Two week ago, in the midst of the summer heat, I received a frantic call from a woman in Ottawa who teaches English as a Second Language (ESL) to immigrants. She knew me from the documentary "Honor Diaries," which addresses honor-based violence and urgently sought my advice about a dire situation: one of her ESL students had just told her he was taking his five-year-old daughter back to his native country in Africa to undergo Female Genital Mutilation (FGM).
The male student did not use the word FGM. Instead, he said his daughter would be "circumcised" -- the custom in his family and tribe. The ESL teacher had tried to dissuade him, but he told her clearly that she had no idea about his culture. He told her, essentially, that she should butt out.
This phenomenon -- taking children back to their native countries during the summer break to undergo this barbaric procedure -- is called "vacation cutting." FGM is a horrendous, harmful and painful cultural practice which involves partial or total removal of a girl's genitalia, ostensibly as a rite of maturity but more clearly to control a girl's sexuality. FGM can cause girls and women to bleed, become infertile, suffer permanent physical and psychological damage and sometimes even die from the side effects.
Many immigrants from Africa take their daughters back to their native lands during the summer holiday to have FGM performed on them. Most of these girls will remain under the radar until a medical doctor sees them. In most cases they don't see a doctor at all and the practice remains largely unreported.
The ESL teacher's story posed a huge conundrum. I suggested she contact social services, but she had already done that. They told her they couldn't intervene in a case when no crime has been committed. I called the government department that deals with laws against barbaric practices, and they suggested contacting law enforcement. However law enforcement can't do anything about crimes taking place outside of Canada.
Although FGM is illegal in Canada, the practice continues among immigrant communities. In 2011, nearly 29,000 women from Africa and the Middle East became permanent residents of Canada. A female doctor who has worked with hundreds of immigrant women says a high percentage of these girls and women will have undergone FGM by the end of the summer. Thousands more are at risk.
In the United States, the problem of FGM is no better. According to the latest statistics from the Population Reference Bureau, more than half a million girls and women are at risk of FGM.
For years, FGM remained on the back burner at the United Nations because it was a 'taboo' subject. No one wanted to speak about it.
One country that has made progress in stopping this terrible practice is Burkina Faso, where three out of four girls and women have undergone FGM. Burkina Faso First Lady Chantal Compaore began an African-led movement for change, resulting in a UN General Assembly resolution led by the Africa Group calling for a global ban on the practice in December 2012. First Lady Compaore played a vital role in driving this resolution and has been dedicated to ending FGM in her country for more than 20 years, resolving to help eradicate FGM within one generation.
In the United States and Canada, we need more awareness and education about the practice of FGM to ensure that everyone -- from policy-makers to educators -- is aware of the practice. We need to shine a light on this practice, with public discussion about ways to stop this cruel "summer vacation" phenomenon.
While the five-year old about whom I was contacted probably won't be saved from FGM, we can stop this from happening to scores of other girls and women by exposing, educating, empowering and finally eradicating this terrible practice.
Image courtesy of Honor Diaries film
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