Massachusetts House passes FGM/C bill

July 16, 2020 – The Massachusetts House of Representatives has just voted favorably in an informal session to pass a bill to protect girls from female genital mutilation/cutting (FGM/C). H.4606 – An Act Relative to the Penalties for the Crime of Female Genital Mutilation will now go to the Senate floor for a vote. 

Survivors Mariya Taher, Aisha Yusuf, and activist Hanna Stern created a change.org petition to plead with the Massachusetts state legislature to protect young girls in Massachusetts from being cut by making illegal FGM/C. Taher has worked with the Women’s Bar Association of Massachusetts independently and on behalf of Sahiyo – United Against Female Genital Cutting, of which she is the U.S. Executive Director and co-founder. 

Sahiyo, along with Taher, Yusuf and Stern, would like to thank the Women’s Bar Association of Massachusetts, Speaker of the Massachusetts House of Representatives, Robert A. DeLeo, and bill sponsors State Representatives Jay Livingstone (D-8th Suffolk), Natalie Higgins (D-4th Worcester), and Brad Jones (R-20th Middlesex, House Minority Leader) for today’s passage of bill H4606 “An Act Relative to the Penalties for the crime of Female Genital Mutilation (FGM)” in Massachusetts. 

The FGM bill has not only bipartisan support, but also bicameral support, with over 100 Senate and House cosigners of the original bills (H3332, H1466). The bill has also been supported by almost 50 organizations, including The Women’s Bar Association of Massachusetts, U.S. End FGM/C Network, Sahiyo, UNICEF USA, Boston Mayor’s Office of Women’s Advancement, Office of the Child Advocate, Caucus of Women Legislators, American Academy of Pediatrics – Massachusetts Chapter, and American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG) – Massachusetts section, to name only a few. 

FGM/C is defined by the World Health Organization as removal of all or part of a girls’ healthy sex organs and surrounding tissue for non-medical reasons, often resulting in serious health consequences, the risk of death in childbirth, and lifelong trauma. According to the Centers for Disease Control, half a million women and girls living in the United States have been cut or are at risk of FGM/C. Over fourteen thousand such women and girls reside in Massachusetts, which ranks as 12th in the nation for at-risk populations. Last legislative session, the Joint Judiciary Committee heard unequivocal testimony from survivors that FGM/C happens in the U.S. and that girls born in Massachusetts are at risk.

Thirty-eight states have already passed laws banning FGM/C including during the shutdown for the COVID19 pandemic, and with your immediate action by the Massachusetts Legislature and Governor Baker, Massachusetts can become number 39. We do not want our state to be a destination for FGM/C. In November 2019, a U.S. District court struck down the federal law making FGM/C illegal, finding that Congress exceeded its authority under the U.S. constitution, and that FGM/C is a violent crime that must be regulated by the states. Top Massachusetts law enforcement officials testified last September that existing state criminal laws would not cover FGM/C. The Department of Children and Families considers FGM/C a form of child abuse. Massachusetts must act to stop this practice.

We respectfully urge all to support this legislation and take the necessary steps immediately to send it to the Senate floor for a vote before the end of the session on July 31st. 

Sahiyo is dedicated to empowering Asian communities to end female genital cutting (FGC) and create positive social change. By working towards an FGC-free world, we aim to recognize and emphasize the values of consent and a child’s/woman’s right over her own body. We aim to enable a culture in which female sexuality is not feared or suppressed but embraced as normal.

The Women’s Bar Association of Massachusetts (WBA) has over 1500 members and was founded in Boston, Massachusetts in 1978 with a goal to achieve the full and equal participation of women in the legal profession and in a just society. It is one of the oldest and largest women’s bar associations in the country.

photo by Lëa-Kim Châteauneuf

 

 

Voices Series: Why I create art that evokes hope for survivors of FGM/C

This blog is part of a series of reflective essays by participants of the Voices to End FGM/C workshops run by Sahiyo and StoryCenter. Through residential and online workshops on digital storytelling, Voices to End FGM/C enables those who have been affected by female genital mutilation/cutting to tell their stories through their own perspectives, in their own words.

By Musfira Shaffi

Working on this project was challenging in many ways. Anyone reading Rhobi’s words will immediately be struck by the strength and bravery in her story. My job was to merely complement it with imagery that would evoke a similar visceral reaction in the viewer.

The responsibility of effectively conveying the sensitive subject matter is one that I struggled with, which is why I chose collage as a technique for visual storytelling. I wanted to fuse the private and the public, which is why I paired archival images from Rhobi’s childhood with royalty-free stock imagery, in order to depict the universality of her story. I used a severe palette of red, black and grey to affirm the physical and psychological trauma of female genital cutting.

Rhobi’s story is in equal parts heartbreaking and exhilarating, which, in turn, inspired me to create a moving allegory that would evoke memory, violence, and finally, hope. 

 

What I learned about FGC at Sahiyo’s Virtual Activist Retreat

By Anonymous

I first heard about female genital cutting (FGC) from a close friend who had undergone the practice. When I heard about it, I was around ten years old. I was shocked, but didn’t have enough information to understand the weight of the problem. Since then, I’ve learned a lot more about the issue, as it’s become more prominent in the media. I wanted to take a step further in joining the activism. The main reason I attended Sahiyo’s Virtual Activist Retreat was to learn more about the activism, and the stories about how it’s affected my community.

There were two sessions that stood out to me. The first being the Speaker Series where we learned about the neurological and psychological effects of FGC, which includes post-traumatic stress disorder. The Speaker Series, paired with the information I learned in the classroom, gave me a new perspective on how big of an issue this is in my community. The second session that stood out to me was the simulation exercise. It provided me with an example of how to talk about the issue at hand in a respectful, yet effective manner.

At the moment, I am attending sessions with members I have met during the retreat, but I hope to soon make a difference by using the skills that I have to create more awareness, not only in my community, but other communities, as well.

Why human rights education, including FGC, is crucial for American classrooms

By Hunter Kessous

Throughout high school, whenever I would tell people about my future goals to help survivors of female genital cutting (FGC), nine times out of ten the response would be, “What is FGC?” This is a question I never minded. As a human rights advocate, I’ve always taken the opportunity to educate my friends about this topic.

I never expected that one day my peers at university would claim my desire to end the practice of FGC was neocolonialist, imperialist and simply wrong. I was shocked. I had read all about the harm that FGC causes to girls and women globally. I know, of course, that communities that practice FGC are protective of their tradition. However, I was completely unprepared to be met with hostility by my classmates. 

Soon, I noticed a trend: all of the students who were opposed to ending FGC were in the anthropology department. This left me even more puzzled—my experience with anthropology had been positive. We learned that culture is meant to grow and change over time. We learned about cultural relativism: the importance of viewing cultural practices through the lens of the culture itself. All of these things aligned with my view of FGC and approach toward abandonment. FGC is a cultural practice, but that doesn’t mean it can and should not change. Understanding the way communities that practice FGC view and justify their tradition is key to effectively encouraging abandonment of FGC. Why, then, do some anthropology students believe there should be no interventions to end FGC?

Finally, I got answers. My global health professor led a discussion about FGC in class, which quickly turned into a ferocious debate between myself and three other students. Nearly all of what they said was untrue: FGC is a religious practice; medicalization makes FGC safe; and FGC is an African practice so we should not condemn it. 

FGC is often justified with religion, but it is not technically a religious practice. It pre-dates Islam and Christianity. Medicalization does not remove many of the physical and psychological dangers of FGC. It is a global practice-–happening even within the U.S.–that we should strive toward ending by allowing those from the communities that practice FGC to lead the initiative. These simple corrections were not well-received during the debate, potentially because the anthropology professors may have refused to take a stance on FGC as a human rights violation .. Herein lies the danger: misconceptions about FGC become all the more harmful when they are propagated by trusted sources. 

My experience showed me that the accuracy of information about FGC being taught in college classrooms desperately needs to be improved. Moreover, there is a general need for increased education about FGC in American classrooms. 

Public policy in England, as well as the state of Virginia (thanks to Angela Peabody of Global Woman P.E.A.C.E. Foundation), mandate that the harms, laws, and resources surrounding FGC be taught in sexual education courses for middle and high school students. These laws are important because we are raising the next generation of advocates. By teaching about FGC in schools accurately, we are empowering young people to be knowledgeable of and speak out against a human rights violation. This can and should be done through mandating FGC education in sex education classes and improving the accuracy of it being taught in university courses. 

To learn more about FGC, common misconceptions, and the importance of nationwide classroom education as a tool for FGC prevention, join Sahiyo for an educational webinar on July 30th at 1pm EST! Follow this link to learn more and register. 

Voices Series: How I found purpose through survivors' stories

This blog is part of a series of reflective essays by participants of the Voices to End FGM/C workshops run by Sahiyo and StoryCenter. Through residential and online workshops on digital storytelling, Voices to End FGM/C enables those who have been affected by female genital mutilation/cutting to tell their stories through their own perspectives, in their own words.

By Debasmita Dasgupta

Working on this project has been life-changing. Not that I did not know about female genital mutilation/cutting (FGM/C), but talking directly to people who had to go through such traumatic experiences brought me closer to the truth. I was absolutely moved by the courage of two of the participants, who dared to speak up despite all odds. That courage is irresistible and I am sure it will continue to inspire many more souls like mine.

I feel fortunate that I could tell their stories through my art. I am delighted that my art found a purpose. I am hopeful that my art will make an attempt to light up some of the dark corners of the world, where the peril of FGM/C still exists. In solidarity!

Voices Series: Why your story is worth sharing

This blog is part of a series of reflective essays by participants of the Voices to End FGM/C workshops run by Sahiyo and StoryCenter. Through residential and online workshops on digital storytelling, Voices to End FGM/C enables those who have been affected by female genital mutilation/cutting to tell their stories through their own perspectives, in their own words.

By Mariam Sabir 

I walked into the workshop thinking, “I should’ve just came as a volunteer, not as a participant. I don’t even have a story to tell especially since I am not a survivor of female genital cutting (FGC) myself.”

Another thought was,“I am just a medical student, what insight can I give them from a health perspective when I have not even started practicing yet?”

All these anxious thoughts were left far behind within a few hours of “story circle,” which is a part of the workshop where participants sit in a circle and share their story. I cannot explain how I felt during those few hours while hearing each participant’s powerful story and bonding with such incredibly strong women. I felt humbled and honored, moved and motivated to be in the presence of such courage and passion.

When it was my turn, I was surprised at how much I wanted to say! I thought to myself, I can do this. I can do this for each and every woman who has undergone FGC and every survivor who is still struggling with its consequences. I am the future of medicine and if it doesn’t start here, then where? If there’s one place a woman should feel safe to discuss FGC, it should be with a medical professional who is expected to have some knowledge about this issue. 

Sahiyo and StoryCenter cultivated an extremely friendly and judgement-free zone with a strong sense of sisterhood: allowing everyone to feel comfortable enough to share their story. They allowed us to dig deeper to retrieve those crucial moments within our stories that relayed everything we wanted in just a few words. In addition, StoryCenter made it extremely easy to create that story in a way that matched our vision.

I hope that this blog encourages more women to come forward with their stories.

You have a story and it matters.

It will help break the circle of silence that has allowed FGC to continue under the pretense of tradition and culture. 

U.S. may deny asylum for females fleeing gender-based violence

By Hunter Kessous

(Follow this link to take action immediately and stand with survivors before July 15th.)

At the age of 17, Fauziya Kassindja narrowly escaped undergoing female genital cutting (FGC) and a forced marriage in her home country of Togo. She used a fake passport to make her way to the United States, and upon arriving at the border, explained to the officials that her document was fake and she was there to seek asylum. She was placed in a maximum security prison for nearly two years. Her case for refuge was initially denied, and was appealed to the highest immigration court in the U.S. where she was finally granted asylum. In 1996, Fauziya became the first to gain refuge in the U.S. on the grounds of escaping FGC. Her victory set the precedent for future immigrants to receive asylum from gender-based persecution. 

In addition to the precedent set by Kassindja’s case, there are multiple legal reasons why FGC qualifies as persecution. It violates multiple human rights documents, including the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, and the Convention on the Rights of the Child among others. To qualify for refugee status, an individual must prove the persecution they fear is for reason of her race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group, or political opinion. FGC is often thought to be a religious requirement. It can also be argued that opposition to FGC is a political opinion. 

It seems obvious that FGC should be grounds for asylum in the U.S. Yet, women are still refused for reasons that are often untrue or impossible, such as “woman can refuse to be cut or “the woman can relocate.

Now, refuge for women escaping FGC may be significantly limited. A proposed rule by the Homeland Security Department and Executive Office for Immigration Review set to be finalized on July 15th, would radically restrict eligibility for asylum, especially for those fleeing gender-based violence (GBV) and for LBGTQIA+ individuals. The regulation bars evidence that supports an asylum claim if it could be seen as promoting cultural stereotypes. On this basis, a judge could refuse refugee status to a woman fleeing FGC because the judge may think it promotes a cultural stereotype. A woman escaping GBV could be denied asylum on the grounds that feminism is not a political opinion. It even allows officials to dismiss some asylum applications without a hearing. These are only a few examples of the many ways this rule would dismantle the U.S. asylum system.

We must act now to protect women and girls. The rule will go into effect July 15th, but before it is finalized the government must read and respond to comments sent by organizations and individuals. To submit a comment, follow this link. A sample comment is provided, but it is imperative to make your comment unique in order to ensure that it is read and responded to accordingly. 

For more resources to fight the finalization of this harmful rule, read this document containing websites for action-taking, informative webinars and articles, and sign-on letters. 

Voices Series: Why I, as an artist, collaborated with survivors of FGM/C

This blog is part of a series of reflective essays by participants of the Voices to End FGM/C workshops run by Sahiyo and StoryCenter. Through residential and online workshops on digital storytelling, Voices to End FGM/C enables those who have been affected by female genital mutilation/cutting to tell their stories through their own perspectives, in their own words.

By Esther Elia

As an artist, I wait for moments like the Voices to End FGM/C workshop with excitement and anticipation–moments where my passion can be linked with the passions of others to create projects that bring to light the true injustices of our world, including the traditions that have fallen through the cracks and deserve a critical eye.

I got to collaborate with two women who have the foresight, courage, and self-awareness to question a tradition that has been taken for granted, and thrust it into the public eye so that others may also think critically about the effect FGM/C has on women. It was my great privilege to be a part of this project and create images that would impact the viewer, and most accurately reflect the storyteller.

For a subject matter so wrought with strong emotion, simplicity of image became my strategy. The story was the main character, and my art functioned as the supporting characters, giving the main message its meaning. This is a project that I will always remember and be proud to have been a part of.

Population Council hosts second webinar on FGM/C research

By Hunter Kessous

The Population Council recently hosted a fascinating webinar, “Using Research to Understand and Accelerate The Abandonment of Female Genital Mutilation/Cutting (FGM/C).” It was the second of two webinars from a series titled, “Evidence to End FGM/C: Research to Help Girls and Women Thrive.” The most recent webinar reported some of the findings of a research consortium that began in 2015 and culminated this year. The research spanned eight countries, studying FGM/C, and researched how initiatives to end the practice may be optimized. 

Speakers included Bettina Shell-Duncan, University of Washington Seattle (Moderator); Nada Wahba, Population Council, Egypt; Dennis Matanda, Population Council, Kenya; P. Stanley Yoder, Medical Anthropologist; and Nafissatou J. Diop, UNFPA.

Dr. Matanda spoke on the use of data to inform programming. His research spanned Kenya, Nigeria, and Senegal, and sought to map hotspots for FGM/C. The data pinpointed the areas of each country in which FGM/C is most prevalent. Dr. Matanda’s findings also reveal how factors relating to a girl’s mother influence the likelihood that she will be cut. The results varied by region, but some of these factors included the mother’s ethnic group, her beliefs surrounding FGM/C, and if she herself was cut. The most important takeaway from Dr. Matanda’s research is that considering only national data masks local variations. He recommends linking regional data to subnational policies and efforts to prevent FGM/C from occuring to future generations of girls. 

Medical anthropologist Dr. Yoder responded to Dr. Matanda’s research, remarking that Kenya was the only country of the three where the level of education of the mother was found to have an effect on the risk of a girl being cut. He proposes modernization, the shift from traditional and rural to secular and urban, as an explanation for Dr. Matanda’s findings. I believe that Dr. Yoder’s theory illuminates a need for ongoing research on this subject that correlates the changes in Kenya’s social, economic, and political growth to changes in the continuation of FGM/C. 

Following Dr. Yoder’s analysis, Nada Wahba presented her research on the intersection of FGM/C and gender in Egypt. Hers was a qualitative study with multiple intriguing findings. One discovery that I found especially important was that conflicted mothers have been turning to doctors to decide on their behalf whether or not their daughter should be cut. This could be a result of increasing medicalization of FGM/C in Egypt. Another interesting finding was that if either one of the parents, whether it be the mother or the father, does not want their daughter to be cut, then she will not undergo FGM/C. While many programs working to end FGM/C target the mother as the decision maker, Wahba’s research clearly shows that mothers are not the only influential group. For this reason, more anti-FGM/C programs should shift their efforts to also educate fathers and doctors, particularly in regions with high rates of medicalization. 

Nafissatou Diop followed Wahba’s presentation to provide analysis of the research. Diop feels strongly that FGM/C is rooted in gender inequalities, yet not nearly enough programs acknowledge this fact. She claims many programs that address cutting are gender blind, focusing too much on the consequences of FGM/C in their approach rather than the root causes for why FGM/C continues in the first place. Diop’s comments were a strong call to action for all advocates to take a gender transformative approach in order to achieve abandonment of FGM/C. 

More information about this research project can be found here.

The webinar can be viewed here.

 

Population Council hosts webinar highlighting research on FGM/C

By Hunter Kessous

On May 14th, the Population Council hosted the first of two webinars comprising a series titled, “Evidence to End FGM/C: Research to Help Girls and Women Thrive.” Beginning in 2015 and culminating this year, the Population Council has led a research consortium spanning eight countries that studied the practice of female genital mutilation/cutting (FGM/C) and how initiatives to end the practice may be optimized. The first webinar, “Improving the Health and Legal System’s Response to FGM/C,” allowed researchers to present the findings of certain studies. 

Speakers included Bettina Shell-Duncan, University of Washington; Jacinta Muteshi-Strachan, Population Council; Agnes Meroka-Mutua, University of Nairobi; Samuel Kimani, University of Nairobi; Wisal Ahmed, World Health Organization; and Flavia Mwangovya, Equality Now.

Dr. Muteshi-Strachan explained the four themes of the research consortium: the first being to build the picture by exploring the who, what, where, when, and why of FGM/C, and how these details are changing. The second theme detailed interventions to end FGM/C: what is working, where and why. The wider impacts of FGM/C and interventions were explored. Finally, the fourth theme assessed what constitutes valid measurements of change. This is an exciting project, as it not only expands the body of research on FGM/C, but also adds new, fresh insight. 

FGM/C and the law was the first research topic covered. Dr. Meroka-Mutua spoke on the findings of her research in Burkina Faso, Mali, and Kenya. One discovery showed that the efficacy of a law can be limited by nature, content, administration and implementation. An interesting take away from this project was that laws working to end FGM/C can be more effective if written and implemented in a manner than does not seem to attack the cultures of the practicing communities. With the news of Sudan’s recent outlaw of FGM/C and the thriving, ongoing work toward passing more bans, Dr. Meroka-Mutua’s research feels all the more relevant and important. Going forward, policy makers would better serve their communities by keeping in mind these findings regarding the most effective wording for new laws.

Dr. Kimani presented his research assessing the health system response to FGM/C in Kenya and Nigeria, through both prevention and provision of curative services. The findings showed a need to integrate FGM/C interventions into existing health systems platforms, to perform targeted training of health care providers, and to improve data systems. Based off this research, nonprofits could expand their efforts into the healthcare setting, or perhaps new nonprofits will be created in order to tackle preventing FGM/C through health systems platforms.

Wisal Ahmed discussed the World Health Organization’s (WHO) action plans. One of these plans includes developing tools for health care providers to better support their communities. The most exciting of WHO’s action plans includes an FGM Cost Calculator, a data tool that reveals the savings in health costs associated with abandonment of FGM/C, proving the economic burdens of the practice. 

Finally, Ms. Mwangovya of Equality Now offered perspective on implementing research into programs and policies working to end FGM/C. She advises nuancing and contextualizing research, including thinking critically about the subjects used in a particular research study and how they compare (culturally, religiously, geographically, etc.) to the population one is working with is necessary to best optimize the results of the research.

More information about this research project can be found here.

The webinar can be viewed here.