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Ending Female Genital Mutilation in the US

Female genital mutilation has become a concern not only in foreign countries, but also in the United States. Equality Now, a non-profit dedicated to putting an end to all forms of violence against women, recently released a report featuring recommendations from the International FGM Summit held last December.

NYMM had a chance to speak with Shelby Quast, the Director of Equality Now’s American Office, who is leading the campaign to bring an end to FGM in the United States.

NYMM: For those who might not know, what is female genital mutilation and why is it performed?

SQ: Female Genital Mutilation is the cutting of a girl’s genitalia for non-medical reasons. It can range from removal of the clitoris, inner labia, or outer labia to the entire area being sewn up until there is only a small hole remaining for urine or menstruation. We see this performed as a way to control a girl’s body and her sexuality. Ultimately, it is a form of child abuse. As a bigger picture it is a product of patriarchy, in the sense of controlling girl’s bodies and really telling them that they are not born perfectly.

NYMM: FGM is illegal in the United States but still continues to be a problem. Why is that?

SQ: Yes, it has been illegal since 1996 to perform FGM. In 2003, we updated the law to ensure that girls can’t be taken outside of the United States for the purposes of FGM. But I think one of the key issues is that FGM hasn’t been prioritized and a law on the books doesn’t do anything by itself. It has to be implemented. It also has to be used to train those who are responsible for implementing the law, like law enforcement, healthcare providers, social workers, teachers, and those who engage with girls at risk.

There has been a lot of activity because Equality Now and Safe Hands for Girls have been working together to advocate at the federal government level, to push for an interagency working group. The hope is that this group would work to ensure that the law is being prioritized.

We held an International Summit in December of 2016 in Washington, D.C., that brought together over 250 leaders, including law enforcement, child protection officers, teachers, survivors, religious leaders, and community leaders from across the United States. The interesting piece of that is how many women were standing up and saying they had experienced FGM. Part of the problem has been that people believed in this myth that FGM was something that happened in other places but not in communities like theirs, such as the United States. But, we are starting to realize that this is something that is happening across the United States and that this is a form of child abuse. We all have a responsibility to engage around this topic.

NYMM: How often does FGM occur in the United States?

SQ: We don’t have an answer to that question because I really think we need better data in order to assess the situation. The recommendations that came from the healthcare community at the International FGM Summit in December were very clear and strong. They were saying that we don’t know enough. We are not collecting the data when women and girls come in who have experienced FGM, and we are not engaging in conversations about the issue.

I recently had a physical and, at least in Virginia, a doctor will now ask, “Do you feel safe at home?” And that question is intriguing to me because I had never had the question asked before, but was asked because domestic violence has become a part of the protocol. I think for me, getting FGM to become part of the protocol instead of being embarrassed to ask questions because it [involves] genitalia is important. That way the discussion is had then and there. The doctor can help to make sure a survivor receives the most effective services and is fully aware of future health risks caused by the practice.

We should be educating people who have experienced FGM, as well as educating young girls about their bodies. We should be enabling survivors to speak up and say, “Yes, this happened to me. I live here and I was born here.” People will then begin to understand that even if this isn’t happening in their family, it is happening throughout our community. We want to protect all girls from all forms of violence including female genital mutilation.

NYMM: Can you tell me about any cases or recent arrests that have occurred due to FGM?

SQ: We had three doctors in Michigan who were recently arrested for performing FGM on two young girls. For us, it is actually great to see the law being implemented. Of course, we really want to use the law as a way to prevent this type of thing from happening and raise awareness, but also to use it for prosecution when needed. …  I think we really need to be holding the medical community accountable.

NYMM: Is there any additional information you would like to people to know about FGM?

SQ: I have a couple of things to add. Equality Now is celebrating its 25th Anniversary and we actually were founded because no human rights organizations would address female genital mutilation. FGM is a global problem and 193 countries of the United Nations all agreed to a certain set of goals to try to attain by 2030, and one of those targets is to eliminate female genital mutilation.

I also think it is important to note that this issue also revolves around the bigger discussion of girls and “why are we pushing girls to have to conform to some other ideal?” Whether it is a plastic surgeon doing the procedure and we call it labiaplasty or FGM done by a doctor, both of these practices are focused on controlling girls’ bodies and sexuality.

I really think we need to value our girls and make sure that the message we are sending out in the media is that they are born perfectly. They don’t need to cut their genitalia to conform to something. We have to be more careful about how we sexualize girls and not be afraid to make these tough discussions.  

Featured Image by DFID – UK Department for International Development on Flickr

Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0)

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