Female genital mutilation (FGM) includes all procedures that involve partial or total removal of the external female genitalia for non-medical reasons. FGM is practised in many parts of the world – including 28 African countries, some countries in the Middle East and Asia, and some population groups in Central and South America. Its prevalence rates range from 0.6% up to 97.9%, and it has been classified as a violation of human and children’s rights. Consequently, several countries have passed laws against the practice and many international programmes have been implemented to abandon it. Yet, FGM still prevails in many countries. This literature review aimed at identifying the underlying reasons for the perpetuation of FGM, ascertaining forces that foster its promotion and persistence and who is responsible for pushing its continuation. The main goal was to try to understand the underlying causes that make FGM resistant against initiatives and campaigns targeting its elimination. A literature search was carried out using several databases. All sources that approached the topic of FGM were incorporated including literature reviews, systematic reviews, qualitative and quantitative as well as mixed-method studies that described attitudes towards FGM and factors associated with its practice. Different factors that were interlinked could be identified at the individual, interpersonal, organisational/institutional as well as the community/societal level as the underlying causes of the perpetuation for FGM. These factors varied within and between different settings, and include individual characteristics such as parents’ level of education, place of residence, personal beliefs (aesthetics, health benefits, hygiene) about FGM as well as the medicalisation of FGM and the involvement of health care professionals at the institutional level. Cultural factors like gender inequality, social norms and pressure also played an important role. Surprisingly, no evidence that supported religious motives could be found in any of the three monotheistic religions. This review suggests that the reasons behind the performance of FGM differ between and within countries and contexts, but cannot be found in the scriptures even though it is mainly practiced by Muslims. Girls with low education living in small Muslim communities, in rural areas in Africa and whose parents especially the mother had a low educational level, were at increased risk of undergoing FGM. Successful actions to eliminate this practice require a balance between respect of culture and human rights. Practising communities should be involved in each step of every programme. Finally, it is crucial to target the young generations through education, women empowerment and reduction of gender inequality.