Female genital mutilation leads to over 40,000 excess deaths in Africa annually: Research

The practice still remains legal in five of the 28 countries where it is most practiced namely Mali, Malawi, Chad, Sierra Leone, and Liberia

By Rajat Ghai
Published: Friday 18 August 2023
Women in Bissau, West Africa. IStock representative photo

Female Genital Mutilation (FGM), the partial or total removal of external female genitalia or other injury to the female genital organs for nonmedical reasons, is the leading cause of death among girls and young women in parts of Africa annually, a new research paper has stated.

Lasting change requires transforming attitudes towards FGM in these communities, according to the authors of the report.

Researchers from the Universities of Birmingham and Exeter in the United Kingdom analysed the numbers of girls subjected to FGM in Benin, Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Chad, Cote D’Ivoire, Egypt, Ethiopia, Guinea, Kenya, Mali, Niger, Nigeria, Senegal, Sierra Leone and Tanzania.

They discovered that a 50 per cent increase in the number of girls undergoing FGM increased their five-year mortality rate by 0.075 percentage point and led to an estimated 44,320 excess deaths per year across these countries.

The researchers noted:

Our estimate that 44,320 girls and young women die each year due to FGM is suggestive that FGM belongs in the first rank of causes of death in Africa. As a comparison, there were around 968,000 combat deaths in Africa over the 20 years from 1995, but that there were more than 3.4 times as many excess infant deaths associated due to armed conflict, suggesting around 165,000 deaths per year.

The authors also highlighted that FGM was responsible for more deaths of girls than any other cause including HIV/AIDS, measles, meningitis, starvation (nutritional deficiencies), injuries, or whooping cough on the basis of their estimates.

“On this basis, it may be regarded as an urgent social and medical issue alongside its status as a human rights violation,” they wrote.

‘A patriarchal practice’

Globally, over 200 million women and girls have been subjected to FGM. The practice often takes place in unsanitary conditions and without clinical supervision.

It leads to severe pain, bleeding, and infection. Long-term impacts include obstetric complications, reductions in sexual function, and other physical as well as mental health problems.

Recent research has noted a link between the Red Sea slave trade from 1400-1900 Common Era and FGM in Africa today.

The researchers noted that a key social dimension of FGM was how it impacted marriage. For example, the practice influences women’s marriage opportunities in Western Africa — due to patriarchal culture and institutions.

“Our research suggests that decisions about FGM may reflect trade-offs between perceived disadvantages of FGM, such as pain and illegality, and expected benefits such reduced social sanctions and a higher bride-price – people may factor in an increased risk of death as part of that calculation,” James Rockey, one of the authors of the report, was quoted as saying in a statement by the University of Birmingham.

FGM still remains legal in five of the 28 countries where it is most practiced — Mali, Malawi, Chad, Sierra Leone and Liberia.

“There is cause for optimism, as work on non-communicable diseases shows effective interventions are possible, but change in patriarchal attitudes often lags other societal change — an important first step would be for FGM to be made illegal in the countries where it is within the law, given that legal change can lead to cultural change,” Rockey said.

Estimating excess mortality due to female genital mutilation was published on August 16, 2023, in Nature Scientific Reports.

Read more:

Laws alone won’t end female genital mutilation in India: Mariya Taher

Subscribe to Daily Newsletter :

Comments are moderated and will be published only after the site moderator’s approval. Please use a genuine email ID and provide your name. Selected comments may also be used in the ‘Letters’ section of the Down To Earth print edition.