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Historical perspective & global prevalence

In most cultures, talking about women’s sexuality is a taboo and for that reason it is difficult to get precise information on the historical roots of the ritual of FGM. The origins of FGM are not precisely known, although historians and anthropologists have done much research on the topic. Several sources have traced it back to more than 2000 years and generally point to ancient Egypt, specifically areas around the Nile as its geographical heartland from where it spread (Slack 1988). Some historians claim it to be a Pharanoiac practice and that its roots lie in 5th century BC Egypt. Anthropologists mention it as an African Stone Age way of “protecting” a young female from rape (Lightfoot-Klein 1983). Some research has linked it with early 17th-century Somalia, where it was carried out to get a better price for women slaves, and also with an Egyptian practice to prevent pregnancies in women and slaves(Lightfoot-Klein 1983). The early Roman and Arabic civilizations linked female genital mutilation with virginity and chastity; in ancient Rome female slaves were made to undergo it to oppress sexual activity  and to raise their value (Tankwala 2014).

It is well known that FGM/C was traditionally practiced in many parts of the world and is not limited to Africa and the Middle East. It was practiced by Australian Aboriginal communities (Harris-Short 2013), the Phoenicians, the Hittites, the Ethiopians (Rahman and Toubia 2000), and ethnic groups in Amazonia, some parts of India, Pakistan, Malaysia, Indonesia and in the Philippines (Guiora 2013). In the 19th century, FGM was practiced in Europe and the US, where some physicians embarked on clitoridectomy to prevent masturbation or counteract female homosexuality and some mental disorders such as ‘hysteria’(Brown 1866). In fact, FGM sporadically continued in the USA until 1970s in one form or another.

FGM predates Islam and Christianity, however, most communities which perform FGM are Muslims and so religion is frequently cited as a reason (Bob 2011). Nonetheless, Islamic scholars do not agree all with this notion and some condemn the attachment of the practice to Islam. FGM also occurs among small groups of Christians, animists, Jews and members of other indigenous religions (Bob 2011, Nyangweso 2014) such as in Eitherea and in Ethiopia, Coptic and Catholic Christian communities practice FGM. In the Jewish groups, Beta Israel and Falasha, female circumcision is widespread (Favali and Pateman 2003).

According to UNICEF data, FGM is most common in 29 countries in Africa, as well as in some countries in Asia and the Middle East and among certain migrant communities in North America, Australasia, the Middle East and Europe (UNICEF 2013). There is no evidence for it in southern Africa or in the Arabic-speaking nations of North Africa, except Egypt (Toubia 1995). Increased migration of people from practicing countries has resulted in the spread of FGM to other parts of the world, including Australia, Canada, New Zealand, the US, and European nations(Boyle 2005). The practice can also be found to a lesser extent in Indonesia, Malaysia, Pakistan and India (Isiaka and Yusuff 2013). In Iraq, FGM is practiced among Sunni Kurds, some Arabs and Turkmens. A survey done by a number of NGOs in 2005 suggests 60% prevalence among Kurds in Iraq (Ghareeb and Dougherty 2004, 226). Later studies from the same area, following the launch of a number of local and regional campaigns to combat FGM, suggested a lower rate of FGM. According to the Kurdish regional government, UNICEF and local NGOs, FGM rates have been dropping rapidly.

Reliable figures on the prevalence of FGM are increasingly available. The statistical review by UNICEF mentions that national data have now been collected in the Demographic and Health Survey (DHS) program for six countries: the Central African Republic, Côte d’Ivoire, Egypt, Eritrea, Mali and Sudan. In these countries, the rate among reproductive-age women varies from 43% to 97%. Data for these countries also subdivides the rates among different ethnic groups. However, the statistics have until recently been silent about its presence in the US and a few other western countries(UNICEF 2013). Iran is now also on the list of practicing countries.

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