In a 1996 landmark decision, Fauziya Kassindja, who had escaped from Togo fleeing female genital mutilation (FGM) and a forced marriage, was granted asylum in the US. This precedent-setting case, supported by Equality Now, recognized FGM as a form of gender-based persecution on the basis of which women could seek asylum. Soon after Fauziya’s case, the federal law banning FGM in the US was passed.
It wasn’t until last year, however, that a loophole in the law was closed, which also criminalized “vacation cutting,” a practice where girls are taken to their parent’s home country during school holidays to undergo FGM.
In 2009 Equality Now and Sanctuary for Families brought this loophole to the attention of Congressman Crowley, who introduced “the Girls Protection Act.” With the support of Senator Reid, the Act helps protect girls at risk from being transported out of the US to undergo FGM. It was signed into law in 2013. However, getting the law in place is only the first step – it must now be fully implemented. There is an existing and growing movement in the US to ensure this happens.
Wallace Global Fund has been supporting organizations fighting FGM and has for many years convened a US FGM coalition to discuss what actors in the US can do to end this practice. This includes Equality Now, government officials, the UN and several others. A key obstacle to effectively addressing FGM in the US is not having current data that lays out the scale of the problem.
As is the case elsewhere, the occurrence, prevalence, and effects of FGM in the US are often shrouded in silence. The most recent statistics are from 1997 when the Department of Health and Human Services estimated that over 168,000 girls and women living in the US have either been – or are at risk of being – subjected to FGM. New data is urgently needed because it is likely that this previous number has significantly increased.
While having accurate information on affected communities and girls at risk, and implementing laws that prohibit FGM, are essential components of dealing with the issue, it is critically important too that relevant local and community groups working in affected communities – as well as frontline professionals in regular contact with girls at risk – know what their roles and responsibilities are. There is also a lack of information in schools and health institutions and the general public about how to handle FGM in the US.
Unfortunately, we also have to guard against backtracking. In 2010, Equality Now successfully campaigned against the American Health Association Academy of Pediatrics to retract portions of a statement which in effect promoted Type IV FGM and suggested changes in US federal and state laws which had enabled physicians to “nick” girls’ genitalia.
We have come to understand that effective approaches to ending FGM must be holistic and include not only getting appropriate laws and policy in place, but also measures focused on child protection, prevention, provision of services to affected women and girls at risk, partnerships and sharing of information and strategies between different organizations and, when necessary, prosecutions.
Such a plan is already being developed in the UK where Equality Now and others have ensured that huge progress has been made in recent years. Efua Dorkenoo, Equality Now’s Senior Advisor on FGM and one of the world’s leading FGM activists, has been working with Justice and Health bodies, front-line professionals such as midwives and the NSPCC, a child-safeguarding charity, which launched a 24 hour FGM hotline in June last year. The media has also played a very significant role in the UK and in February, The Guardian helped to ensure that the Department of Education came on board.
Equality Now has been amplifying the voices of our partners working across Africa to end FGM in their communities for over 20 years. The burgeoning international focus to end FGM is being pushed forward by this grassroots-led movement on the African continent. Countries such as Kenya and Burkina Faso are leading the way globally in terms of falls in prevalence through using a multi-pronged approach to dealing with FGM, which combines legislative, education and child protection measures. It is also very timely that the US ‘Girls Protection Act’ was passed one day apart from the adoption by the United Nations of an Africa-led resolution calling for a global ban on FGM. This transformative resolution 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.
In 1993, one of Equality Now’s first ever campaigns was to call on UNICEF to fund efforts to end FGM. It is heartening to see how much progress has been made since then.
However, as Jaha’s brave story illustrates, there is far more work to be done. According to UNICEF’s 2013 report, if the current trend continues, up to 30 million girls are at risk of undergoing FGM over the coming decade.
The US is now in a position to show true leadership on this issue both nationally and internationally by updating the prevalence statistics on FGM and developing a national action plan. It is imperative that we put girls and women center stage in the post 2015 framework and accelerate an end to not only FGM, but all harmful practices affecting women and girls in the US and globally.
It is urgent that we prioritize girls and allow them to reach their full potential – they are our future.
To learn more about FGM in the US, please click here.
To sign Jaha’s Change.org petition, in partnership with The Guardian, please click here.
Shelby Quast is Equality Now's Washington, D.C.-based Senior Policy Advisor working with the US government, international organizations and NGOs to advance human rights for women and girls and inform US policy.