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What Is Infibulation?

By C. Peete
Updated Mar 03, 2024
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Infibulation is a procedure that involves closing or obstructing the genitals as a means to preventing sexual intercourse. Female infibulation involves removal of the clitoris, along with part or all of the labia minora. This is followed by stitching or narrowing the vaginal opening, leaving a small opening large enough to allow the flow of urine and menstruation. Male infibulation involves pulling the foreskin of the penis over the glans and fastening the prepuce, making an erection very painful or impossible. Female and male infibulation are also referred to, respectively, as female genital mutilation (FGM) and male genital infibulation (MGM).

Male infibulation originated in ancient Greece and Rome as a way to control sexual behavior among the slaves and protect them from getting sexually transmitted diseases (STDs). It was also done to preserve chastity among gladiators and athletes, who were thought to perform better when chaste. The Greeks also believed that infibulation would keep the voices of young singers from changing when they reached puberty. Today, MGM is a popular form of body piercing among young men, and it is said to enhance sexual performance rather than inhibit it.

Female infibulation is believed to have originated in southern Arabia; it then spread to Africa, where it is still practiced primarily on young girls once they reach puberty. The purpose is to reduce sexual desire, ensure that a young woman remains a virgin until marriage and increase sexual pleasure for the future husband. The experience of many women who undergo the procedure, however, involves painful or difficult intercourse. In some cases, the husband or one of his female relatives will enlarge the vaginal opening using a small knife to allow intercourse. Reinfibulation is also done each time the wife gives birth to a child.

In some African communities, FGM is a religious practice. In others, female genitalia is considered ugly or offensive, and removing external genitalia is believed to make a woman more hygienic and aesthetically pleasing. FGM is also believed to increase fertility. A woman who has been "circumcised" is considered more marriageable and more culturally and socially acceptable. Uncircumcised women are shunned, called derogatory names and denied access to certain positions and roles that "adult" women can occupy.

There is currently a global effort underway to bring an end to the practice of female infibulation because it is said to violate basic human rights of women. Young girls are often unsuspecting and unwilling participants. The procedure is done in unsanitary conditions and often compromises the health of these young women. Many have bled to death due to hemorrhaging, experienced post-operative shock and suffered from painful menstruation and infections. Those who survive FGM are often left with psychological scars that may never heal.

How Many People Are Affected by Infibulation?

Female genital mutilation (FGM) is much more prevalent nowadays than male genital mutilation (MGM), but countless individuals have been affected by infibulation. 

Not counting the millions of girls and women throughout history who have been subjected to infibulation, the United Nations suspects that there are still 200 million girls and women who have currently dealt with this procedure. 

As for boys and men, the exact numbers aren't known, but it's believed that over 650 million boys and men have undergone this procedure since the practice began. In addition, it's estimated that 13 million boys and men are at risk of experiencing infibulation yearly.

Where Does FGM Occur?

Female infibulation is currently and routinely practiced in 25 countries. These are primarily in Sub-Saharan Africa and the Middle East. There are specific populations in Asia, Eastern Europe, and Latin America. 

Even further, some migrant populations in New Zealand, Australia, and parts of North America practice FGM. The countries where this occurs the most often: 

  • Guinea
  • Somalia
  • Mali
  • Sierra Leone
  • Djibouti
  • Yemen
  • Iraq
  • Egypt
  • Sudan
  • Eritrea

Where Does MGM Occur?

Male infibulation was a common practice in 28 African countries. It has also been practiced in parts of Asia, parts of the United States, the Middle East, and small parts of Europe, Australia, and Canada. 

Efforts to End Infibulation

While many communities view infibulation as a spiritual or cultural practice, much of the world doesn't. The United Nations and the World Health Organization are working to endFGM. The vast majority of girls and women who undergo this procedure do so against their will, which is an international violation of human rights. 

Professionals estimate that more than 65 million girls will be affected by infibulation between 2015 and 2030, aiming to end the practice by 2030. People working with the United Nations are making efforts to end this practice through: 

  • Offering educational programs
  • Prevention methods
  • Protection services
  • Other care services relating to FGM 

Through their current efforts, more than five million girls and women have received the prevention and protection they need against FGM. We've seen a large decrease in the practice in the last few years. 

These methods, along with more than 42 million people making public declarations against the practice, have all helped push the movement to end FGM forward, but there's still work to be done.

Something interesting to keep in mind when discussing efforts to end infibulation is that while many cultures view it as a cultural or spiritual practice, many women and girls in the countries where it happens the most believe it should end. 

With MGM being much less common than FGM nowadays, and some people even performing the procedure to increase pleasure, the efforts to end the unwanted surgeries aren't as prevent as the ones to end FGM.

Psychological Effects of Infibulation

Male and female infibulation can have lasting psychological effects on those who undergo the procedure. The psychological stress caused by infibulation can cause behavioral issues in male and female children. 

You might be able to see this in terms of their lack of confidence, distrust of adults, and other emotional issues like intense anger or sadness. Older men and women might experience anxiety, depression, sexual dysfunction, and struggles to form lasting relationships. 

These effects can lead to a lack of motivation, inadequate education, less socialization, and even divorce if the person gets married.

Can Infibulation Be Reversed?

Female and male infibulation can be reversed with surgery. The process is called defibulation, and communities who utilize this procedure usually reverse it when it's time for the female to get married, bear a child, and give birth. For men, people can reverse MGM when they're ready for sexual intercourse or are getting married. 

While there are procedures to reverse infibulation in both males and females, not everyone makes a full recovery. With medicine improving every year, more people are physically making a full recovery, even if everything isn't exactly the same as it was before. 

Just because infibulation can be reversed and most people recover physically, that's only where the work begins. Healing emotionally and psychologically will be far more significant for people forced to undergo infibulation.

The Health Board is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.

Discussion Comments

By anon251265 — On Feb 29, 2012

And what about ending the barbaric practice of male genital mutilation ("circumcision")? That is a human rights violation as well! Why is it illegal in the Western world against girls, but it is acceptable to mutilate the penises of boys?

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