Female genital mutilation is not just a foreign problem

An anti-FGM protest on the International Day of Zero Tolerance for Female Genital Mutilation in February 2019. (Outlook India/Creative Commons)

Texas Governor Greg Abbott entered problematic territory when he called gender-affirming care for transgender minors “mutilation” and “child abuse.” His remarks generated a lot of coverage and controversy, as he probably knew. The irresponsible and incorrect use of the term “mutilation” distracts from the real and serious problem of mutilation and cutting in the United States today.

Female genital mutilation/cutting, or FGM/C as it is known, is the partial or total removal of the external female genitalia for non-medical reasons. Worldwide, more than 200 million women and girls have undergone this procedure. An estimated 3-4 million more people are still at risk and 2 million more cases are projected over the next decade, an effect of the COVID-19 ‘phantom pandemic’ on increasing violence against women. to women and girls.

FGM/C cannot be dismissed as an archaic practice or an alien problem. It is currently practiced on all continents except Antarctica, including the United States

The issue recently made headlines when, in Washington, D.C., Council Member Charles Allen sought personal and expert testimony on FGM/C at a public hearing to consider the 2021 bill. on the prohibition of female genital mutilation. The bill would ban FGM/C, expand mandatory reporting requirements and provide grounds for civil actions. This bill is urgently needed, with DC ranking second in the nation for prevalence of FGM/C. According to reports, 51,000 women and girls have undergone the procedure or are still at risk in the district.

Celebrating cultural values ​​and heritage is important, but harmful traditions are meant to change. There is nothing joyful or culturally valuable about controlling the sexuality of women and girls and denying their autonomy over their own bodies.

It’s a huge national health problem, and it’s getting worse. More than half a million women and girls are believed to be at risk or have undergone FGM/C in the United States. And that figure is said to have tripled since 1997. FGM/C can have devastating effects on a person, including severe bleeding, complications in childbirth, lasting psychological trauma and even death.

The practice has absolutely no health benefits, only health risks. Religious leaders claim that there is absolutely no religious basis for this either, although religion is often invoked to justify it.

So why does this extreme form of gender-based violence and human rights violation persist? There is no excuse, but there are a variety of reasons: preserving cultural identity and reputation, improving the possibility of marriage, controlling women’s sexuality, erroneous beliefs about cleanliness. The practice has cultural significance for many cultural, religious and socio-economic groups. Celebrating cultural values ​​and heritage is important, but harmful traditions are meant to change. There is nothing joyful or culturally valuable about controlling the sexuality of women and girls and denying their autonomy over their own bodies.

The fact that FGM/C is widespread in the United States, and is getting worse, illustrates a larger trend. The Population Institute’s 50 State Report Card on Reproductive Health and Rights, which has been published for the past 10 years, posted its worst ratings this year, underscoring our growing failure to uphold women’s rights. and girls.

One of the things we need to do to stop the slide is align US policy with the international movement against FGM/C, led by women who have experienced it. This means enacting stronger legislation against the practice, while empowering and protecting those who have been victims of FGM/C.

In 1996, Congress enacted a federal law making the practice of FGM/C illegal. Last year it was amended to also ban “holiday cutting”, which involves transporting women and girls from the United States to other countries to undergo the procedure.

39 US states have laws prohibiting FGM/C, but 11 states and DC still do not. More state legislation is needed to strengthen the legal framework against FGM/C where federal law is insufficient, as in the case of United States vs. Nagarwala. State laws can take a more comprehensive approach, equipping community members and first responders with the tools and education they need to oppose FGM/C, recognize the signs of those at risk, and intervene. effectively.

It’s time for Washington, DC to enact its own law against FGM/C to join states that ban the practice and affirm advocates who oppose it. Without such a law, it risks becoming a local hub for FGM/C, where women and girls come from neighboring states to complete the procedure. A law explicitly prohibiting FGM/C in the district would help end this trafficking from other states, give prosecutors the tools they need, and protect at-risk women and girls.

Ending this egregious form of gender-based violence in our nation’s capital is a moral imperative. Simply being against FGM/C is not enough; we need to raise awareness in our own communities, tackle the problem at its root through education and pass tougher laws against this practice.

Last month we celebrated the 47th International Women’s Day. Let’s not let another one go before DC stands up to end FGM/C.

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