Worldwide, there are 200 million women and girls alive today who have undergone female genital mutilation/cutting (FGM/C), and an additional 2 million who are at risk. Right now, 6,000 girls are cut every day. According to the UN, without concerted and accelerated action, 54 million more girls will be cut by 2030.
Yet while FGM/C impacts millions, it is often oversimplified—painted either as a timeless traditional practice that cannot be changed or as barbaric in an effort to demonize those who practice it. But the truth is far more complex—and solutions to addressing FGM/C must be complex in return. Today, on International Day of Zero Tolerance for Female Genital Mutilation/Cutting, we must talk about these realities.
In her film Jaha’s Promise, Jaha Dukureh breaks what she calls a culture of silence around female genital mutilation by both shedding light on her own experiences and working to end the practice for future generations. Just yesterday, Dukureh, who was forced into marriage as a child and was cut as an infant, was recognized as the first UN Women Regional Goodwill Ambassador for Africa. Her journey to end the practice in the Gambia and throughout the region is one of extraordinary determination and courage.
FGM/C typically occurs to girls between the ages of 5-14 and involves the cutting or removal of external female genitalia, or other injuries to the genital organs. The practice is often part of a traditional ceremony to mark the transition from childhood to womanhood, but varies from context to context. Some girls, like Durukeh, are cut while they are still babies, while others may go to a licensed doctor without ceremony, as is becoming more common in places like Egypt. The practice has no known health benefits and is not tied to any one religion. There are several types and consequences of FGM/C—for some it is a lifetime of pain, but for others it can lead to death.
Despite strong laws and policies aimed at preventing FGM/C, the practice, and its risks, persist—as recently seen in the death of a teenage girl in Sierra Leone. FGM/C is recognized as a form of gender-based violence by many countries and a violation of human rights by the United Nations. The elimination of the practice has been called for at the African Union, European Union and in three separate resolutions of the UN General Assembly, as well as in the Sustainable Development Goals. Many governments have legal or policy frameworks to prevent the practice or to criminalize those who continue the practice—although often these are minimally enforced, or not at all. Even in contexts where the practice is strongly condemned by policies that affirm the human rights of girls, it’s at the community level where girls need even greater support.
On International Day of the Girl Child in October, President Trump committed to upholding the “rights of all and working to ensure that every girl is born into a world where she is free to live her life to the fullest.” In a press release in January, he specifically highlighted that the number of women and girls at risk of FGM/C has increased since the 1990s, which he attributed to migration from high-prevalence countries and used as a rationale for stricter blanket immigration laws. But where is the action? Despite two separate Government Accountability Office (GAO) reports—aptly titled “Existing Federal Efforts to Increase Awareness Should Be Improved” and “U.S. Assistance to Combat This Harmful Practice Abroad Is Limited”—the U.S. has spent very little to counter the practice abroad or domestically.
The U.S. Government has a critical role to play in foreign assistance funding for programs and diplomatic efforts in countries where the practice is prevalent, as well as at multilateral levels like the UN. The Trump Administration, however, has instead reinstated and expanded the so-called Global Gag Rule, which will result in the reduced capacity of health care providers to prevent or respond effectively to FGM/C abroad. The Kemp-Kasten determination to defund the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) will also have negative impacts on the practice; the U.S. has historically been one of the largest donors to UNFPA, whose joint program with UNICEF has been working to protect girls and women and accelerate the abandonment of FGM/C since 2007. This program has resulted in over 2 million women and girls receiving protection and care and has led to banning of the practice in five countries: the Gambia, Guinea Bissau, Kenya, Nigeria and Uganda.
Combatting a deeply-held social norm takes a holistic government approach—one wherein all agencies working with girls at-risk of mutilation/cutting are coordinating efforts. The U.S. Global Strategy to Empower Adolescent Girls was the first-ever strategy of any government to look holistically at the obstacles facing adolescent girls. Not only does this strategy include recommendations for overcoming those obstacles, it does so by increasing U.S. government efficiency, ensuring that various agencies coordinate with one another—from the grassroots to the highest levels of government diplomacy. The Strategy has five objectives that, if implemented, would accomplish much of the hard work needed to end FGM/C and other harmful traditional practices.
No matter how well-intentioned a policy, resolution or press release, relationships with family and community members hold far more sway in people’s real lives. Initiatives to end FGM/C have to be matched with investments that empower both girls who choose to resist the practice and the community members who can influence change at the local level.
Recent evidence on FGM/C from the International Center for Research on Women hypothesizes that women and girls who do not conform to social norms are more likely to have negative mental health outcomes. Case studies by UNICEF have similarly shown that there is a great cultural stigma towards women who are uncut. Those who remain uncut are often so stigmatized that they are unable to function normally in society, are not viewed as full members of society and cannot conduct their day-to-day lives as their peers would, including everything from participating in large community ceremonies or getting married to mundane activities that would allow them to socialize with friends and be viewed as full members of society.
To tackle the root causes of FGM/C, the U.S. needs to make concerted efforts at addressing gender inequality and inequitable gender norms that lead to intergenerational support for cutting. One-off or short-term projects that work with individuals instead of communities to change social norms will not be effective, especially if funding is reduced as dramatically as it has been in previous Presidential Budget Requests.
Hearing Jaha Dukureh speak and seeing her powerful film about the lifelong consequences FGM/C had on her body and her life is inspiring. And the resilience and determination she and so many other women and girls are demonstrating to change hearts and minds about the practice demonstrates the enormous capacity cultures have for social change. But we have much more work to do. Complex issues necessitate complex solutions. Women and girls who are facing FGM/C deserve more than lip service from the U.S. government; they deserve our full support.