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Keywords:

  • female genital cutting;
  • female genital mutilation;
  • female circumcision;
  • Gambia;
  • Africa;
  • reproductive health

This paper examines the association between traditional practices of female genital cutting (FGC) and adult women’s reproductive morbidity in rural Gambia. In 1999, we conducted a cross-sectional community survey of 1348 women aged 15–54 years, to estimate the prevalence of reproductive morbidity on the basis of women’s reports, a gynaecological examination and laboratory analysis of specimens. Descriptive statistics and logistic regression were used to compare the prevalence of each morbidity between cut and uncut women adjusting for possible confounders. A total of 1157 women consented to gynaecological examination and 58% had signs of genital cutting. There was a high level of agreement between reported circumcision status and that found on examination (97% agreement). The majority of operations consisted of clitoridectomy and excision of the labia minora (WHO classification type II) and were performed between the ages of 4 and 7 years. The practice of genital cutting was highly associated with ethnic group for two of the three main ethnic groups, making the effects of ethnic group and cutting difficult to distinguish. Women who had undergone FGC had a significantly higher prevalence of bacterial vaginosis (BV) [adjusted odds ratio (OR)=1.66; 95% confidence interval (CI) 1.25–2.18] and a substantially higher prevalence of herpes simplex virus 2 (HSV2) [adjusted OR=4.71; 95% CI 3.46–6.42]. The higher prevalence of HSV2 suggests that cut women may be at increased risk of HIV infection. Commonly cited negative consequences of FGC such as damage to the perineum or anus, vulval tumours (such as Bartholin’s cysts and excessive keloid formation), painful sex, infertility, prolapse and other reproductive tract infections (RTIs) were not significantly more common in cut women. The relationship between FGC and long-term reproductive morbidity remains unclear, especially in settings where type II cutting predominates. Efforts to eradicate the practice should incorporate a human rights approach rather than rely solely on the damaging health consequences.