In honor of the 20th anniversary of the now-classic gender-equality document, the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action [pdf], and of the current meeting of the U.N. Commission on the Status of Women, UN Women has released a summary review [pdf] of the status of women since Beijing hosted the Fourth World Conference on Women. One of the areas it covers is female genital mutilation (FGM), which, the report explains, occurs as a result of “gender inequality and discriminatory, social, cultural and religious norms.”
Although FGM has declined proportionally in the 29 African countries where it is most frequently practiced, the total number of cases may still be increasing due to population growth. And in the United States, too, FGM is on the rise. A Population Reference Bureau report released in February attributes the rise in U.S. risk to the increase in immigrants from countries where the practice remains prevalent.
Last month, the Zero Tolerance for Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) Act of 2015 was introduced by U.S. Reps. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-TX) and Joseph Crowley (D-NY). The new legislation calls for a multi-agency plan to prevent FGM. While many in the United States may think this is something happening in the far reaches of the world, it is a real and present danger for nearly half a million girls and women in the United States. Unless we move now to stop it in our own backyard, we are inadvertently supporting a form of culture-sanctioned child abuse.
Female genital mutilation is the partial or total removal of the external genitals of girls and women for cultural or other nonmedical reasons. The procedure is widely recognized as a violation of human rights and is almost always carried out on minors between infancy and age 15. The U.N. recognizes that FGM represents “persistent discrimination against and a violation of the rights of the girl child.”
FGM has been illegal in the U.S. since 1996. In 2013, President Obama signed a travel provision into law, making it illegal to “knowingly transport a girl out of the U.S. for the purpose of inflicting FGM.” Twenty-three states [pdf] have laws against the practice. Twenty-seven still don’t. Many of us know what FGM is, but most of us lack an awareness of what our country or state is or isn’t doing to protect girls who live here.
It’s time we find out. My home state, Massachusetts, is where girls are at the 12th highest risk for FGM, based on calculations made by the Population Reference Bureau [pdf]. Boston has the 10th highest risk for metropolitan areas [pdf] in the United States. The Population Reference Bureau report released this month attributes a rise in U.S. risk to the increase in the number of immigrants from countries where the practice is prevalent. Massachusetts lawmakers have recently joined the crusade to end this violence against girls by introducing a bill to criminalize FGM within the state and to ban out-of-state travel to have the ritual done. This out-of-state travel is why girls in MA are at risk—because their families have them leave the U.S. for “vacation cutting.” As Massachusetts state Rep. Sarah Peake told the State House News Service,
They’re sending their daughters back to their home countries, and it’s not just for a visit with grandma and grandpa, but to have this disfiguring and brutal procedure done.
To be sure, there are those who support FGM, touting religious beliefs or cultural norms and health benefits, but according to the World Health Organization, “no religious scripts prescribe the practice” and there are no health benefits. There are myths that a woman will be healthier, cleaner or more attractive to her spouse after mutilation. Some cultures believe it preserves a girl’s virginity and prevents promiscuity after marriage. In many communities, a girl is deemed unfit for marriage unless she has been cut. According to the World Health Organization, FGM “can cause severe bleeding and problems urinating, cysts, infections, infertility as well as complication in childbirth and increased risk of newborn deaths,” not to mention lifelong trauma. It is generally performed without anesthetic. In extreme cases, called, “infibulations,” the clitoris is removed and the vagina is sewn up leaving a small opening for urination and menstruation. Some girls even die.
If this isn’t child abuse, then I’m not sure what is.
Though most African countries have banned the practice, it is ingrained in some cultures, and is often carried out by women. By supporting female genital mutilation, family harbors the big, bad wolf. FGM is a misunderstood part of a patriarchal structure that undermines children’s rights.
Enforcing the law is critical, but education for communities and families is just as important. In Massachusetts, February 1 through February 7 is now FGM Awareness Week. The new Zero Tolerance for Female Genital Mutilation Act and the Massachusetts bill both call for public awareness campaigns. The Massachusetts bill includes law enforcement trainings, education to communities and support for victims. Families need to understand that FGM serves no medical purpose; the true aim is to control a girl’s sexuality, make her “marriage material,” and keep her “honorable.” U.N. Women reports that in order to stop FGM we must “confront and address the social norms and stereotypes that perpetuate gender inequality, discrimination, and violence against women and girls.”
Contact your U.S. legislators and encourage them to support H.R. 783, The Zero Tolerance for Female Genital Mutilation Act. If you are a Massachusetts resident, you can contact your local legislators and ask them to support H.D. 1765 to criminalize FGM and increase awareness of the health risks, emotional trauma and criminal penalties. To learn more about the fight to end Female Genital Mutilation, check out the United Nations Population Fund, SafeHands for Mothers, Equality Now and Massachusetts Citizens for Children (MassKids).
Five hundred thousand girls and women should not be forced to be cut, regardless of tradition.
Madeline Smola is a writer, award-winning abuse-prevention advocate, playwright, a Heroine of the Massachusetts Commission on the Status of Women and a child-abuse survivor. She is working on a memoir about her experiences as a daughter struggling to understand painful dysfunction and overcome fear.