Last month, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued a widely-covered report on the increasing prevalence of female genital mutilation/cutting (FGM) here in the United States. According to the report, as many as 513,000 girls were at risk in 2012 (the latest data available). In 1990, 168,000 girls were at risk of FGM.
I heard from many people inside and outside the Washington beltway who were shocked and outraged to learn that so many girls in the United States are undergoing such violence.
FGM is a horrible procedure that is traumatic for girls. Very often, they live the remainder of their lives with serious health consequences like infections, pain, and infertility. For background, FGM is the partial or entire removal of a girl's outer genitalia. It's a traditional practice that's common in parts of Africa, the Middle East, and Asia. Typically, older women in a community perform the procedure on girls before they turn 15, using unsterilized implements on one girl after another.
As many as 140 million women and girls alive today have undergone the procedure, and the UN reports that another 15 million girls will undergo FGM by 2030 if current trends hold.
Treated as a right of passage, FGM is viewed by many parents as a pre-requisite for their daughters to find suitable husbands. Now, with increasing immigration from countries where FGM is practiced, those rites of passage are being woven into the social fabric in a growing number of resettled communities in the United States.
The CDC report came about because of a campaign led by Jaha Dukureh, an FGM survivor intent on bringing an end to the practice. She told The Guardian:
"I'm not really surprised because I've seen these numbers before and it just means that government needs to do more when it comes to education and outreach in these communities."
February 6 is International Day of Zero Tolerance for Female Genital Mutilation. If Americans want to turn our outrage at FGM into action, we should focus on eradicating FGM at home and abroad. A good place to start is by advocating for congressional passage of the International Violence Against Women Act (IVAWA).
First introduced in 2007 by then-Senator Joe Biden, the International Violence Against Women Act would bolster on-the-ground efforts to create behavioral and cultural change in communities where FGM and other forms of gender-based violence exist.
Eradicating harmful practices that have become foundational to a culture is some of the hardest work women's rights advocates do, but it's also some of the most rewarding.
Pastoralist Child Foundation (PCF) in Kenya is one group doing community engagement to end FGM. The organization, a member of Women Thrive's Alliance for Women's Solutions, holds inter-generational dialogues with communities to give everyone the opportunity to express their views. They include girls, women, boys, men, elders, village chiefs, and circumcisers.
PCF's founder Sayydah Garrett told us recently:
"After learning about the myths and harmful effects of FGM, teary-eyed men grab the microphone and say, 'If I had known that my wife and daughters suffer the way they do because of this, I would never have insisted they be cut.' Women passionately state, in front of all the men, 'I will never cut my daughters!'... In December, one village declared itself FGM-free. We expect many more villages to follow suit. We believe FGM will be eradicated within a generation."
Work like the education and engagement dialogues that Pastoralist Child Foundation hold is vitally needed. And yet, women's rights organizations are constantly facing funding challenges.
In December, I wrote about the importance of funding local, grassroots women's rights organizations. To ensure that development dollars go where they're most needed, the U.S. government needs a central lead office focused on gender programming and funding. The IVAWA would do just that by making permanent the Office for Global Women's Issues headed by the Ambassador-at-Large for Global Women's Issues at the U.S. Department of State, and the Senior Coordinator of Gender Equality and Women's Empowerment at the U.S. Agency for International Development.
Without being codified into law, the next Administration can dismantle the Office for Global Women's Issues. That's a pretty scary thought when you look at the number of women and girls subjected to practices like FGM.
Congress has yet to reintroduce the International Violence Against Women Act in 2016. International Day of Zero Tolerance for FGM falls on a Saturday this year, but please commemorate the day by writing your congressional members or calling their office on Monday and urging support for this vital bill. You can also show your support on social media by posting a photo of yourself as part of the No1Nowhere campaign to end violence against women.
Female genital mutilation is a global problem, and it requires a global solution. Zero tolerance for FGM can't just be limited to the United States. It has to mean zero tolerance for FGM everywhere in the world.