Friedman ruled that the ban itself was unconstitutional. 

Citing a lack of authority of Congress to pass the law in the first place, the judge recommended that a crime of this nature be dealt with by the state. 

In his 28-page report, the judge stated that: 

"Congress overstepped its bounds by legislating to prohibit FGM. Like the common law assault... FGM is 'local criminal activity' which, in keeping with longstanding tradition and our federal system of government, is for the states to regulate, not Congress." 

As a result, 6 of the 8 charges against the accused were dismissed. An appeal is expected but still pending. 

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Reinforcing the disregard for survivors

“The judge’s ruling that the federal statute against FGM is unconstitutional sets a precedent that cutting girls' genitals is not a concern at the national level,” said Amanda Parker in an official statement released by anti-FGM group the AHA Foundation. 

For the senior director, the decision “sends the message that the authorities are not serious about protecting girls, especially those in immigrant communities, from this form of abuse."

Calling the ruling a decision against progress, Shelby Quast, director of Equality Now in America, is quoted by the Guardian as saying: 

“What it really shows is that girls are not being prioritised. I have had numerous calls from survivors’ groups with people in tears. The message to women and girls is that, when survivors are finally coming forward, sharing their stories, they are being completely disregarded…
While the rest of the world is moving forwards on FGM, the US is moving backwards.”

A definition 

According to the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) and the World Health Organization, the term FGM applies to "all procedures involving partial or total removal of the external female genitalia or other injury to the female genital organs." 

Condemned by anti-FGM campaigners as a gruesome violation of human rights, it is inflicted on girls between infancy up to the age of 30. 

The World Health Organisation (WHO) reports that the practice is carried out throughout the Middle East, Asia, Africa, and migrant communities in various parts of the world, with more than 200 million known cases reported globally. 

In South Africa, the Protection of Equality of Unfair Discrimination Act bans the practice of FGM, however due to its cultural significance as a rite of passage, it is still performed

FGM has no medical value and is done to conform to cultural norms.

The cutting and removal of certain parts of the female anatomy is seen as a "purification" process, a means of preventing premarital sex and of boosting a bride's value. 

It essentially improves a woman's marriageability, upping the value of the dowry a family receives when a daughter is married. 

After marriage, the practice is thought to ensure fidelity.  

Severe and prolonged consequences

Unlike male circumcision, the impact FGM has on a female's health is prolonged. At worst, the act is known to cause death. 

The WHO lists the health consequences to include: 

  • urinary problems 
  • vaginal problems 
  • menstrual problems 
  • scar tissue and keloid scars
  • increased sexual problems
  • risk of childbirth complications and newborn deaths
  • need for later surgeries
  • psychological problems 

Instigating change

International groups have been working to abolish the tradition as far back as the 1920s and the practice is now banned in more than 40 countries. 

Despite progress, laws often go unenforced – which is more than evident given the recent US ruling. 

According to The Programme of Action drafted at the 1994 International Conference on Population and Development, the only way to eliminate the horrific practice is through legislation, supported and enacted on every level, calling for:

"Governments and communities [to] urgently take steps to stop the practice of female genital cutting and protect women and girls from all such similar unnecessary and dangerous practices. Steps to eliminate the practice should include strong community outreach programmes involving village and religious leaders, education and counselling about its impact on girls' and women's health, and appropriate treatment and rehabilitation for girls and women who have suffered cutting. Services should include counselling for women and men to discourage the practice."

Do you know someone who has experienced FGM? Share your opinion by emailing to and we could publish your letter. Do let us know if you'd like to stay anonymous.  

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