Female Genital Mutilation on Women: The Global South Story

An interview with Agnes Mimi Nonie (née Bangali)-UNFPA Technical Specialist: Female Genital Mutilation (FGM)


Interviewed by Sorcha McNally, BHSc Student, Faculty of Health Sciences


IMG_8402.JPGAgnes ‘Mimi’ Nonie

Agnes Mimi Nonie (née Bangali) is a young feminist advocate in Dakar, Senegal. She works for the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) as Technical Specialist for the UN’s Joint Programme to End Female Genital Mutilation (FGM). She coordinates UNFPA’s response to FGM in eight West and Central Africa countries.

Mimi is passionate about African Women’s Health and Rights, particularly adolescent girls. Before joining UNFPA in Senegal, she worked with women and young people in Sierra Leone. Her work focused on increasing women and young people’s access to sexual and reproductive health information and services and empowering them to make the right choices. 

Mimi graduated from Connecticut College in 2013 with a bachelor’s degree in Biology and Gender and Women’s Studies. In 2018 she completed her Masters of Science in Public Health for Development at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. She was also president of the Student Representative Council.

Mimi is the Founder of Femme Collective, a feminist organization geared towards amplifying women’s voices and experiences in Sierra Leone. In 2017 Mimi was recognized as one of the 50 most influential young Sierra Leoneans by the Institute of Leadership, Entrepreneurship and Development. Her interests include entrepreneurship, technology, and politics. She enjoys blogging, organizing events and freelance photography.

Could you speak to the International Day of Zero Tolerance for Female Genital Mutilation? What is the purpose/importance of this event?

The International Day of FGM [Female Genital Mutilation] is a day to advocate and raise awareness about female genital mutilation. It is an issue that primarily affects a specific band of countries in the Global South. However, if you are not primarily from some countries within Africa, the Middle East, or Asia you are likely to not know about the practice of FGM. In 2012, the UN general assembly decided to designate a special day to raise awareness about this issue. The day is also focused on increasing global commitment from donors, partners, civil society, organizations, and NGOs to address this practice in high prevalence countries. In terms of international development, because there are so many competing global issues and priorities requiring resources to address, there is a limited focus on FGM. What we have found out is that if you want to prioritize an issue it is better to make it part of a specific goal, and one way to do this, is to have an international day when the world can band together on an issue. That is why we have February 6th.

Could you tell us more about the practice of FGM and how it came about?

The World Health Organization defines FGM as any alteration to the female genitalia for non-medical reasons. So, any change to the vagina, for any reason that is not medical, is classified as FGM. Sometimes medical surgeries and procedures may require alteration of the female genitals, but those are not considered FGM. Now, if you are doing it purely for no medical reason, it is considered FGM. There are 4 types of FGM. Type I involves the removal of the clitoris or clitoral hood, also called clitoridectomy. It is the most commonly practiced. Type II, also called excision, further involves removal of the inner or outer vagina lips, or sometimes both. Type III is the worst kind – infibulation. It involves sewing the vaginal opening shut, with a tiny passage left for urination and menstruation. Type IV FGM involves all other types that do not fall into the first three categories.

In terms of why it is done, it varies. Every country has a different context, different reasons, but mostly the reasons given are cultural. For example, in some contexts, people believe if a woman is birthing a baby and the baby touches the clitoris, the woman and baby will die. Others believe that the clitoris is dirty, that it makes the vagina smell and that it is unhygienic. There are also moral reasons. Some believe that removing the clitoris will make the women faithful in marriage. Men will not marry uncut women in many cultures because they associate the clitoris with looseness and promiscuity. In other cultures, it is for religious reasons. Some claim that religious texts mandate it, however, we have had scholars research these texts, and found this to be untrue. In some cultures, it is a rite of passage. So, for example, in my country, Sierra Leone, it is a part of a ritual, a rite of passage to enter womanhood and be initiated into a powerful all-female secret society. As a member, you have numerous social privileges and protection. However, if you’re not part of the society, especially in rural communities, you can be ostracized and lose those privileges.

What is the global prevalence of FGM? Can you mention the regions with the highest prevalence?

Globally, it is estimated that 200 million women and girls have undergone FGM around the world. It is prevalent in 31 countries, most of which are in Africa however it is also found in the Middle East and Asia. For example, nearly 50% of girls in Indonesia have undergone the practice of FGM. Although, in reality, FGM is found in almost every country globally because of migrating populations. Even in the many Western countries where it might be against the law, you will find pockets of such practices within immigrant communities. In some countries, there are emerging trends such as the medicalization of FGM. Medicalization is when FGM is done in hospitals by the medical staff. This is a common practice in a lot of countries like Egypt. We are starting to see a decline in this practice among the younger generation.

What, in your opinion, is influencing the continuous practice of FGM?

You find FGM in societies where women are disempowered, usually highly patriarchal societies, where women's needs are not a priority. The practise of FGM is misogynistic, steeped in patriarchy and aimed at controlling women. If women were considered equal to men, then their sexual pleasure would be considered just as important. Nobody would want to mutilate them to ensure they do not have access to the same sexual pleasure or try to curb their sexuality. Therefore, in my opinion, the root cause of FGM is gender inequality. Before, we used to have programs targeting the FGM issue like only sensitization. Now we are designing programs that address gender inequality, to improve the status of women in society. Once that happens, then FGM will naturally die out on its own.

Can you tell us how FGM affects the health of women and girls? Can you speak to the psychological effects of it?

FGM has short-term and long-term impacts. The short-term effects are pain, shock, bleeding and trauma. Many times it is done without anesthesia. In my country, we lost a 21-year-old woman in December 2021 when she bled out due to FGM. In worst cases, it is death. You also have difficulty urinating, and sometimes the pain lasts for a very long time. The long-term effect again is pain: painful urination and painful intercourse, especially with type 3. I recently learned that the difficulty in childbirth was not just common with women who underwent type 3 FGM. Research shows that all types of FGM can cause difficulty due to scar tissues formed after FGM. Sometimes the healing of the wound is impaired, and you develop scar tissues. Additionally, there are significant mental health problems associated with FGM. Some women are very traumatized for the rest of their lives, impacting their sexual activity. Obstetric fistulas are also a common complication leading to incontinence. In my country, we had a five-year-old girl that underwent FGM and ended up with a fistula. Of course, you also have the risk of infections and an increased risk of HIV. Sometimes the same tools are used on multiple girls, which spreads disease. There is no positive impact at all. And psychologically, women experience life-long trauma especially for girls who grow up and wish the practice had not been done on them. There is a lot of pain and anger to work through. I also wanted to mention that the people who practise FGM do not do it out of hate for their daughters. FGM is one of the few gender-based violence issues that is a woman on woman violence. In most countries, it is women cutting their daughters, perpetuating and propagating the practice. Usually, it is done out of love because they want their daughters to be accepted within their communities. It is tough to eliminate the practice because it will require the entire society to change. Otherwise, if you are the one person that refuses to do it, you face significant ostracization. Even if you do not want to do it, you might be forced to do it anyway. It is really hard to get an entire society to change. You need social collective willingness to abandon the practice.



Photo credit: WHO