Child marriage and FGM/C: What you need to know

Young girls in Ethiopia. Photo credit: Ashenafi Tibebe, The Elders. 2011

Child marriage and female genital mutilation/cutting (FGM/C) are two harmful practices which hold back millions of women and girls throughout their lives. Where the two exist together, the impact on girls’ lives is even greater. On International Day of Zero Tolerance for FGM, we look at what ties child marriage and FGM/C together, what makes them different, and how we can address them together.

Female genital mutilation/cutting (FGM/C) describes any procedure that intentionally alters female genital organs for non-medical reasons (Source: the World Health Organisation, WHO). It has no health benefits for girls. It can cause severe bleeding, problems urinating, and later cysts, infections, as well as complications in childbirth and increased risk of new-born deaths.

What are the similarities between child marriage and FGM?

  • They’re both driven by gender inequality and social expectations of what it means to be a girl. They are patriarchal means of controlling girls’ sexuality often linked to cultural, religious or traditional social norms.
  • They don’t protect girls. Some parents and communities believe child marriage and FGM/C to be a way of protecting girls from pre-marital sex and secure a safer future for their daughters. In reality they are both violations of girls’ rights which have devastating consequences for their health, education and safety.
  • They both make girls more likely to drop out of school, and face violence, health problems, and experience complications during pregnancy.
  • Neither practice is endorsed by religion. Many communities interpret their faith differently and use these practices as a marker of their religious identity. Getting religious leaders on board to debunk this myth is an important part of changing social norms.

A religious leader not circumcising [sic] his daughter . . . is a much more powerful symbol than imprisoning circumcisers, or fining the family”. (Community Worker, Ethiopia.)

 What are the differences?

  • Not all child brides undergo FGM/C and not all girls who experience FGM/C are child brides.
  • Child marriage is more widespread than FGM/C. Approximately 650 million women alive today were married as children while 200 million women have been cut, according to UNICEF.
  • Child marriage happens all over the world, cutting across countries, cultures and religions, but FGM/C happens primarily in Africa and some countries in Asia and the Middle East.
  • There are many places where child marriage happens while FGM/C does not. However, when FGM/C does happen, it often leads to child marriage.

 How are child marriage and FGM/C linked?

  • In some contexts, girls undergo FGM to prepare them for marriage. In these communities, there is a social belief that un-cut girls make unsuitable wives.
  • However, in certain regions, girls undergo FGM before the age of 5 but do not immediately marry, suggesting that there isn’t always a direct link between the two practices.
  • Some communities might reject FGM but embrace child marriage and vice versa. The relationship varies from country to country and even within countries.

“The community doesn’t accept us – the elders and religious leaders don’t have a place for uncut girls. How will they ever get married?” (Mother, Oromia, Ethiopia)

 What can be done?

  • Research has found that sometimes when FGM/C disappears in a community, it may be replaced by child marriage. Efforts to tackle FGM/C or child marriage must bear this dynamic in mind and tackle their shared drivers and impact together.
  • Having stronger legal frameworks and child protection systems are the first steps but implementing this at the community level is crucial.
  • Challenging traditional narratives from within communities, raising awareness about the detrimental impact of both practices, and prioritising girls’ empowerment are key.

Where they exist together, child marriage and FGM/C can be stopped together. Only then can girls access their rights to education, wellbeing and safety.