Female genital mutilation (FGM) made headlines last November after a judge dismissed charges in the United States’ first-ever federal criminal case of FGM. The case drew attention to the practice and debunked the belief that FGM does not happen in the US.
In fact, the number of girls at risk of FGM in the US has been on the rise — but rights activists are determined to change that.
A new effort to combat the harmful cultural practice launched on Feb. 6 to mark the International Day of Zero Tolerance for FGM.
The new initiative started by a group of nonprofits, activists, FGM survivors, and health care providers, is called the US End FGM/C Network (the “C” stands for “cutting”). The network aims to support survivors, empower grassroots organizations, and reform policies and laws to prevent FGM.
The network is the “first of its kind” in the US, nonprofit Equality Now told Global Citizen.
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Though FGM is criminalized in 27 states and has been federally illegal since 1996, approximately 500,000 girls and women are at risk of FGM in the US, according to the Population Reference Bureau. The US End FGM/C Network plans to call for stronger state laws and better enforcement of the existing federal law.
“The goal of the network is to end FGM/C as soon as possible, to prevent any other women or girls being cut, and to ensure survivors have the support they need,” Mariya Taher, co-founder of anti-FGM nonprofit Sahiyo, told Global Citizen.
FGM is a harmful cultural practice that involves fully or partially altering or removing a female’s external genitalia for non-medical reasons. FGM can cause lifelong physical and psychological damage and lead to health problems.
“We want to shift people away from the idea that FGM/C is acceptable, to it being seen as a harmful practice that should be abandoned,” Taher, a survivor of FGM herself, said.
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Sahiyo is part of the new network that aims to disseminate information about FGM and foster a better understanding and awareness of the practice. The effort is much-needed, as there are many misconceptions about FGM.
“For a long time, it was perceived that FGM/C only happened in small, rural, African villages where people are poor and illiterate,” Taher said.
Around the world, more than 200 million girls and women alive today have undergone FGM, according to the World Health Organization. Though the practice remains more common in West Africa, East Africa, and the Middle East, it affects girls and women everywhere and is increasingly becoming an issue in the US and the UK.
Young girls are often forced to undergo FGM as a means of controlling their bodies and sexuality, according to the UN. In many cultures, FGM is performed to make girls more desirable for marriage and stems from the misguided belief that a girl’s value is inextricably tied to her virginity.
Though often mistaken for a religious tradition, FGM is a cultural practice. No religion requires girls to undergo FGM.
“The reality is that FGM/C occurs in many scenarios,” Taher said.
“We often hear people saying that FGM can’t happen here in the US, but we know that white, Christian women have been cut and that up until the 1950s FGM was advocated for in Western medical books to treat things like ‘hysteria’ and mental illness in women,” she added. “This is a forgotten history.”
Taher, who also sits on the US End FGM/C Network’s inaugural steering committee, said that social media is helping bring attention to the violence that girls and women around the world have experienced for generations.
The US End FGM/C Network also hopes to bring an end to that abuse in the US once and for all.