On February 6, 2013, in observance of the tenth anniversary of the International Day of Zero Tolerance to Female Genital Mutilation, I had the privilege of leading a panel discussion at the State Department to help bring global attention to a harmful traditional practice that risks the lives, dignity, and well-being of women and girls in far too many places around the world.
I was honored to be joined by such dedicated leaders and practitioners as Amina Salum Ali, Ambassador of the African Union to the United States; Dr. Nawal Nour, a Sudanese-American from Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston; Bacary Tamba from Tostan, a non-governmental organization (NGO) in Senegal; and Jessie Hexpoor from Hivos, an NGO based in the Netherlands. They each have made, and are continuing to make, extraordinary contributions toward putting an end to female genital mutilation/cutting (FGM/C) and are a testament to why a community-driven, holistic approach is essential to achieving sustainable progress. The event brought together activists from the NGO community, diplomatic corps, and policymakers in the U.S. government to address ways various stakeholders can work together toward zero tolerance to FGM/C. And thanks to technology, 1,648 online participants from 30 countries also participated in an interactive virtual discussion.
FGM/C, a procedure that involves partial or total removal of the external female genitalia, is often performed by untrained practitioners, without anesthesia, and uses instruments such as broken glass, tin lids, scissors, or unsterilized razors. In addition to causing intense pain and psychological trauma, the most severe forms of FGM/C lead to short- and long-term health risks, including hemorrhage, infection, and increased risk of HIV transmission. It can leave girls vulnerable to child marriage and early pregnancy, or can affect a woman's ability to bear children and even result in death. In short, as one of the panelists put it, this practice "diminishes women."
An estimated 100 to 140 million women around the world have undergone FGM/C. In the places where it is most prevalent, FGM/C is accepted as a rite of passage rather than as the harmful traditional practice and human rights abuse that it is. In other places, the issue simply is taboo and treated as if it doesn't exist, while the women and girls who have undergone the procedure suffer in silence. While it is typically associated with sub-Saharan Africa, the practice occurs in other parts of world, including countries of the Middle East, and within Diaspora communities of the United States and Europe.
During the panel, we recalled how the First Ladies of four African countries were among the first to put the issue of Zero Tolerance to FGM/C on the global agenda. Ten years later, in December 2012, the United Nations adopted a resolution calling upon nations to intensify efforts to eliminate the practice in their countries. We have made tremendous progress. Yet, while resolutions are certainly important and necessary, as the panelists underscored, it is the efforts at the grassroots level that will pave the way toward overturning deeply entrenched social norms and empower communities to abandon the practice. This includes education of men, boys, elders, village leaders, and religious figures about the devastating health consequences of FGM/C and why it is harmful not only to women and girls, but to families, communities, and nations.
Countries that have made tremendous strides to abolish the practice -- such as Senegal and Burkina Faso -- are models, largely due to the leadership of local communities to accept abandonment of the deeply held attitudes, norms and practices that underpin FGM/C. It was heartening to hear about the model program developed by Tostan, which does precisely that by engaging the whole community to change the norm to one of protecting the health of women and girls. Such programs should be replicated elsewhere. Efforts to address the issue of FGM/C occurring among the Diaspora community involve actively working with immigrant families and educating them about laws against the practice and the devastating effects on the health and lives of their daughters. One of the most positive developments here in the United States is the Girls Protection Act. Passed just last month, the act makes it illegal for families to send their children abroad to undergo FGM/C in their countries of origin.
While we have made progress in eradicating FGM/C over the past decade, on the tenth anniversary of the Day of Zero Tolerance, we are reminded yet again of the unfinished business that remains. By working together and sustaining the momentum and political will, we can reach a world where no women or girl has to undergo this devastating procedure; rather they will be free to realize their own full potential.