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The Underground Epidemic: U.S. Female Genital Mutilation | Commentary

It’s officially summer in the U.S. and that means it is “cutting season.” While some women begin prepping for bathing suit bodies, others fear the violent practice of female genital mutilation. The procedure involves the removal of the clitoris and/or the sewing up of the labia, sometimes until marriage, for non-medical reasons. Young girls across the country are being sent to their ancestral homelands for a “rite of passage” procedure to discourage premarital sexual activity.

In a letter to Attorney General Holder, Secretary Kerry, Secretary Sebelius, Secretary Duncan, Administrator Shah and Director Burwell, Congressman Joe Crowley, D-N.Y. urges the development of a comprehensive plan to implement the General Assembly resolution and the Girls Protection Act. Spearheading the anti-FGM movement are survivors like 24 year-old Jaha Dukureh, a Wells Fargo banker from Altanta. Dukureh has been speaking with congressional members for the last few days, spreading her story and urging for action against this brutal, archaic practice.

“[The Girls Protection Act] is about putting the law on the side of innocent girls. If one girl is subject to FGM, that is one too many,” Congressman Crowley said. “No girl should be forced to endure this practice that can have lasting, harmful effects — both physically and psychologically.”

Congressman Crowley and former Congresswoman Mary Bono Mack’s reintroduction of the Girls Protection Act, along with Durkeh’s petition letter that garnered over 212,000 signatures, have proliferated a campaign to publicize an epidemic faced by up to 140 million women and girls around the world. Currently, no new data exists for the U.S. beyond the 2000 U.S. census. This last count dramatically underestimates the number of women affected by FGM in the country at 228,000.

Durkeh advocates the Obama administration’s Department of Health and Human Services to commission data and analysis on the scale and severity of the problem in the U.S. It is the first step in developing a comprehensive strategic plan to eliminate FGM and support survivors. It must be understood as a U.S. problem rather than as a concern relegated to faraway lands. Although girls are often sent to Africa or the Middle East for the procedure, it also occurs on U.S. soil.

Because the issue remains sensitive and neglected, survivors and families are left with little access to education or support networks. “In London there are at least 15 specialist clinics, but in New York there are only a few hospitals where I can send clients,” laments Naima Abdullahi, a young activist who was subjected to FGM in Kenya at the age of nine. Naima, now pregnant, is struggling to find a gynecologist who both understands her plight and has the proper medical expertise: “Some don’t even know what FGM is.”

Unfortunately Naima’s struggle to find culturally competent care is not unique. Thousands of women throughout the country have undergone non-consensual processes in which they are stripped of their genitalia without anesthesia, medication, or even simply answers as to why they are being mistreated.

FGM has been illegal in the U.S. since 1996, and last year with the Girls Protection Act, the Obama administration made the transportation of girls and women to other countries for FGM purposes illegal. Although the current legal framework reduces impunity, there has only been one conviction due to difficulties in policing. A successful anti-FGM campaign would include education for law enforcement officials, medical professionals, social workers, teachers, counselors, psychologists, and community organizations so that young women have access to both legal resources and emotional support systems.

“This is an appalling practice which threatens the health, safety and future well-being of millions of children,” former Congresswoman Bono Mack said. “It’s also a violation of basic human rights and constitutes discrimination against women. There is no place in society for this kind of treatment.”

Ultimately, FGM can lead to a lifetime of harmful medical conditions and even death. The international community has denounced it as a human rights abuse, with places like the U.K. taking the lead because of pressure from young survivor activists. FGM supporters claim that this traditional and cultural practice should not be dismantled by western hegemonic influences. However, this is a straw man argument; the goal is not to problematize nor obliterate cultural diversity, but rather commit to basic standards of gender equality that prevent women and children from psychosexual trauma.

Transnational grassroots organizations such as the Inter-African Committee on Traditional Practices are taking charge of the anti-FGM movement. Just last month, Egypt began its first trial of a doctor accused of killing 13-year-old schoolgirl Sohair al-Bata’a in an FGM operation. Leading the charge in the U.S. are Susan Rice, Cecilia Munoz, Tina Tchen, and 58 members of Congress who have signed Rep. Crowley’s letter to the Obama administration urging a national action plan that includes implementation of the General Assembly resolution, the Girls Protection Act, an emergency hotline, and data compilation for U.S. women and girls at risk.

Survivors like Dukureh have exposed an underground epidemic onto the national stage It is critical that members of Congress join Rep. Crowley in signing this letter so that the Obama Administration feels the pressure to address the needs of FGM survivors. Summer vacations should no longer ring anonymous with forced mutilations for women and girls – we must make their safety a national priority.

Kristy Kumar is a Scoville Fellow with the Center for National Policy and the Truman National Security Project.