Like most Americans, I never spent too much time thinking about female genital mutilation, or FGM, a centuries-old practice. But that changed in 2007 when I came to work at Sanctuary for Families, a New York-based nonprofit that serves victims of domestic violence and trafficking. In my job as an immigration lawyer, I began interviewing girls and women who had experienced FGM, or who were terrified to go through it.
Since then, I have met with hundreds of girls and women affected in some way by FGM. I’ve heard about babies, toddlers, teenagers and even grown women pinned down and cut with dull instruments, left bleeding and crying. I’ve heard girls talk about watching their sisters and cousins hemorrhage to death right next to them, and the pain, guilt and nightmares that plague them. I’ve listened to countless complaints of infections, pain and urinary problems, untreated here because of my clients’ fears of being examined by American doctors and nurses who have never before seen a woman who has been cut. They have shared with me the deep sorrow they feel because they will never experience sexual pleasure, and their trepidation at being with a sexual partner.
I tried to help each woman however I could, but I felt there was nothing I could do about a practice happening so far away. My conscience was comforted by the fact that others, from UN agencies to local NGOs, were fighting female genital mutilation in the countries where it was happening. That seemed like enough.
But then I heard about a young girl I’ll call Aida, who lived in New York and attended a local high school. Aida’s parents were planning to send her on vacation to the village from which they had fled, to force her to undergo FGM—a practice known as “vacation cutting.” When Aida refused to go, her family said she was dishonoring them and began to treat her poorly, sometimes even beating her. Aida’s guidance counselor—the only person in whom she confided these details—did nothing but wring his hands.
Why didn’t he do what the law mandated: call child protective services to prevent the beatings and the threat of other serious harm? He said later that he thought FGM was a cultural matter best left to her family.
I am a child of immigrants, so I understand that families struggle to maintain their culture and values once they come to a new country. But there are so many other cultural practices that our society has rejected because they harm girls and women, like female infanticide, acid throwing, honor killing, forced marriage, domestic violence and wife-burning. We cannot justify turning a blind eye to a discriminatory and potentially dangerous practice in the name of culture.
It turns out that, according to CDC estimates, thousands of girls in the U.S. are at risk of going through FGM. Since 1996, FGM has been a federal crime in the U.S. The law was a huge step forward, but did not cover “vacation cutting.” Thankfully, President Obama signed a law on January 7, 2013, repairing this loophole and making vacation cutting illegal.
On February 6, International Day of Zero Tolerance to Female Genital Mutilation, let’s celebrate the December 2012 UN resolution calling for a global ban on FGM, and the new U.S. law. Let’s celebrate the activists in this country and around the world who are standing up for the safety and dignity of girls and women everywhere. They are fighting—against all odds and sometimes at great risk to their own safety—to end this practice.
You might have thought, as I once did: “This is not my problem since I’m not from a country affected by FGM.” Except that you are. And you don’t have to believe me: Teenagers and young women around the country are organizing, starting to tell their own stories about their experiences with vacation cutting and how it has impacted their identities and their communities. Just like their sisters overseas, they want to see this stop, and we must give them our support.