As Global Consensus Accelerates, Obama Strengthens Federal Law Protecting Girls in the Fight Against Female Genital Mutilation

Kenyan teenage Maasai girls attend an alternative right of passage at Kilgoris, Trans Mara district, 220 kilometres north-wes
Kenyan teenage Maasai girls attend an alternative right of passage at Kilgoris, Trans Mara district, 220 kilometres north-west of the capital Nairobi, on April 19, 2008 at a ceremony organised by an anti-female genital mutilation, (FGM) campaign, Cherish Others Organisation. The World Health Organisation estimates that between 100 and 132 million girls and women around the world have been subjected to the 'cut' and despite having been outlawed FGM is still regarded as a crucial tradition in some Kenyan communities regardless of its negative physical and psychological health repercussions. AFP PHOTO/TONY KARUMBA (Photo credit should read TONY KARUMBA/AFP/Getty Images)

Twenty years ago, the traditional practice of female genital mutilation (FGM) was considered so culturally engrained, particularly in Africa, that it would be impossible to reverse and many future generations of girls would continue to face the psycho-sexual trauma of this abuse.

Despite profound resistance, advocates have consistently advanced the fight to end FGM, and Equality Now has campaigned for the establishment and effective implementation of legal frameworks that criminalize FGM and reinforce gains made building community awareness of the dangers of FGM.

This week, policy developments in the U.S. and globally have advanced these efforts, reflecting the fundamental shift that has taken place in thinking around ending FGM as a form of gender-based violence. These are real human rights gains and the health of girls around the world is brighter than many once thought possible.

In late December, a landmark United Nations resolution, "Intensifying Global Efforts for the Elimination of Female Genital Mutilations," was passed calling on all states to enact legislation banning FGM. This is ground-breaking for several reasons. It is the first time the General Assembly has agreed to include the elimination of FGM on its agenda. The resolution also addresses FGM squarely within the human rights framework. And it was African leadership that advanced this resolution at multiple levels, including the Group of African States at the United Nations and the First Ladies of Benin and Burkina Faso.

The adoption of this resolution also represents the culmination of years of advocacy work by the Ban FGM Campaign, an international coalition of human rights groups led by No Peace Without Justice, and including the Inter-African Committee on Traditional Practices, Equality Now, Euronet-FGM, La Palabre, and Manifesto 99.

Although General Assembly resolutions are not legally binding, they set international norms. And as an African-led effort, this resolution signals at the highest level the aspiration of African nations to develop international consensus on the needs to eradicate the practice of FGM.

While global policy is heading toward a zero-tolerance position on FGM, U.S. policies protecting girls from FGM wherever it occurs just took an important step forward, with the passage of a federal law criminalizing the transport of U.S. girls abroad for FGM.

While female genital mutilation is illegal when performed in the U.S., legislation banning this harmful practice did not protect girls from being taken outside the U.S. to have FGM performed. Since 2010, Representatives Joseph Crowley of New York and Mary Bono Mack of California have led a tireless effort in the House to strengthen the 1996 federal law banning FGM. In 2011, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid introduced the 'Girls Protection Act' in the Senate to advance this cause. Today, the 'Transport for Female Genital Mutilation' bill passed as an amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2013, just signed by President Obama.

Through our work with community partners, Equality Now became aware of an increasing number of these cases, largely due to growing communities in the U.S. from countries where FGM is practiced. Often carried out during school breaks in the parents' country of origin, the practice of taking girls overseas circumvents the law banning the practice of FGM in the United States.

We have worked closely with the offices of Senator Reid and Representative Crowley to close this loophole and create the most comprehensive FGM policies possible to protect American girls. This new legislation sets an example for other countries and sends a clear message to all that FGM is a criminal act that carries serious consequences.

Now, effective implementation and enforcement of laws to protect girls from FGM is essential to fulfil the potential of this global consensus. Although 19 out of the 28 countries in the African region where FGM is practiced have laws against it, FGM is still widely practiced with impunity. In the U.S., creating comprehensive laws preventing FGM is only meaningful if law enforcement, medical professionals, teachers, and others in contact with girls at risk for FGM are aware of legal protections and supported in their efforts to intervene on girls' behalf.

"Strengthened legislation and education are two sides of the same coin, when seeking to change and advance social norms," Efua Dorkenoo, advocacy director of Equality Now's FGM program, consistently points out. Renewed focus on education about FGM is also urgently required to protect the human rights of all children.

Women's rights advocates have had a positive effect in changing perceptions around FGM, not just saving individual girls, but also educating communities on child protection. We now call on governments around the world to ensure that new policies, commitments and legislation are comprehensively implemented and strictly enforced as a matter of urgency.

The safeguarding of children includes global efforts to eliminate FGM wherever it is performed and to establish protective legislation that contributes to the development of positive social norms. The collective assumption of our responsibility and accountability in protecting vulnerable girls is both a social and legal necessity.