Female genital cutting (FGC), sometimes called female circumcision or female genital mutilation, means piercing, cutting, removing, or sewing closed all or part of a girl's or woman's external genitals for no medical reason. In the United States, available estimates suggest that more than 513,000 girls and women have experienced FGC or are at risk of FGC.1 Worldwide, as many as 140 million girls and women alive today have been cut.2 FGC is often a part of the culture in countries where it is practiced. But FGC has no health benefits and can cause long-term health problems. FGC is against the law in the United States and many other countries.
The World Health Organization (WHO) and the United Nations (UN) define FGC as "any partial or total removal of the external female genitalia or any other injury of the female genital organs for nonmedical reasons." The United States also uses this definition in its efforts to end the practice.
FGC is sometimes called "female genital mutilation." People who practice FGC may call it "female circumcision." FGC is not the same as male circumcision.
The World Health Organization (WHO) describes four major types of FGC. Types 1 and 2 are the most common, but all types may be harmful.
The four types of FGC are:3
FGC is done mostly in parts of northern and central Africa, in the southern Sahara, and in parts of the Middle East and Asia. See the map of countries where FGC is practiced most often (PDF, 22.7 MB).
Some immigrants in the United States and Western Europe from these countries also practice FGC, or may send their daughters back to their family homeland for FGC. Other immigrant families stop practicing FGC once they are in a new country.
Different communities and cultures have different reasons for practicing FGC; the reasons are often complex and can change over time.4 Social acceptability is the most common reason. Families often feel pressure to have their daughter cut so she is accepted by their community. Other reasons may include:
Girls and women who live in the countries where FGC is practiced most often (PDF, 22.7 MB) have the highest risk. In some countries, only a small number of girls and women are cut. In other countries, nearly all girls and women are cut.2
The specific community or part of the country a girl or woman lives in can increase or decrease her risk of certain types of FGC. For example, different ethnic groups may perform different types of FGC. Also, how much wealth, education, and the type of education a girl's parents receive may influence their choice to have a daughter cut. Lastly, whether a community is urban or rural can affect the practice of FGC.
The age when girls are cut varies from country to country and even within communities.
An estimated 100 to 140 million women alive today have undergone FGC. Three million girls and women may be at risk of FGC each year.2 The percentage of women who have been cut is very different from country to country. In Indonesia, 86% to 100% of girls and women have been cut.6 In Guinea and Somalia, more than 95% of girls and women have been cut. In Djibouti, Egypt, Eritrea, and Sierra Leone, it is near 90%. However, in Cameroon and Uganda, less than 2% of girls and women have been cut.
In the United States, available estimates suggest that more than 513,000 girls and women have experienced FGC or are at risk of FGC.1
FGC can cause immediate and long-term medical problems. How bad these problems are depends on:7
The type of FGC done may affect how much and how serious health problems are after FGC. Type 3 causes more health problems than type 1 or type 2.
Immediate medical problems can include:7
FGC can cause long-term problems with a girl's or woman's physical, mental, and sexual health. The type of FGC done may affect how much and how serious the health problems are. Type 2 and type 3 cause more serious health problems than type 1.
Long-term health problems include:9
Girls and women who come to the United States and have already been cut may face additional health problems. Doctors and other health care providers may not know how to adequately treat the girls' and women's unique health needs. In some cases, health care providers lack training on counseling and caring for girls and women who have been cut.9
FGC does not usually cause problems for a woman during pregnancy, but women who have been cut face unique health risks during childbirth. These include:9
Risks to the infant include low birth weight (smaller than 5½ pounds at birth), breathing problems at birth, and stillbirth or early death.16,17
FGC is against the law in the United States. The United States and many other countries consider FGC a violation of women's rights and a form of child abuse. Federal law makes it a crime to perform FGC on a girl younger than 18 or to take or attempt to take a girl out of the United States for FGC. Girls and women who have experienced FGC are not at fault and have not broken any U.S. laws.
The United States considers FGC to be a serious human rights abuse and a form of gender-based violence and child abuse.18 Many girls have FGC forced on them and have no choice about whether it happens. It is painful and offers no health benefits. And FGC often causes long-term physical and mental health problems. For these reasons, the U.S. government works with other governments and organizations to help end the practice.
Governments and groups in the United States and around the world are working together to end the practice of FGC. Some approaches include:
Recent research shows that these efforts may be working. In some regions, education is changing attitudes and influencing a family's choice to have FGC performed. For example, in Egypt, 96% of women 45 to 49 years old were cut, but the percentage dropped to 81% among women 15 to 19 years old.2
If you think a girl is at risk of FGC, contact your state's child protective services agency.
You may also contact the Human Rights and Special Prosecutions Section of the Department of Justice at 800-813-5863 or firstname.lastname@example.org or the Human Rights Violator and War Crimes Unit of the Department of Homeland Security at 866-DHS-2-ICE (866-347-2423) or HRV.ICE@ice.dhs.gov.
Girls and women in the United States who have already been cut need access to clinically and culturally appropriate care from trained health care providers.
For more information about FGC, call the OWH Helpline at 800-994-9662 or contact the following organizations:
The Office on Women's Health is grateful for the additional reviews by:
All material contained on these pages are free of copyright restrictions and may be copied, reproduced, or duplicated without permission of the Office on Women’s Health in the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Citation of the source is appreciated.
Page last updated: April 18, 2017.
Content last reviewed: March 24, 2015.