Female Genital Mutilation and Cutting – Is It Child Abuse?

In 2016, the head of the United Nations Population Fund (UNPF), Dr. Babatunde Osotimehin declared for the first time that female genital mutilation and cutting (FGM/C) is “child abuse”.

There are several definitions of child abuse, depending on which organization or government agency defines it.  Just in the United States alone, more than three million child abuse cases are reported every year.

One organization defines child abuse as when a parent or caregiver, whether through action or failing to act, causes injury, death, emotional harm or risk of serious harm to a child.  Wikipedia describes child abuse to be physical, sexual, or psychological mistreatment or neglect of a child, especially by a parent, guardian or another caregiver. It may include any act or failure to act by a parent or other caregiver that might result in actual or potential harm to a child, and can occur in a child’s home, or in the organizations, schools or communities with which the child interacts.  The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services says that child abuse is any act or failure to act on, which results in a child’s serious physical or emotional harm, sexual abuse, exploitation or death. The Health Department further states that it is also an act or failure to act that presents a risk of serious harm to a child.

Who are actually child abusers?  According to reports, child abuse is most commonly perpetrated by someone the child knows.  The abuser could be a parent, guardian, caregiver, relative, family friend or any adult in authority over the child.  There are other types of child abusers, and those are strangers to the child, peers and older children.

When cases of child abuse arise, the public generally expect bruises and broken bones.  However all child abuses do not entail visible and obvious scars.  The types of abuses that are not visible, sometimes leave the most lasting and emotional scars.  The general public in the U.S. needs to be educated on every form of child abuse, as well as the common signs.  If people know what to look for or how to detect certain forms of child abuse, they will be able to intervene and possibly help save a child’s life.

It is easy to recognize the visible scars of child abuse, even when the scars are on the child’s arms or legs, which cannot be seen if he/she is wearing long sleeves and long pants.  However there is the abuse of a child, which scars are not visible; the scars are on a part of the body that is not visibly accessible unless a pediatrician performs a gynecological examination.  Female genital mutilation and cutting is a serious physical and emotional form of child abuse. Several people in the U.S. wonder why there have not been more reported cases of FGM/C.  Most unreported cases go unnoticed due to lack of information and ignorance.  The public cannot report FGM/C cases, even if it is right before them, unless they know what the signs look like.

The Commonwealth of Virginia describes FGM/C as both child abuse and malicious wounding.  Leyla Hussein once stated, “If I placed a child on the table and touched his/her genitals, I would be arrested for child abuse.”  She continued, “So why those who hold a girl down and forcibly cut off her genitals are not arrested for child abuse?  Instead, it is passed off as cultural tradition.”  Hussein does have a strong argument there.

There was a long practicing Chinese cultural tradition called foot-binding, but because it was a cultural tradition did not make it harmless.  There is also a cultural tradition in Cameroon, West Africa called breast-ironing, which is not harmless because people believe in that practice.  Hiding behind cultural practice, does not make FGM/C acceptable and harmless.  Culture neither traditions make harmful practices right.

According to HelpGuide, here are some known myths about child abuse:

   Myth:  Only bad people abuse their children.
   Fact: Not all abusers are intentionally harming their children. In the case of FGM/C, parents believe that it is an act of love.  Mothers love their daughters, yet they help hold them down during the act of FGM/C.

  Myth:  Child abuse does not happen in “good” families.

 Fact: Child abuse doesn’t only happen in poor families or bad neighborhoods. It crosses all racial, economic, and cultural lines. Sometimes, families who seem to have it all from the outside are hiding a different story behind closed doors.

Myth: Most child abusers are strangers.

Fact: While abuse by strangers does happen, most abusers are family members or others close to the family.  In the case of FGM/C, it is the parents or close family members who give permission to have it done to the child.


Myth: Abused children always grow up to be abusers.

Fact: It is true that abused children are more likely to repeat the cycle as adults, unconsciously repeating what they experienced as children. On the other hand, many FGM/C adult survivors protect their daughters from FGM/C, and do not want their girls subjected to that.

The more awareness is raised and the public is educated about FGM/C, the more parents will not want to have their daughters undergo FGM/C.  If everyone remembers that FGM/C is indeed a form of child abuse, little girls might be protected and feel safer.  If you suspect that a child is at risk of abuse or is being abused, including FGM/C please call this hotline at 1-800-994-9662.

If you have comments or questions about this article, please contact info@globalwomanpeacefoundation.org or (703) 818-3787.  In the weeks ahead, this newsletter will address cultural signs and warnings.