It’s a tragedy most of us luckily cannot even begin to fathom: female genital mutilation (FGM). According to the World Health Organisation, it describes “all procedures that involve partial or total removal of the external female genitalia, or other injury to the female genital organs for non-medical reasons”. It’s cruel, but it’s also the daily reality of too many girls and women – and therefore something we need to be aware of.

This month, Life Links, a documentary series by Deutsche Welle (and the lovely place I work at when I’m not on the road for Travelettes), portrayed four stories relating to FGM in Senegal, Germany and the UK. And I thought it’s about time someone told you about the scope of the problem. I had no idea it affects two million girls around the globe every year, and 140 million girls worldwide – 125 million of that are in the Middle East and Africa, with Somalia at the very top. But FGM is by no means a local problem: an estimated 103,000 girls in England and Wales are also affected for example.

Why are girls cut?

Perhaps we should answer the most pressing of questions first. Why would anyone put any human being through so much suffering? Alleged reasons like hygiene, better marriage prospects or the preservation of virginity make girls believe it’s the right thing to do. Most of the time though, it’s a tradition that has never been questioned and therefore automatically seems has to have a justification.

“I will never be the same”

Alima, 21, from Guinea, was cut on her first day of school and her life – including the relationships to men, her sex life and her self-confidence – would never be the same.

“It felt like they had taken a part of my body away. I’m not the same as before and I will never be the same. It’s like death. Even if you are married and lay with our husband, you only do it to satisfy him, you’ll never feel it yourself. You don’t feel the love. All that ceases to exist, it’s all over. I prefer not to make love at all. It means nothing to me, absolutely nothing, it was all taken away from me,” Alima said.

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#endFGM tells the stories of Bintou, Aminatu, Mariam and Gundo, all of these girls were cut at a young age. Bintou was a young girl when it happened and never quite recovered from the trauma; Aminatu remembers vividly how she was held on the floor and mutilated, Mariam wasn’t able to talk about what happened to her for a long time and Gundo, originally from a small village in Senegal, doesn’t know a culture where girls weren’t cut. Today, she’s one of many women fighting for a shift in thinking.

0,,18669106_4,00 via DW Life Links

What can we do?

FGM needs to end, that’s for sure. Oddly enough, two-thirds of people in the 29 countries where FGM is particularly prevalent say the practice should be stopped. So why are these numbers not having an effect? Should politics get involved? The thing is, putting legislations into place doesn’t quite have a sufficient impact, because a few words don’t get rid of the root of the issue: tradition – and fear of being excluded from a culture or a community that has always been home. In a best possible scenario, enough social pressure would be built up in the affected communities in Europe, Asia and Africa. Molly Melching, founder of the NGO Tostan, told Life Links:

“In communities, where 85 percent are practicing, how many people do you want to put in prison? A robber [should go to prison], yes, but someone who is following a practice that is believed to be important in their culture? We have seen over and over again that [legal punishment] has not worked.”

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A tiny light at the end of the tunnel is Egypt. Although estimations claim that 91 percent of women between 15 and 49 were cut, public support for FGM went down by 20 percent over the last two years. Until the rest of the world has caught up with that, we need to make sure to take a stand against it.

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All images and videos © DW Life Links