Female Genital Mutilation

This post was inspired by a brave, but gut-wrenching interview with Assita Kanko, a writer, women's rights activist, politician, and victim of female genital mutilation. The interview is in Dutch, but you can find a Google-translated, slightly touched-up English version here.

The World Health Organization defines female genital mutilation as all procedures involving partial or total removal of the external female genitalia or other injury to the female genital organs for non-medical reasons [1] and classifies it into four different types, ranging from clitoridectomy (partial or total removal of the clitoris) to infibulation (narrowing the vaginal opening by removing the external genitalia and fusing the resulting wound). According to UNICEF, in 2016 at least 200 million women had undergone some form of genital mutilation [2]. Strictly speaking, plastic and cosmetic surgery such as labiaplasty also falls under this definition. The International Society of Aesthetic Plastic Surgery counted 138,033 labiaplasty procedures worldwide in 2016 [3]. While it is not clear to me whether UNICEF included these procedures in their estimate of the number of women who underwent genital mutilation, the difference between the two is so large that it wouldn't make much difference.

I know very little about female genital mutilation, let alone its complex cultural, social and religious background. When I encounter a new topic like this one, I often try to find some data about it that could help me better understand it [4]. I found some relevant data on The Humanitarian Data Exchange (HDX), an centralised database of humanitarian data that I can whole-heartedly recommend to all data enthousiasts. More specifically, I downloaded the percentage of girls and women aged 15—49 years who have undergone any form of female genital mutilation. As always, you can find the data and all the visualization code on GitHub.

Overall prevalence

The HDX dataset contains prevalence data for 27 African countries. Female genital mutilation (FGM) is also found in the Middle East and parts of Asia, and in communities from countries where the practice is common [5]. The overall prevalence is quite varied and ranges from 1.4% in Uganda to 98.4% in Somalia.

Hover over a country (or press on it if you're on mobile) to see the country's name and the prevalence.

Prevalence versus residence

Comparing rural and urban areas, there appears to be a slight trend towards lower prevalence of FGM in urban areas, as described in the 2013 UNICEF report on female genital mutilation [6]. There are three exceptions (Mali, Chad and Nigeria), where the prevalence is higher in urban areas. These three countries are highlighted in the line chart below (in which each line is colored by the overall prevalence in the corresponding country).

rural urban
Use this range slider to switch between the prevalence for rural and urban areas. Click the play button to automatically loop over the two options [7].

Prevalence versus wealth

I assumed the prevalence of FGM would be higher among the poorest communities, which it is to some degree, but just as with the residence, the differences tend not to be very large. There are again some exceptions (Sudan, Mali, Guinea Bissau and Nigeria) where the prevalence is higher among the richest compared to the poorest quintile.

poorest richest
Use this range slider to switch between the prevalence for the different wealth categories. Click the play button to automatically loop over the options.

Female genital mutilation is a complex issue with many cultural, ethnical, religious, socio-economic and medical features that cannot be generalized. I created the maps above to get a quick overview of the prevalence of FGM and to introduce myself (and maybe you too) to this poignant topic. The reality is obviously too complex to capture in a few maps and if you'd like to know more, I recommend reading the Wikipedia page and UNICEF report on FMG. I would like to end this post on a somewhat positive note, from the UNICEF report: When attitudes are tracked over time, it appears that overall support for the practice is declining, even in countries where FGM/C is almost universal, such as Egypt and Sudan.

[1] You can find the definition on page 4 of this document: Eliminating female genital mutilation (WHO, 2008). This statement also contains an interesting explanation on how and why the original term "female circumcision" was replaced by "female genital mutilation" (page 22, annex 1). ↑ back up

[2] Female genital mutliation/cutting: a global concern (UNICEF, 2016) ↑ back up

[3] You can find the number of labiaplasty (and other) suregeries performed worldwide in 2016 on page 7 of this document: THE INTERNATIONAL STUDY ON AESTHETIC/COSMETIC PROCEDURES PERFORMED IN 2016. ↑ back up

[4] I thought that the Wikipedia page on female genital mutilation introduces the topic quite well. ↑ back up

[5] According to the Wikipedia page on female genital mutilation, there have also been some cases in Europe and the United States, but these appear to have been isolated events, rather than a broad culturally and socially accepted practice. ↑ back up

[6] The section on socio-demographic characteristics on page 36 of the UNICEF report "Female Genital Mutilation/Cutting: A statistical overview and exploration of the dynamics of change"" talks about the differences between rural and urban settings. Read the whole document if you have the time for an in-depth, data-driven overview of the topic. ↑ back up

[7] I thought it would be interesting to add an animation to the maps that loops over the different categories, giving an impression of the prevalence changing from category to category. Here's how I implemented this functionality:

// Automatically loop through the different values of a range slider
// when a user clicks the play/pause button next to it.
// We will use the setInterval function to perform the automated
// "looping". Because we also want to be able to stop this loop at a
// later timepoint, we have to define the variable that stores the
// ID of the interval outside of our event listener. The setInterval
// function can be halted using the clearInterval function, but for
// this to work we need to store the interval ID generated by
// setInterval and pass it to clearInterval when we want to end the
// interval.
var intervalId;
$('.play-button').on('click', function() {
	// Find the associated range slider and extract its maximal value.
	// We'll use this maximal value to decide when to go back to the
	// beginning of the range.
	var range = $(this).parent().find('input[type=range]');
	var maxValue = parseInt(range.attr('max'));

	// Check if the automated loop was playing. Stop it if it was and
	// start it if it wasn't.
	if ($(this).hasClass('playing')) {
	} else {
		// We could start the interval without the variable assignment,
		// but then we wouldn't know the interval's ID, which we need
		// to stop it when the user clicks the play/pause button again.
		intervalId = setInterval(function() {
			var rangeValue = parseInt(range.val());
			var newValue = rangeValue < maxValue ? rangeValue + 1 : 0;
		}, 1000);
↑ back up