Female genital mutilation/cutting: Progress made in abandoning the practice but still much to be done

Guest post by Ariana Rabindranath

On February 16, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton hosted and delivered remarks at an event commemorating the Ninth Anniversary of the International Day of Zero Tolerance to Female Genital Mutilation/Cutting (FGM/C)at the U.S. Department of State. It is estimated that 100 to 140 million women have undergone this procedure, and three million girls are at risk of being cut every year.

No FGM/C symbol

According to the State Department, cutting is often performed by untrained practitioners, employing no anesthesia and often using such instruments as broken glass, tin lids, scissors, or unsterilized razors. In addition to causing intense pain and psychological trauma, the procedure carries with it severe short and long-term health risks including hemorrhaging, infection, increased risk of HIV transmission, birth complications, and even death.

While recognizing that progress has been made through education, outreach, and advocacy, the Secretary stressed that the policy community must be “unrelenting” in our push to abandon the practice yet “understanding” of the deeply entrenched social mores perpetuating the practice. This practice should not be seen as a “women’s issue” only because it affects everyone in the community. She insisted that it deserves more attention from U.S. Congress and global leaders.

Representative Joe Crowley (NY-07) delivered remarks relating his personal commitment to eradicating FGM/C on behalf of his constituents. He had met with girls from immigrant families in New York who had felt pressure to go to their native country to be cut and Crowley felt a responsibility to protect their rights. He co-introduced the “Girls Protection Act 2011,” which prohibits transporting minors overseas to be cut. He urged the U.S. to support a U.N. resolution banning the practice and called on everyone to discuss the issue openly to push for change.

U.S. Ambassador-at-Large for Global Women’s Issues Melanne Verveer moderated a panel discussion with leading experts and activists dedicated to the global effort to eradicate FGM/C and to raising awareness of its negative consequences on women, girls, families, and societies. The discussion highlighted the importance of fostering community-based approaches and engaging religious leaders and the diaspora community to encourage abandonment of this practice.

According to Molly Melching, Founder and Executive Director of Tostan, the key to abandoning FGM/C is “education, education, education, education.” Tostan began its work educating villagers in Senegal about reproductive health and rights. That activity sparked discussions about the harmful effects of FGM/C which prompted the villagers to decide on their own to abandon the practice. Through this model, 5,002 villages in Senegal have pledged to abandon FGM/C.Imam Mohamed Magid, Executive Director of the All Dulles Area Muslim Society, suggested that imams use their influence with their congregations to empower women and men to change social norms. He also advocated pre-marital counseling to change perceptions about relationships.

Nafissatou Diop, coordinator of the UNFPA-UNICEF Joint Program on FGM/C, stressed the need to build capacity of more NGOs to do the kind work Tostan is doing, and to add the human rights argument to their health education work.

Zeinab Eyega, Executive Director of Sauti Yetu Center for African Women and Families in South Bronx, New York, works with immigrants to explore what new social norms are being created in their adopted home and how to relate those to native social norms. One question they have had to deal with is, “how do I tell my family back home I don’t want them to use my money for FGM/C?”

Thomas von der Osten-Sacken, co-founder and director of WADI, Association for Development
Cooperation, discovered there was a 100 percent rate of FGM/C in northern Iraq (Kurdistan). He documented it, and then campaigned against it. Because of this work, the Iraqi Parliament banned FGM/C in 2011. Six villages have “proudly” abandoned the practice. This pledge to protect their daughters introduced a “new concept of honor,” which has translated into requests for more education and services for children. Von der Osten-Sacken urged the international community to recognize FGM/C as not just an African problem because it exists outside Africa as well.

During the question and answer session, Dr. Josephine Banjo, Kenyan Ambassador to the U.N., described the cycle of poverty and dependency perpetuated by FGM/C. She said the government of Kenya is developing microenterprise alternatives for women who do the cutting so they can transition out of that source of income.

Geeta Rao Gupta, Deputy Director of UNICEF, closed the event by saying progress has been and will be made through creativity, advocacy, social interventions, partnerships and fresh perspectives. She ended with a quotation from Proust, “The voyage of discovery lies not in seeking new horizons, but in seeing with new eyes.” Once seen as a social norm, now many recognize FGM/C as a human rights violation and this new vision galvanizes action.

Ariana Rabindranath is the Associate Director of the Global Gender Program at GW’s Elliott School of International Affairs. She is also Vice President and co-Founder of The Bindi Project, an NGO with a mission to reduce violence and discrimination against girls and women in India.

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