Female Genital Mutilation Isn’t Just a Foreign Issue

female-genital-mutilation-cutting-usa-washington-dc
An anti-FGM protest on International Day of Zero Tolerance for Female Genital Mutilation in February 2019. (Outlook India / Creative Commons)

Texas Governor Greg Abbott waded into problematic territory when he called gender-affirming care for transgender minors “mutilation” and “child abuse.” His remarks generated lots of coverage and controversy, as he presumably knew they would. The irresponsible and incorrect use of the term “mutilation” takes attention away from the actual, serious problem of mutilation and cutting in the United States today. 

Female genital mutilation/cutting, or FGM/C as it’s known, is the partial or total removal of external female genitalia for non-medical reasons. Worldwide, more than 200 million women and girls have undergone the procedure. An estimated 3-4 million additional people are still at risk and another 2 million cases are projected over the next decade—an effect of the COVID-19 “shadow pandemic” of increased abuse of women and girls. 

FGM/C can’t be dismissed as an archaic practice or a foreign problem. It is currently practiced on every continent except Antarctica—including in the U.S.

The issue made news recently when Washington, D.C., Councilmember Charles Allen called upon personal and expert testimony on FGM/C in a public hearing to consider D.C.’s proposed Female Genital Mutilation Prohibition Act of 2021. The bill would prohibit FGM/C, expand mandated reporting requirements, and provide grounds for civil actions. This bill comes with urgency with D.C. ranking second in the nation for FGM/C prevalence. Reportedly, 51,000 women and girls have undergone the procedure or are still at risk for it in the District.  

Celebrating cultural values and heritage is important, but harmful traditions are meant to change. There is nothing celebratory or culturally valuable about controlling women and girls’ sexuality and denying their autonomy over their own bodies.

It’s a massive national health problem, and it’s getting worse. More than half a million women and girls are either said to be at risk or have undergone FGM/C in the U.S. And that figure that has reportedly tripled since 1997.  FGM/C can have devastating impacts on a person including severe bleeding, complications in childbirth, lasting psychological trauma and even death.

The practice has absolutely no health benefits, only health risks. Religious leaders affirm that there are absolutely no religious grounds for it either, even though religion is often invoked to justify it. 

So why does this extreme form of gender-based violence and human rights violation persist? There is no excuse, but there are a variety of reasons: preserving cultural identity and reputation, enhancing marriageability, controlling women’s sexuality, misguided beliefs about cleanliness. The practice has cultural significance for many cultural, religious and socio-economic groups. Celebrating cultural values and heritage is important, but harmful traditions are meant to change. There is nothing celebratory or culturally valuable about controlling women and girls’ sexuality and denying their autonomy over their own bodies.

The fact that FGM/C is widespread in the U.S., and getting worse, illustrates a larger trend. The Population Institute’s 50 State Report Card on reproductive health and rights, which has been issued for the last 10 years, posted its worst grades ever this year—underscoring our increasing failure to uphold the rights of women and girls. 

One of the things we must do to stop the slide is align U.S. policy with the international movement against FGM/C, led by the women who have undergone it. That means enacting stronger legislation against the practice, while empowering and protecting those who have been subjected to FGM/C.

In 1996, Congress enacted a federal law making it illegal to perform FGM/C. Last year, it was amended to also prohibit “vacation cutting,” which involves transporting women and girls from the U.S. to other countries to undergo the procedure. 

39 U.S. states have laws outlawing FGM/C, but 11 states and DC still don’t. More state legislation is needed to strengthen the legal framework against FGM/C where the federal law falls short, as it did in the case of  United States v. Nagarwala. State laws can take a more comprehensive approach, equipping community members and first responders with the tools and education they need to oppose FGM/C, recognize the signs of those at risk, and intervene effectively.

It’s time for Washington, D.C., to enact its own law against FGM/C to join the states that outlaw the practice and affirm the advocates speaking out against it. Without such a law, it is at risk for becoming a local hub for FGM/C, where women and girls come from neighboring states to complete the procedure. A law explicitly banning FGM/C in the District would help stop this traffic from other states, give prosecutors the tools they need, and protect women and girls at risk. 

Stopping this egregious form of gender violence in our nation’s capital is a moral imperative. Simply being against FGM/C is not enough; we must raise awareness in our own communities, tackle the problem at its root though education, and pass stronger laws against the practice. 

Last month we observed the 47th annual International Women’s Day. Let’s not let another one go by before D.C. stands up to end FGM/C.

If you found this article helpful, please consider supporting our independent reporting and truth-telling for as little as $5 per month.

Up next:

About

Maniza Habib is a research fellow with the Population Institute, a nonprofit based in Washington, D.C., that supports reproductive health and rights.