The recent news that a Michigan doctor has been arrested for performing Female Genital Mutilation on young girls may seem shocking. But unfortunately, it’s a sad reality to millions of girls around the world – including here in the United States.
The practice of FGM, defined by the World Health Organization as, “procedures that involve partial or total removal of the external female genitalia, or other injury to the female genital organs for non-medical reasons,” is a harmful practice carried out on an estimated 125 million girls and women around the world. Despite being banned in the U.S. since 1996, about 513,000 women and girls in the U.S. have either been, or remain at risk of being, subjected to FGM.
In 2012, the U.S. Congress enacted the Girls Protection Act I authored to end the practice of “vacation cutting,” where girls were taken outside the U.S., often over the summer or during school holidays, to have FGM performed on them while on vacation in their parents’ country of origin. This law closed a critical loophole and finally put the law firmly on the side of girls. But more must be done.
Cases like the one in Michigan remind us that FGM isn’t an issue that only affects the far corners of the globe - it is a terrifying practice being faced by girls right here at home. And they remind us of our responsibility to address this issue both globally and domestically.
Five years ago, the United Nations General Assembly adopted a resolution that acknowledged FGM as a violation of human rights and called for countries to develop national strategies to end FGM. Support from the U.S. will continue to be vital in these efforts – from participating in international programs like the UN Joint Programme on FGM to implementing the Sustainable Development Goals that, thanks in part to U.S. leadership, tackle this issue explicitly. That also means that despite politics, the U.S. should not weaken its investments in critical funding sources like USAID and the UN Population Fund that support the culturally-appropriate work being done on the ground in countries where FGM is prevalent.
But equally important is the need to invest at home in strategies that both prevent FGM and care for those at risk or who have undergone FGM. Our federal agencies like the Department of Justice, Department of Health and Human Services, and U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services at the Department of Homeland Security have made significant strides in improving public awareness and outreach efforts, making sure that everyone in the U.S. and coming to the U.S. knows that FGM is illegal.
To build on those efforts, we need a comprehensive, multi-agency national strategy to fight FGM on every front, through steps like an emergency hotline for girls seeking assistance, as well as training and resources to help those on the frontlines, such as educators, healthcare workers, and law enforcement members, be prepared to respond to FGM when they see or suspect it.
FGM has significant health and psychological consequences, both for the young girl and as she gets older, including chronic pain, childbirth complications, and even death. But it is also associated with circumstances like girls being forced to end their education, or being married and having children earlier. FGM is a human rights violation – one which a global community is working to end.
The Michigan case rightfully made headlines, but the focus on FGM cannot be fleeting. The UN has called for an end to FGM within a generation. That goal is achievable, but only if we bring this issue out of the shadows, confront it head on, and provide the strategy and the resources to truly fight FGM once and for all.