The United States has a law banning female genital cutting. What now?

By Hunter Kessous

On January 5th, the H.R. 6100-STOP FGM Act was signed into law, upon being passed through the House of Representatives and the Senate unanimously. The federal law criminalizes female genital cutting (FGC), a form of gender-based violence against young girls, which involves medically unnecessary partial or total removal of the external genitalia. 

According to the Centers for Disease Control, over 500,000 girls and women have undergone or are at risk of undergoing FGC in the United States alone. Globally, that number rises up to 3 million girls at risk per year, with a total of over 200 million girls and women having been cut. The STOP FGM Act strengthens the opposition to FGC by stating that religious or cultural beliefs may not be used in defense of the practice. Additionally, government agencies, such as the Departments of Education and Justice, will be required to report to Congress on the estimated number of women and girls who have undergone or are at risk of FGC in the U.S., and on efforts to prevent the practice. They will also give a report on the actions they take toward educating the community and preventing FGC from continuing. 

Advocates and policymakers have been working toward this goal for so long that it was concerning when the new law didn’t garner a lot of media attention. This could be because the U.S. has technically had a law against FGC since 1996—emphasis on technically, because for the past two years, the Department of Justice has refused to enforce the law. The only intact portion of the law has been a ban on taking a minor out of the U.S. to be cut, a practice known as vacation cutting. In 2018, a Michigan doctor was taken to court for the mutilation of over 100 girls. The judge dismissed the charges and ruled that Congress did not have the authority to pass the FGC law by associating it with the Commerce Clause, claiming that there is nothing “commercial or economic” about FGC. The STOP FGM law clarifies that FGC is, in fact, linked to inter-state or foreign commerce, thereby confirming Congress’ power to make FGC illegal. Since that pivotal case over two years ago, young girls are now protected against FGC under federal law. 

Although there is reason to celebrate, activists aren’t putting their feet up anytime soon. As far as policy goes, there is still more work to do. Despite the federal law, state laws against FGC are a necessary tool. Federal and state laws each protect girls in different ways. The federal law against FGC will be put to use if the crime involves interstate activity, such as transporting a girl to another state to be cut. We need state laws against FGC to protect girls in cases of local criminal activity, as was recommended by the judge in the aforementioned Michigan court case. To date, there are still 11 states which do not have any laws against FGC. In the states that do have anti-FGC policies, action must be taken to make these laws more comprehensive. Several states do not clarify that cultural/ritual reasons and alleged consent may not be used as a defense for performing FGC on a minor. Few states have legislation which includes a provision for community education and outreach, which is a key component of prevention. 

In addition to improving state laws, even more can be done at the federal level. Policy from the Department of Education and Health and Human Services requiring FGC education in schools can go a long way toward prevention. 

“While we celebrate the signing of H.R. 6100 and the recent Massachusetts law, we must continue to advocate for not only the criminalization of FGM/C, but a Federal Education Law,” said Angela Peabody, founder of the Global Woman P.E.A.C.E Foundation and political lobbyist. “It is imperative for every child in the United States to be knowledgeable about the practice of FGM/C. Even though several states have included an education clause in their laws, a federal law would cover all states. The schools already teach Family Life Education; therefore including the study of FGM/C in the FLE curriculum is not a difficult task. Virginia is already in the process of doing that.” 

Virginia has incorporated education about FGC into their school curriculum for middle and high schoolers in which they learn “the dangers of FGC, the criminal penalties, and the rights of the victim.” Education such as this serves to increase awareness, put an end to the thinking that FGC is not an American issue, and give a voice to the next generation of activists. 

The current law criminalizes FGC, and calls on several government agencies to enact programs that will protect girls and create public awareness. The law left the guidelines for these agencies vague, which leaves room for experts and advocates to guide these departments. There are many ways, for example, that policy can support girls and women living in the U.S. who have already undergone FGC, or those who will be cut in spite of the new law. Survivors face a range of physical and psychological complications. These include, but are not limited to, infection, fistulas, birth complication, sexual dysfunction, and post-traumatic stress disorder.

Policy could go a long way to alleviate these burdens. For example, survivors of domestic violence are permitted to enroll in an ACA healthcare plan at any point during the year, rather than just during the open enrollment window. A policy such as this being applied to FGC survivors and their dependents would be a great step toward increasing access to healthcare. Yet, many of the less expensive healthcare plans do not provide counseling services, and this may not be apparent until after the plan has been purchased. Therefore, another area where legislation could protect FGC survivors is by creating federally funded programs to provide needed health care services, which may be lacking from their current healthcare plan, at subsidized rates or at no cost. There was an effort to pass a law which would include protections for survivors of FGC in the Violence Against Women Reauthorization Act of 2019. The bill passed through the House, but sadly reached an impasse in the Senate. 

These recommendations are just a few of the ways policy can protect girls and women from the harmful effects of FGC. The STOP FGM law is an excellent step toward ending gender- based violence in the U.S. But there is much more that we, as a country, can advocate for regarding increased prevention against FGC and improved support for survivors. This work is not entirely in the hands of legislators and government agencies. Most of our public servants are not experts on FGC. It is up to activists to guide the next steps that our local and federal agencies take toward ending FGC and supporting survivors.

One way that folks can get involved in this movement is by reaching out to the U.S. End FGM/C Network, an interagency group of grassroots organizations, survivors, healthcare providers and policymakers. Additionally, it is up to all of us to hold agencies accountable. We must encourage our officials to take FGC action seriously, to put it on their meeting agendas, and to allocate funds in their budget towards ending FGC and supporting survivors.

Is the United Kingdom backing out of its commitment to end female genital cutting amid the COVID-19 pandemic?

By Olivia Bridge

In the midst of a global pandemic set to the backdrop of Brexit, ending violence against women and girls (VAWG) appears to have slipped down the United Kingdom (U.K.) Government’s priority list. Yet, as campaigners and charities are acutely aware, abuse  thrives in silence behind closed doors – and women and girls disproportionately pay the price. 

One form of abuse that charities fear is on the rise is female genital cutting (FGC), a practice which has affected more than 200 million women and girls worldwide, with a further 68 million more estimated to be at risk in the next ten years. It is said that every seven seconds, a girl somewhere around the world faces the potentially agonizing pain and trauma of being cut.

What is FGC?

The World Health Organisation defines FGC as a procedure which involves the “partial or total removal or the external female genitalia or other injury to the female genital organs for non-medical reasons.” There are four types of FGC that vary in severity, but all types are recognised as child abuse and a violation of women’s and girls’ human rights. In some cases, anaesthetics and antiseptics aren’t used, meaning not only is the initial cutting procedure traumatic, potentially life-threatening and painful, but survivors are at increased risk of blood infections, hemorrhaging and infection throughout their lives, and can face issues with urination, menstruation, pregnancy and penetration.

Communities who practice FGC claim it is linked to tradition, faith and ideas around gender roles, insisting girls must preserve their virginity. Many families believe FGC to be a rite of passage for their daughters, and in some communities, it can go hand-in-hand with other practices, such as breast ironing and forced marriage. 

FGC is a global issue involving at least 92 counties, including the U.K. Despite landmark legislation making those facilitating the practice to be punishable for up to 14 years in prison, girls born to families of these regions in the U.K. are at a heightened risk of being taken abroad under the false pretense of a special ceremony.

How prevalent is FGC in the U.K.?

In the mere five years that the U.K. has been recording data, 24,420 women and girls have been identified by the National Health Service (NHS) as having undergone FGC, with 6,590 being treated in the year up until March of 2020 alone. 205 victims or survivors were U.K.-born.

In total, it is estimated 137,000 women and girls are living with its effects in England and Wales. But many believe the official figure to be the tip of the iceberg considering most survivors (80%) go undetected until they come into contact with midwives or obstetric services. But some women may never come into contact with the NHS at all, including women who don’t have Indefinite Leave to Remain or any form of secure immigration status, in part, either because they are unaware of the support available, or they fear  immigration enforcement.

What is the COVID-19 impact?

However, the COVID-19 pandemic appears to have ramped the practice around the globe. A policy briefing by the Orchid Project in September illuminates the extent, noting, “COVID-19 related lockdowns are being seen as an opportunity to carry out FGC undetected,” across East and West Africa; and “economic hardship is driving increased rates of FGC because of parents seeking ‘bride prices.’” 

Other research conducted by UNFPA anticipates that as a result of coronavirus disruptions to FGC prevention programmes, as many as two million more cases could take place in the next ten years that would otherwise have been avoided. As such, it estimates a one-third reduction in the progress toward achieving the Sustainable Development Goal of eradicating the practice by 2030.

Campaigners attribute the rise to mass school closures, a decrease in access to support and health information, and the economic situation forcing girls into marriage for families to secure a dowry. Indeed, as joint research points to prove, whenever girls are stifled from education, they become increasingly more vulnerable to abusive practices.

For this reason, campaigners fear the true scale of gender-based violence is yet to be realised as the U.K. creeps in and out of lockdown and restrictive measures are tweaked every few weeks. Kate Agha, the Chief Executive of Oxford Against Cutting, said, “With the rise in harmful traditions overseas, practicing-communities in the U.K. will come under increased pressure from family abroad to ensure they are part of the group and upholding cultural traditions based on honour.” 

What is the UK doing about it?

The U.K. has remained determined to end FGC, setting a deadline to prevent it from occurring for good by 2030, in line with many other countries. 

Progress has been commendable. FGC has been outlawed in several Western countries including the U.K., Canada, Spain and New Zealand, among others, including 19 African countries. To date, the U.K. remains the largest donor to support the end of FGC globally, helping 10,000 African communities and assisting six African nations with a budget and new laws to criminalize it.

However, amid these trying times, progress seems to be stalling and commitment stuttering behind if the U.K. is to realistically facilitate the end of FGC in the next ten years. For instance, despite being against the law for thirty-five years and a whole host of civil protections and laws being introduced in 2003, there has only been one successful prosecution, which took place in February of 2019. Meanwhile, charities claim social workers and even healthcare practitioners aren’t always trained and equipped to safeguard and handle victims or survivors with there being greater emphasis on support post-procedure than preventing it from happening in the first place. Due to a shocking knowledge gap in Lancashire hospices that emerged in August, medics are now receiving extra training. But how many more remain ill-equipped?

Many believe the U.K. is silently withdrawing from its commitment altogether as it emerges that the Home Office has slashed funding from The National FGM Centre which, since its inception in 2015, has safeguarded 742 girls and supported 341 survivors. The centre reserves the power to issue protection orders for girls at risk, instruct the police on when to intervene and has trained at least 18,000 professionals, including teachers, social workers, police officers, lawyers and doctors. Yet this year, the centre will receive a mere £432,000 in funding – a drop in the ocean compared to the £2.7 million it was awarded five years ago. The Home Secretary is in the midst of attempting to deport an 11-year-old girl to her native country, Sudan, where she is sure to undergo FGC, in a move which lawyers claim mocks domestic FGC laws and protection orders. Fortunately, the girl was spared deportation in the eleventh hour by an FGC protection order, but her future remains uncertain.

As the futures of girls around the world hang on a thread and women become the collateral damage to COVID-19, the government must ensure it does not bulldoze over years of ground-breaking progress toward ending FGC. Without serious, unwavering commitment to ending the practice, women and girls will continue to be violated and stripped of their basic human rights.(Olivia Bridge writes for Immigration News and the Immigration Advice Service.)

Is legal action against female genital cutting enough to end the practice?

Understanding the impact of a Sahiyo co-founder’s documentary film, A Pinch of Skin, in India

by Priya Goswami

In September 2018, the Indian Supreme Court referred a Public Interest Litigation (PIL) on the prevalence of female genital cutting (FGC) in India to a five-judge constitution bench. My documentary film, A Pinch of Skin, was quoted as evidence by the Supreme Court of India to establish the prevalence of the practice. As the filmmaker, I was overjoyed with what my film had managed to do and become – the first audio visual evidence on the practice of FGC in India. 

There is no law in India against FGC. The PIL had been filed in 2017 by a Delhi-based lawyer seeking a ban on the practice of FGC in India. While other survivors of the practice joined in the petition against FGC, they were opposed by a counter-petition filed by a pro-FGC group within the Dawoodi Bohra community. That group claimed that FGC is not harmful and should be considered a part of their constitutional right to religious freedom. Accordingly, they demanded that the practice be scrutinized through this lens by a larger constitution bench of the court – an appeal that the court finally granted

With that said, a small part of me shrank hearing the news. I had intended the film to create debate around the subject and while legal reform may be one way of bringing about change, it will never be the mainstay for long term change. As an activist on the ground, I understand change requires sustained conversation. A law against the practice of FGC may become a mandate, but may also end up hindering the progress made by activists on creating a room for dialogue by years. 

“I had intended the film to create debate around the subject and while legal reform may be one way of bringing about change, it will never be the mainstay for long term change.”

A broad evidence base for this is how some Dawoodi Bohra community members in the United States (U.S.) and Australia have hushed the practice, pushing it further underground, as the community members were charged in both countries with practicing FGC, or khatna as it is known in the Bohra community, and publicly spoke about it in the media. A federal judge dismissed all of the FGC-related charges in the U.S. case; whereas Australia’s High Court ruled all forms of FGC are illegal. While the cases against the community members in the U.S. and Australia have opened up the dialogue on the issue and more survivors have come forward, it has also instilled fear in the minds of some community members. This has, in turn, supported the movement toward medicalization of khatna, which is an equally dangerous trend. As an activist and a communication designer, I ask myself often – is pushing people to abandon the practice because the law says so ever a complete solution? 

Nine years ago, if you would have asked me what my goal with A Pinch of Skin was, I would have said to convince people to abandon the practice. Today, I say the same, except with the awareness that change requires time and persistent and effective communication, which involves the community from within.

Key points to understand the situation in India:

  • The conversation of female genital cutting in Asian communities is a relatively new one, as it is still largely believed to be an African problem.
  • The subject was brought to public attention in India as an anonymous petition under the pseudonym ‘Tasleem’ was launched in 2011 or 2012. This was followed by media attention to A Pinch of Skin in 2013.
  • In 2015, two collectives were formed to speak about the subject: Sahiyo and WeSpeakOut, both being the only organizations worldwide working on the subject of khatna prevalent in the Dawoodi Bohra community.
  • In 2017, the two organizations, Sahiyo and WeSpeakOut, were invited by the National Commission of Women and Child Development to speak with Menaka Gandhi.
  • The Indian government, after gathering first-hand evidence from survivors (also the co-founders of the two organizations), did a u-turn denying the evidence against the practice until this landmark judgment by the Supreme Court. Read this detailed report.
  • The Dawoodi Bohra Women for Religious Freedom continue to discount efforts against FGC under the umbrella of religious freedom. 
  • Following the PIL, the Supreme Court of India ruled that FGC could be charged under The POCSO Act.

Sahiyo address FGM/C education in webinar

On July 30th, Sahiyo teamed up with the Global Woman P.E.A.C.E. Foundation and The Council of the Great City Schools to host a webinar, Learning about Female Genital Mutilation/Cutting (FGM/C) in the Classroom: The importance of nationwide education as a tool for prevention. 

FGM/C affects over 200 million girls and women globally, with many more at risk of undergoing the harmful practice each year. FGM/C can cause lifelong physical, emotional, and psychological harm, yet the public is still lacking in understanding the global scope and severity of the issue. In fact, a multitude of misconceptions surround FGM/C. In this educational webinar, we debunked common misconceptions, and explored the use of nationwide classroom education as a tool for FGM/C prevention. We heard from advocates and organizations on why and how FGM/C should be taught in schools and the power of public policy to make this a reality.

Speakers included Mariya Taher, co-founder and U.S. executive director of Sahiyo; Hunter Kessous, programs intern of Sahiyo; Angela Peabody, president and founder of the Global Woman P.E.A.C.E Foundation; Gabriela Uro, Council of the Great City Schools; and Richard Black, former Virginia senator.

Find the full recording of the webinar on YouTube here

Kessous also wrote a blog on addressing FGM/C in the college classroom

Find the full powerpoint and transcript of the webinar here.

Protecting the girl child: The need for an anti-FGM law in India 

By Anjali Shah

“Girls are not property. They have the right to determine their destiny.” – Anthony Lake, Former Executive Director, UNICEF

Religious dogmas have gained focus with women coming forward to challenge the subversion and repression that they have been subjected to for decades. This has brought into the limelight the practice of female genital mutilation (FGM), which thrives in the shadows of our society with little recognition. It is the fear of social exclusion that has prevented women from lifting the veil of secrecy, resulting in more girls being victimized. 

Some women of the Bohra Muslim community, where FGM is widely practiced, have justified FGM to be their religious and cultural right. However, a practice that demands such standards of purity from girls and women so as to remove a part of their body to curb their sexuality raises important questions pertaining to their right to live with dignity, equality, bodily integrity, and also their right to freedom from inhumane treatment.

It may be argued that FGM can be practised under Article 25 of the Constitution of India that guarantees the right to religious freedom. However, this is not an unfettered right but is subject to the constitutional restraints of public order, health and morality. The content of morality is founded on the four precepts emerging from the preamble, i.e., justice, liberty, equality and fraternity, which assures dignity for human life. The test of constitutional morality is to bow to these norms. FGM is a practise that reduces a girl child to chattel. It makes her right to live with dignity conditional upon actions beyond her control. Moreover, it is a practise which can cause life-long impairment, including difficulties with urination, kidney damage, infertility and psychological problems. Thus, taking into account the consequences of FGM on the life and well-being of a girl, FGM may not justify itself to be a practice validated on the basis of any religious tenet. 

While some people categorise FGM as discrimination against women, it is often the women of the community who are the perpetrators of this practice. It thus boils down to FGM being a facet of religion governed by individual belief. Autonomy is the premise for religious freedom and only stands legitimised when applied to one’s own choice to undergo FGM. It cannot be used as a blanket protection to permit actions, which can be categorised as a crime causing grievous hurt under the criminal statutes of the country. The Supreme Court of India has observed that depriving freedom to choose on the basis of faith is impermissible. Given that FGM is largely carried out on girls, who have little or no knowledge of the atrocity they are being subjected to, this results in an implicit denial or deprivation of the freedom to make a choice to undergo cutting. This appears to be in direct violation of Article 21 of the Constitution of India.

The focus on elimination of FGM by international organizations has driven several countries to enforce laws against FGM. Sadly, in India, neither the political leaders nor the judiciary is playing its part to ban FGM.  The Public Interest Litigation filed in 2017 before the Supreme Court of India to enact an anti-FGM law is still pending after being referred to a larger bench. Additionally, the Minister for Women and Child Development in 2017, who once sought a ban on FGM, later released a statement to say that there is no data in existence of FGM in India.

From the surveys conducted on FGM in India, it is apparent that girls and women are willing to raise their voices against FGM, but are prevented many times from doing so due to the fear of expulsion from the community. To ensure effective support, a specific anti-FGM legislation is of utmost significance. Such a law may play an important role to instill fear in the minds of the people who allow FGM or are indifferent towards it. It may serve as a tool for community members to combat societal pressure in regard to FGM. An anti-FGM law may reinforce confidence among the girls and women to report cases of FGM. It may also help to put in place a mechanism for mandatory reporting of cases and also adequate protection measures. A strong political will is the key to end the practice of FGM in India. It is only when the political leaders are sensitised about the consequences of FGM to women and girls, that there may be a positive change towards enacting an anti-FGM legislation. The next key element will be the capacity building of lawyers, judges, police personnel, and social workers, who will be the driving force to identify and prevent cases of FGM in the country by systematic enforcement of laws and policies. 

However, one needs to be mindful that while a law may serve as a deterrent, the perpetrators are almost always mothers, grandmothers and other family members. Thus, the fight towards abolition of FGM requires a sensitised and a holistic approach. This includes awareness programmes that stress on the issue of FGM, framing comprehensive policies and guidelines and also education about the consequences of FGM to overcome religious barriers and give importance to human life.

Finally, societal change also requires a strong opposition from the men in their roles as fathers, community leaders and husbands who many times in the past have had a passive role in encouraging FGM. If they were to make the decision to abandon the practice, it would have widespread impact and help shift the mindset around FGM, thus aid to abolish the practice.

There is a need for a change in the way people think and perceive others and their rights. This change will allow breaking the barriers of the age-old customs and traditions that allow subjugation of women, and will aid in protecting the girl child.

 

Massachusetts Senate passes FGM/C bill

BOSTON, MA – July 30, 2020 – Sahiyo would like to thank the President of the Massachusetts Senate, Karen Spilka, and bill sponsor Senator Joe Boncore (D-First Suffolk and Middlesex) for the passage of bill H4606 “An Act Relative to the Penalties for the crime of Female Genital Mutilation/Cutting (FGM/C)” in Massachusetts. The FGM/C bill had a favorable vote in a formal session of the Senate, after it passed in the House on July 16th. Governor Charlie Baker will have 10 days to sign the bill. 

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 FGM/C illegal. Taher, in particular, was praised by Senator Boncore for her work and advocacy on the issue. 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. Senator Boncore also recognized Sahiyo for their work on advocating for the abandonment of FGM/C. A member of the legislative working group, Joanne Golden, is also a member of the U.S. Advisory Board for Sahiyo. 

On June 16th, the Massachusetts House of Representatives voted favorably to pass the bill. The FGM/C bill not only has 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, the AHA Foundation, UNICEF USA, the U.S. End FGM/C Network, 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, and Sahiyo, to name only a few. 

FGM/C is defined by the World Health Organization as removal of all or part of a girl’s healthy genitals and surrounding tissue for non-medical reasons, often resulting in serious health consequences, including the risk of death in childbirth, and lifelong trauma. There are no health benefits to this practice. According to the Centers for Disease Control, half a million women and girls living in the U.S. 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 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 COVID-19 pandemic, and we respectfully urge Governor Baker to sign bill H4606 into law so that Massachusetts can become number 39. 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.

Thank you to Senate President Spilka and House Speaker DeLeo, and our House and Senate bill sponsors for your leadership, support, and action on such an important issue of women and girl child rights.

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

 

 

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. 

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.