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Female genital mutilation becoming less common

Published online 8 November 2018

Surveys reveal that female genital mutilation has dropped significantly across much of Africa.

Sedeer el-Showk

Jamie Carstairs / Alamy Stock Photo
The frequency of female genital mutilation has dropped throughout Africa over the past 30 years, reports a study1  published in BMJ Global Health this week.

Over 200 million girls and women living today have been subjected to female genital mutilation or cutting (FGM/C), according to UNICEF, and a recent study2  reports that three million girls are at risk of genital mutilation every year. 

To investigate the effectiveness of campaigns against FGM/C, a team led by Ngianga-Bakwin Kandala of Northumbria University, UK, investigated changes in its prevalence in children over the past three decades. The researchers analysed data from the Demographic Health Survey developed by global consulting company ICF International and the UNICEF-directed Multiple Indicator Cluster Survey to evaluate FGM/C frequency in girls under 14 in 29 African countries and two West Asian countries from 1990 to 2017. 

They found a significant decline in the prevalence of FGM during this period, with the rate in East Africa dropping from 71% in 1995 to 8% in 2016, in North Africa from 58% in 1990 to 14% in 2015, and in West Africa from 73% in 1996 to 25% in 2017. 

By contrast, the rate in West Asia grew from around 1% in 1997 to 16% in 2013. Both West Asian countries included in the study — Yemen and Iraq — experienced major violence and a breakdown of civil society during this period, but the team didn’t test whether the conflicts had an effect on FGM/C rates. 

The regional changes mask differences at the level of individual countries. For example, West Africa includes countries with a significant decline (such as Niger, where FGM/C incidence went from 14.2% to 0.9%) and others where the rate has remained level or even increased (such as Mali, where the rate was 74% in 1995 and 76% in 2015). While this study focused on the regional level, Kandala plans to continue with country-specific analyses, beginning with Kenya, Nigeria and Senegal — countries identified by the UN as a priority.

Mhairi Gibson, an anthropologist at the University of Bristol who studies cultural practices that are harmful to women, points out that the surveys used in the study rely on self-reporting, which could be biased. “The authors interpret the declines over time as a change in behaviour, but this could actually reflect increased under-reporting of the practice,” she says, adding that studies have shown that people are inclined to conceal FGM/C in response to campaigns against the practice3 ,4 . “Policy makers should be more aware of this, particularly if they are using self-reported data to evaluate the success of anti-FGC campaigns.”

The study also warns of the potential for reversal in some countries, citing poverty, poor education, “gendered cultural forces”, and the “continued perception of FGM/C as a potential marriage market activity” as risk factors. To counter these risks and further reduce FGM/C, the researchers say there is a need to sustain comprehensive intervention. “A multi-sectoral approach involving several stakeholders from the judiciary, religious leaders, cultural leaders, and others could help further reduce the practice, as it has been shown that the law alone is not effective,” says Kandala.


  1. Kandala, N.-B. et al. Secular trends in the prevalence of female genital mutilation/cutting among girls: a systematic analysis. BMJ Glob. Health 3, e000549 (2018).
  2. Serour, G. I. Medicalization of female genital mutilation/cutting. Afr. J. Urol. 19, 145–149 (2013).
  3. Gibson, M.A. et al. Indirect questioning method reveals hidden support for female genital cutting in South Central Ethiopia. PLoS ONE 13, e0193985 (2018).
  4. Camilotti, G. Interventions to stop female genital cutting and the evolution of the custom: Evidence on age at cutting in Senegal. J. Afr. Econ. 25, 133–58 (2016).