Influence of social norms and migration on the well-being of persons with FGM

Most of the currently available studies on psychological and sexual consequences of FGM have been led in Europe and North America on migrant women concerned by FGM. Factors such as migration, the integration in the host society as well as cultural and social environment, norms and customs must therefore be analyzed. Current studies emphasize the influence that external factors and the life path of the person have on psychological consequences of FGM.

It appears for example that the stronger the social norm prescribing the practice of FGM, the less FGM is questioned and its harmful effects recognised as such. In Senegal, for instance, where only 20% of women are cut and where sensitisation campaigns inform on harmful consequences of FGM the event is lived as more traumatizing (11) than in Somalia, where FGM is highly prevalent and considered as desirable for Muslim women (4). Thus, in this second context, women develop efficient coping mechanisms and live the ritual as normal and positive (4).

The impact of migration

In low prevalence countries, where FGM is not the norm, the situation is different. Studies led on migrant women living in Norway and The Netherlands show that the migratory journey can be a new hardship affecting women’s well-being (10). Some women can, then, discover that FGM have harmful effects on physic and mental health and that they are considered as a violation of Human rights. Thus, between the home and host society, the paradigm is reversed: whilst FGM was the norm, they become the exception, far from being mandatory and surrounded by a positive meaning, they are perceived as abnormal and illegal (20). Women can, then, feel betrayed, angry or disoriented by what they learn. New questions can be raised on the justifications of their excision. To be in a society where most of women are not cut can also create a feeling of incompleteness, inferiority, of being different or diminished as if a part of themselves was lacking. To reconsider a social norm as strong as FGM and to be out of the norm can be lived as a second trauma for affected women (20).

A study conducted in Germany (5) also showed a link between integration in the host country and the report of psychological problems due to FGM: the more the women were integrated in the host society, able to speak the national language, the more they were susceptible to report that they suffer and express their emotions.

Annalisa, psychologist at GAMS Belgium who provides individual support and runs community workshops with migrant women affected by FGM and other forms of gender-based violence, noticed that while many women fled their countries to put an end to violence, some of them had not fully identified the pain of FGM and how it affects them until they are no longer in their community of origin.

The impact of social norms around women’s sexuality

Sarah O’Neill, an anthropologist working in Belgium, has found, in research on women asking for clitoral reconstruction, that women’s expectations about their own sexual performance and beliefs about the causes of their lack of pleasure are fueled by damaging speeches and pornographic images primarily tailored to satisfy male sexual fantasies. The result is a feeling of inferiority and humiliation / embarrassment regarding their FGM. Even women who have never suffered from specific health problems come to believe that there is something wrong with them because they have the status of ‘woman who has undergone FGM’.  Read Sarah’s paper here : En quête de reconstruction identitaire (in French).

During the webinar, Sokhna Fall (France) also noticed that among her patients and their partners, FGM is sometimes used as an “excuse” to explain women’s sexual dissatisfaction, even when the reason is rather normative views of sexuality

(4) Knipscheer et al., Mental health problems associated with female genital mutilation, BJ Psych Bulletin (2015), 39, 273-277. Access here

(5) Vloeberghs E., Knipscheer J., Van der Kwaak A., Naleie Z., Van Den Muijsenbergh M., Veiled pain. A study in Netherlands on the psychological, social and relational consequences of FGM, 2011, Utrecht, The Netherlands : Pharos.

(10) Helen Smith and Karin Stein, “Psychological and counselling interventions for FGM”, Int J Gynecol Obstet 2017; 136 (Suppl. 1): 60–64. Access here

(11) Psychological, social and sexual consequences of FGM/C : a systematic review of quantitative studies, Report from Kunnskapssenteret (Norwegian Knowledge Centre for the Health Services), No 13–2010. Access here

(20) Lansana Gberie, “Mental illness: Invisible but devastating. Superstitution often blamed for acute mental health diseases”, Africa Renewal, December 2016 – March 2017. Access here

« The Community of Practice on Female Genital Mutilation » is part of the « Building Bridges between Africa and Europe to tackle FGM » project, supported by the « UNFPA-UNICEF Joint Programme on the Elimination of FGM ». The project is coordinated by AIDOS in partnership with GAMS Belgium.

The views expressed on this website are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the UNFPA, UNICEF or any other agency or organization.

© Copyright : GAMS Belgium