Female genital mutilation (FGM), also known as female genital cutting (FGC), female circumcision or female genital mutilation/cutting (FGM/C), is any procedure involving the partial or total removal of the external female genitalia or other injury to the female genital organs "whether for cultural, religious or other non-therapeutic reasons." The term is almost exclusively used to describe traditional or religious procedures on a minor, which requires the parents' consent because of the age of the girl.
When the procedure is performed on and with the consent of an adult it is generally called clitoridectomy, or it may be part of labiaplasty or vaginoplasty. It also generally does not refer to procedures used in gender reassignment surgery, and the genital modification of intersexuals.
FGC is practiced throughout the world, with the practice concentrated most heavily in Asia and Africa. Opposition is motivated by concerns regarding the consent (or lack thereof, in most cases) of the patient, and subsequently the safety and long-term consequences of the procedures. In the past several decades, there have been many concentrated efforts by the World Health Organization (WHO) to end the practice of FGC. The United Nations has also declared February 6 as "International Day Against Female Genital Mutilation".
Several dictionaries, including medical dictionaries, define the word circumcision as applicable to some procedures performed on females. Cook states that historically, the term female circumcision was used, but that "this procedure in whatever form it is practiced is not at all analogous to male circumcision and so the term 'female circumcision' gave way to the term 'female genital mutilation'" Shell-Duncan states that the term female circumcision is a euphemism for a variety of procedures for altering the female genitalia. Toubia argued, in 1995, that the term female circumcision "implies a fallacious analogy to nonmutilating male circumcision, in which the foreskin is cut off from the tip of the penis without damaging the organ itself." However, in the 1999 book Male and Female Circumcision, Toubia states that she agrees that "circumcision — that is, the genital mutilation of girls and boys — is wrong despite its widespread practice."
The term female genital mutilation gained growing support in the late 1970s. The word "mutilation" not only established clear linguistic distinction from male circumcision, but it also emphasized the gravity of the act. In 1990, this term was adopted at the third conference of the Inter-African Committee on Traditional Practices Affecting the Health of Women and Children (IAC) in Addis Ababa. In 1991, the World Health Organization (WHO), a specialized agency of the United Nations (UN), recommended that the UN adopt this terminology; subsequently, it has been widely used in UN documents. In this context, the term female circumcision was thus predominantly replaced by the term female genital mutilation.
Because the term female genital mutilation has been criticized for increasing the stigma associated with female genital surgery, some groups have proposed an alteration, substituting the word "cutting" for "mutilation." According to a joint WHO/UNICEF/UNFPA statement, the use of the word "mutilation" reinforces the idea that this practice is a violation of the human rights of girls and women, and thereby helps promote national and international advocacy towards its abandonment. They state that, at the community level, however, the term can be problematic; and that local languages generally use the less judgmental "cutting" to describe the practice. They also state that parents resent the suggestion that they are "mutilating" their daughters. In 1999, the UN Special Rapporteur on Traditional Practices called for tact and patience regarding activities in this area and drew attention to the risk of "demonizing" certain cultures, religions, and communities. As a result, the term "cutting" has increasingly come to be used to avoid alienating communities.
In 1996, the Uganda-based initiative REACH (Reproductive, Educative, And Community Health) began using the term "FGC", observing that "FGM" may "imply excessive judgment by outsiders as well as insensitivity toward individuals who have undergone some form of genital excision." The UN uses "FGM" in official documents, while some of its agencies, such as the UN Population Fund, use both the terms "FGM" and "FGC”.
FGC consists of several distinct procedures. Their severity is often viewed as dependent on how much genital tissue is cut away. The WHO—which uses the term Female Genital Mutilation (FGM)—divides the procedure into four major types (see Diagram 1), although there is some debate as to whether all common forms of FGM fit into these four categories, as well as issues with the reliability of reported data.