Four women who were pivotal to the movement to end female genital cutting

By Megan Maxwell

The movement to end female genital cutting (FGC) has been in effect starting as far back as the latter half of the 19th century through the voices, writing, and research of women who have worked for the rights of women and girls. FGC is present in 92 countries. In honor of Women’s History Month, Sahiyo is honoring four women from Egypt, India, Senegal, and Austria who changed the world for women and girls.

Nawal El Saadawi & her brutal honesty

Nawal El Saadawi, a doctor, feminist and writer, who was born in a community outside of Cairo, Egypt, was a survivor of FGC. She campaigned against FGC and for the rights of women and girls throughout her life. She started by speaking out against her family’s preconceived notions about the trajectory of a girl’s life and then used her voice to condemn FGC and women’s rights abuses through her books. 

She wrote many books including The Hidden Face of Eve, a powerful account of brutality against women, and saw women live those realities detailed in the book within the communities in which she worked as a medical doctor. She was a crusader but her work was banned. She was imprisoned and suffered death threats. Through her work, she championed for the rights of girls and women globally for decades. She died on March 21st at 89 years old

Rehana Ghadially & All for Izzat

In 1991, Rehana Ghadially wrote an article entitled All for Izzat in which she examined the prevalence of female genital cutting and its justification. For this article, she interviewed about 50 Bohra women and found the three most common reasons given for FGC: it is a religious obligation; it is a tradition; and it is done to curb a girl’s sexuality. 

Through these interviews, Ghadially revealed that the procedure of FGC was anything but symbolic. “The girl’s circumcision has been kept an absolute secret not only from outsiders but from the men of the community,” she said.

Ghadially experienced FGC when she was very young. Her research allowed her to share with the world the reality of what Bohra girls and women go through as a result of FGC.        

Ndéye Maguette Diop & the Malicounda Bambara community

The community of Malicounda Bambara in Senegal, West Africa, was substantially influenced by the Community Empowerment Program (CEP): a program established by Tostan that engages communities in their languages on themes of democracy, human rights (including female genital cutting), health, literacy, and project management skills. In July of 1997, the CEP empowered the women of Malicounda Bambara to announce the first-ever public declaration to abandon female genital cutting to the world. Ndéye Maguette Diop was the facilitator for the CEP in Malicounda Bambara. She guided them through the program, which is designed to not pass judgment on the practice, but simply to provide information regarding FGC and its health risks.

Diop used theater, a traditional mode of African communication and arts, as a means to better facilitate the exchange of ideas. “The women didn’t have any knowledge of these rights beforehand and had never spoken of FGC between themselves,” Diop said. As the result of reenacting a play, these women started to talk about FGC frequently with Diop and she said they “decided to speak about the harmful consequences on women’s health caused by the practice with their ‘adoptive sisters’ [a component of the CEP], as well as with their husbands.” 

Thanks to Diop, the conversation on FGC was opened up to the women of Malicounda Bambara. They took it upon themselves to investigate within their community until they concluded that the practice should be abandoned.

Fran Hosken & her ideas of global sisterhood

In 1975, Fran Hosken began writing her newsletter, Women’s International Network News where she reported on the status of women and women’s rights around the globe. The tagline for her newsletter was, “All the news that is fit to print by, for & about women,” and it featured regular sections on Women and Development, Women and Health, Women and Violence, and Female Genital Mutilation (FGM). Every issue of her newsletter had a section on FGM, including names and addresses for her subscribers to get more information on activities surrounding FGC around the world. Hosken was an American feminist and writer, but she was very involved in the livelihoods of women and girls around the globe.
Her newsletter became popular for its research into female genital cutting and she ended up writing The Hosken Report: Genital and Sexual Mutilation of Females in 1979. In her book, she reports on the health facts, history, The World Health Organization’s Seminar in Khartoum, The Politics of FGM: a Conspiracy of Silence, Actions for Change, Statistics, Economic Facts, and case histories from several African and Asian Countries as well as the western world. Fran Hosken’s writing and research were extremely influential in the movement to end female genital cutting and continues to be in the modern movement.

Reflection on Addressing FGC in the Clinic: A Dialogue between Survivors and Healthcare Professionals

By Sandra Yu 

On December 8th, 2020, Sahiyo hosted a webinar featuring several health professionals and  survivors of female genital cutting (FGC) to discuss the necessity for trauma-informed care and cultural competency. The event was an eye-opening and invigorating conversation as the panelists discussed the failures of the current medical system and necessary next steps to improve systemic care for survivors of violence. 

Renee Bergstrom and Sarata Kande, two outspoken advocates against FGC, provided unique and moving perspectives about how cultural competency and vulnerability are key to providing better care. The juxtaposition between their Voices to End FGM/C videos and their spoken statements on the panel about their past experiences with healthcare professionals was truly powerful. 

“Once it’s done to you, you are forbidden to ever mention it to anybody,” Kande said. “But when you share your story, it feels good.” 

In response, Deborah Ottenheimer, M.D., detailed how she identifies and speaks with survivors of FGC in an inclusive, vulnerable, and caring manner. Karen McDonnell, Ph.D., a public health specialist and creator of the The George Washington University FGM Toolkit, also addressed the critical need for providers to learn about FGC from a public health perspective, expanding on the treatment of FGC as a subsector of gender-based violence. Mariam Sabir, a Sahiyo volunteer and 4th-year medical student, gave an unsettling glimpse into the current state of medical education surrounding FGC as she described her interactions with peers and faculty on the topic. 

The central theme that arose was the importance of communication, whether it’s between healthcare providers, communities, the general public, or patient-doctor interactions. McDonnell speaks to the creation and normalization of the language used to describe genitalia. Having the right vocabulary to communicate about female genitalia is the first step to having genuine conversations about FGC. Communication between a patient and their doctor is even more crucial for building trust. Knowledge is not enough to make a person feel safe and comfortable.

Bergstrom and Kande alluded to their individual experiences grappling with healthcare providers that fail to embrace vulnerability. Building trust and allowing for vulnerability in the clinic are learned skills that are often overlooked in medical education. The culture of silence surrounding the practice of FGC is pervasive, but we are moving toward a future where silence does not need to be the norm, especially in the clinic where trust is paramount to care. 

Watch the recording of this event here.

Read the transcript here.

Sahiyo participated in key virtual events with global organizations in October

October was an incredibly busy month for Sahiyo, and we were honored to take part in many events to highlight the issue of female genital cutting (FGC) to various audiences in a multitude of virtual events including a medicalization webinar with #EndFGM Media Campaigns, Fast Tracking SDG 5 by Ending Female Genital Mutilation/Cutting, Digital Storytelling & Advocacy Webinar with StoryCenter, A Girl From Mogadishu + Panel on FGM/C, Council of the Great City Schools Fall Conference, North America and Europe Caucus for CSW International Day of The Girl Child, and Taboo Conversations with RAHMA.

#EndFGM Media Campaigns: Medicalization Webinar

On October 13th, the Global Media Campaign to End FGM and UNFPA hosted a webinar exploring effective media campaign strategies and approaches to work toward countering a growing trend of medicalization within practicing communities. Speakers included Dr. Amr Hassan, Diana Kendi, Ayotomiwa Ayodele, Hoda Ali, Dr. Mariam Dahir, and Sahiyo U.S. Executive Director Mariya Taher. To watch a replay of this webinar, visit https://fb.watch/1yN240JQra/

Fast Tracking SDG 5 by Ending Female Genital Mutilation/Cutting

In honor of the International Day of the Girl, the U.S. End FGM/C Network hosted an event on October 13 titled, “Fast Tracking SDG 5 by Eliminating FGM/C,” as a means to raise awareness and foster important dialogue around ending the harmful practice of FGM/C. The webinar focused on recent developments around the adoption of federal and state-level legislation to end FGM/C in the U.S. and where future policy efforts should focus; common barriers to developing and implementing effective FGM/C abandonment programs (i.e., lack of funding, data, awareness, etc.) and how the community can overcome them; and solutions for prioritizing FGM/C abandonment on the global stage. To watch a recap, view here.

The U.S. End FGM/C Network is a collaborative group of survivors, civil society organizations, foundations, activists, policymakers, researchers, healthcare providers, and others committed to promoting the abandonment of FGM/C in the U.S. and around the world.

Digital Storytelling & Advocacy Webinar

Since 1993, StoryCenter has collaborated with individuals, grassroots groups, and organizations to centralize first-person stories in social justice efforts. The current political reality demands ever-more creative approaches to advocacy. On Oct 14th, in this one-hour free webinar, StoryCenter defined their approach to advocacy with an eye toward clarifying what kinds of stories are effective at community, institutional, and policy levels. They then highlighted research on the role that sharing and listening to personal stories can play in advocacy, and presented a case study of how they have worked with Sahiyo on the Voices to End FGM/C project to position digital storytelling as a key advocacy strategy. 

A Girl From Mogadishu + Panel on FGM/C 

On the 14th of October, Cinema for Peace organized a screening of A Girl from Mogadishu together with the University of Southern California. The event included a panel discussion on FGM/C, taking Ifrah’s case as seen in the film, and its current state in the U.S. where 11 states still don’t have laws against it

Democracy, Populism, Coronavirus & Enduring Patriarchal Traditions

The first webinar in a series for the Patriarchal Inscriptions: Female bodies contested, invaded defended and owned, this October 15th webinar focused on the persistence of the practice of ‘female circumcision’ and how their encoded cultural undergirding raise critical issues of systemic injustice in the body politics cross-culturally. Speakers included Leyla Hussein OBE, Sahiyo U.S. Executive Director Mariya Taher, Ghada Khan, Julia Antonova, Habiba Al-Hinai and Chiara Cosentino. The event explored the following topics: 

  • What weaknesses have come to obstruct efforts to end female genital mutilation?
  • How have governments’ mis/management of the pandemic exacerbated existing fault-lines of gender precarity?
  • How has progress in challenging and abolishing FGM practices been vitiated by widely applied government policies and measures that embrace lockdowns of large parts of public government services, curfews, household quarantine and mandatory individual isolation?
  • How has opposition among members of minority communities in Western societies – when it comes to governments’ FGM policies, deeply felt subtexts of prejudice and popular scapegoating – been appropriated and instrumentalized to serve populist exclusionary aims that demonize entire marginalized cultures?
  • What does the failure of enforcement of anti-FGM legislation uncover about political will, identity politics, the hierarchy of suffering and about inter-/national feminist ambivalences?

Council of the Great City Schools Fall Conference 

Council of the Great City Schools held its 64th Annual Fall Conference virtually in October. Under the banner “Championing Urban Education,” the conference gave big-city school superintendents, board members, senior administrators and college deans of education a forum to discuss issues and share information and best practices to improve teaching and learning. On Oct 16th, Sahiyo participated in a panel event, Unmasking Danger: Identifying High-risk Situations for Urban Students, in which the issues of trafficking and female genital cutting were brought to light and the need to take into consideration that students may be at risk or affected by them. A resource guide created by Council of the Great City Schools on FGM prevention for U.S. schools was also discussed. The guide helps schools to put policies in place to support and identify at risk students. 

North America and Europe Caucus for CSW International Day of The Girl Child

On October 23rd, speakers from around North America and Europe joined in on a virtual meeting to draw attention to the issues of child marriage and female genital cutting. The event was organized by the core group of the Europe and North America CSW/NGO Caucus, including Ulla Madsen, Mary Collins, Zarin Hainsworth, Daniela Chivu, Patricia Masniuk, Luci Chikowero and Nina Smart. Invited FGC Speakers included Isatu Barry, Dr. Ann-Marie Wilson, Mariya Taher, Chiara Cosentino, Angela Peabody. Child Marriage Speakers included Dr. Faith Mwangi-Powell, Honorable Jackie Weatherspoon, Dr. Rochelle Burgesse, Kate Ryan, Dr. Nyaradzayi Gumbonzvanda, and Beverly Bucur.

Taboo ConversationsOn October 28th, RAHMA organized a Facebook Live Discussion in partnership with Sahiyo & Global Women Peace Foundation to discuss female genital cutting in the U.S. and the importance prevention work needing to be done, as well as ways to support and empower women and girls affected by FGC. View the recording here.

Sahiyo staff spoke in a symposia entitled Mothers and daughters: continuity, love, fear and belonging

Sahiyo Communications Coordinator Lara Kingstone and co-founder Mariya Taher were honored to speak on behalf of Sahiyo in a symposia entitled, Patriarchal Inscriptions: Female Bodies Contested, Invaded, Defended & Owned, hosted by King’s College London Faculty of Arts and Humanities. 

The session that Sahiyo participated in served to address feminism, survivors’ relationships with mothers, other forms of gender-based violence and abuse, as well as systemic injustice. The symposia in general served to address the following questions: “Feminism has made the exploration of relations between mothers and daughters central to its project. How are these considered fraught, damaged, broken, or, in the eyes of FGM-supporters, strengthened by clitoridectomy? How does FGM compare to other abuses women endure that fracture their inclination to identify and support one another, instead of becoming invested in, or complicit with, systemic injustice?”

Taher and Kingstone discussed and presented Sahiyo’s Voices to End FGM/C: Using Storytelling to Shift Social Norms & Enhance Prevention as part of the panel on Mothers and daughters: continuity, love, fear and belonging. Many storytellers and survivors explore fraught or strengthened relationships with their mothers in their digital videos as part of the Voices to End FGM/C program in collaboration with StoryCenter. By sharing these stories with participants, Sahiyo aimed to further understanding regarding the deeply complex mother-daughter relationship in the context of FGM/C.

Read the full program.

Orchid Project releases report detailing the pandemic’s impact on female genital cutting

By Hunter Kessous

Reports of an increasing rate of female genital cutting (FGC) began early in the pandemic. We are now nine months into the lockdowns and school closures, which have propagated the cutting of young girls. In response, the Orchid Project, decided to further investigate the impact of COVID-19 on the practice of FGC and the movement to end it. The Orchid Project is a nongovernmental organization based in the United Kingdom advocating for the end of FGC globally.

Throughout the summer, various grassroots organizations and non-governmental organizations have hosted webinars elucidating the effects of COVID-19 on specific organizations. Sahiyo has shared blog posts reflecting on some of these webinars, which have focused on work in Nigeria and Kenya. There are some key pieces of information shared between these webinars and the Orchid Project’s reports. For example, COVID-19 induced lockdowns and school closures are creating opportunities for FGC to be performed undetected. When girls stay home, they are automatically at a greater risk of undergoing FGC. Furthermore, safe spaces, such as shelters and mental health services, have been closed down. Even medical attention is difficult for FGC survivors to receive, as resources have mainly been diverted to the pandemic. Lack of essential health services and safe spaces for girls and women is a serious concern. 

According to the report, “Resourcing and programming to end the practice in Asia are extremely limited, so the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on activities to end FGC have been less significant than in West and East Africa.” The report gives an alarming account of how economic hardship caused by the pandemic has also led to an increase in FGC. In some communities, girls who have been cut are often seen as more marriageable and receive higher bride prices. The bride prices can then be exchanged for food and essential supplies, which has motivated families to cut their girls in this time of extreme economic hardship. Another economic factor involves former cutters who have been returning to the practice, in need of the compensation it will provide. 

In addition to affecting the practice of FGC, there have also been drastic effects on the movement to end FGC. Nearly all of the groups that were interviewed by Orchid Project for the report have experienced severe restrictions on programming due to stay-at-home and distancing orders. Many organizations have responded by shifting their programming to virtual and media-based formats. However, this is not without its own challenges. Unequal access to technology and internet, along with the often high prices of radio and television communication, have been major obstacles to continuing community dialogues about FGC. The greatest need that the grassroots organizations are currently facing is urgent, flexible emergency funding. 

This is not to say that the grassroots organizations have not adapted to the dilemmas created by COVID-19. There have been many creative approaches to continuing their important work. Some in-person programming has continued with social distancing and the use of personal protective equipment. WhatsApp and social media platforms are being used to share key information, stimulate dialogues, and share podcasts. Hotlines have been created for at-risk girls; and some activists are even housing these girls in their own homes. The movement to end FGC has certainly taken a hit, but it is not without hope, thanks to the ingenuity and dedication of grassroots activists worldwide.

Read the full report by the Orchid Project.

Research study explores female genital cutting

“Talking about Female Genital Cutting (FGC): A Study” is a research study undertaken to explore the way communities talk about FGC, the challenges of having such conversations, and the attitudes toward movements and campaigns on FGC. The study is authored by Reetika Revathy Subramanian and funded by Grand Challenges Canada. The project has been led by Vasavya Mahila Mandali from 2019-20 in association with Sahiyo India

This multi-disciplinary study investigates communication attitudes and challenges for having a conversation/s on khatna or FGC. It adopts a mixed-methods approach using an in-depth qualitative survey and feminist focus group discussions, both anchored online, to explore the links between the need for privacy and feminist-led advocacy in the existing public conversations and contestations on the practice of FGC in India and globally. 

The findings of the research seek to explore a connection between the need for privacy and feminist-led digital-safe spaces. 

The survey questionnaire for this study is open to all Bohras above 18 years of age, and it is available in three languages:

Take the survey in English

Take the survey in Gujarati.

Take the survey in Hindi.

Sleeping researchers and lack of data on female genital cutting in Pakistan

By Huda Syyed

Two decades ago, I flipped through Reader’s Digest to distract my mind from schoolwork and the sweltering summer heat of Pakistan. My eyes glanced at the brief excerpt displayed mid-page with a glossy picture of a famous Somalian model, Waris Dirie. She exuded a sense of resilience, and I knew there was a meaningful story behind this woman. I was immersed in the daunting narrative of how she was blindfolded by her own mother to be cut. The pain was physically traumatizing, and she passed out. By the age of thirteen, Waris Dirie was coaxed by her father into the idea of an arranged marriage to an older man. Her dismay toward this proposal culminated into a desire to run away from home. 

She eventually found her way to London as a model. She still carried the realization that female genital cutting (FGC) extended beyond physical invasion, and resulted in health complications and deaths for many girls in Somalia. This encouraged her to become an activist, and she has dedicated herself to ending FGC. 

As I grew older and gravitated toward research and data collection, I found an article that mentioned FGC being practised in Pakistan. I was determined to gather contemporary data and historical understanding on it. Upon further readings, it became clear that FGC was a secretive practice in Pakistan in the Dawoodi Bohra community. 

A collective discernment of these realities pushed me to dig deeper and write a research paper that explored this practice and its socio-sexual effects. Apart from a few newspaper articles about FGC, there was not much information. It happens, but nobody talks about it. People from other communities are usually unaware that khatna is practiced in Pakistan. I was met with reactions of disbelief when I had discussions about it with non-members of the Dawoodi Bohra community. 

Sahiyo was one of the few reliable sources that recorded important data regarding FGC practices within the South Asian region (it also included Pakistan). Sahiyo focused on creating a culture of dialogue to uncover this practice; they also recorded numerical data, which could be helpful in tracing the frequency and historical context of FGC. Cutting is discreetly performed in residential spaces and not usually practised in conventional medical environments in Pakistan. Sahiyo surveys revealed this piece of significant information, which I later correlated with my own qualitative data. The interviews I conducted with a few participants in Karachi revealed that most of the young girls were cut at secluded spots inside a home, where some woman is well-versed with the physical practice of genital cutting. 

My main point of emphasis is that there is minimal research data on FGC in Pakistan, understandably so, because minority communities feel threatened or shamed for their cultural practices. 

Minorities in Pakistan have faced prejudice and threats in the past; hence, the need for cultural sensitivity while addressing FGC is imperative. Moreover, Pakistani society follows a patriarchal mindset, where female genitals or sex are uncomfortable topics to discuss publicly. This makes it challenging to have verbal discourse for the acquisition of qualitative data, because many women feel FGC should remain a secret. The lack of credible statistical data in Pakistan makes it difficult to track the frequency of FGC in contemporary culture. It is important to collect more data on FGC in Pakistan so it can be correlated with the socio-economic conditions, family set-up and religious leanings of young girls and women. Information of this sort could allow for a deeper understanding of bodily autonomy and factors that are more likely to foster a mutual respect for their bodies and its protection. 

There is a dire need for dialogue and engagement with the Dawoodi Bohra community from a culturally respectful distance. It is important for their community to feel unharmed and safe because this approach could lead to meaningful qualitative data that could help everyone understand the near permanence of FGC. 

Interviews, verbal discourse, and discussions are a gateway to accessing the historical, emotional, and psychological attachment of community members to this physically invasive practice. One of my interview participants expressed that FGC was a way of ensuring that a woman does not stray from her husband (possibly due to decreased sexual desire or libido response), and she did not see it as a harmful act. Keeping in mind such sentiments, it is vital to bridge the insider versus outsider dynamic by listening, recording, and preserving the anonymity of data respondents. 

If young girls and women in the Dawoodi Bohra community of Pakistan feel comfortable and secure discussing this topic with outsiders of the community, there will be more possibility of gathering useful data that could be utilized in creating support groups and spaces for those that have experienced physical or psychological strain or trauma due to cutting. 

Finding participants for qualitative data collection was a tedious task because very few women were willing to speak about this. Even within one community, there are those that deem FGC as a problematic practice; but there are also those that associate religious and cultural significance with it.

Researchers must take a softer approach that refrains from shaming the community for ancestral practices. The objective should be to safely record community narratives and observe their historical reasoning for FGC, so that long-term solutions can be sought that diplomatically create safe options and spaces for young girls to celebrate the freedom of bodily autonomy.

Population Council hosts webinar to discuss ending female genital cutting

By Hunter Kessous

The Population Council 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 and concluded with how initiatives to end FGM/C may be optimized. 

Speakers included Bettina Shell-Duncan, University of Washington (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, 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 the 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. 

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.

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.