Today, the United States recognizes women across the globe who have been affected by the harmful practice of female genital mutilation/cutting (FGM/C) which has broad implications for the health and human rights of women and girls, as well as societies at large. The elimination of FGM/C is a U.S. foreign policy priority, as it has profound effects on most of society. The International Day of Zero Tolerance honors FGM/C survivors and their courage to speak out against this violent practice.
FGM/C refers to the partial or total removal of the external female genitalia. According to statistics gathered by UNICEF, at least 200 million women and girls have been affected by some form of genital mutilation or cutting. While prevalence rates are highest in countries in Africa, Asia, and the Middle East, it also occurs in parts of Latin America as well as immigrant populations in Western Europe, North America, and Australia. FGM/C spans across geography, religion, and socioeconomic classes.
In many countries or regions, it is justified as a rite of passage into adulthood or to prepare a girl for marriage. This practice is based on deeply embedded cultural and religious norms for women and girls in certain communities. However, FGM/C is a human rights abuse that has no health benefits, and increases a woman’s risk of hemorrhaging, infection, HIV, complications during child birth, and even death. Not only does it cause serious physical and psychological trauma to those affected, its negative impacts take a toll on economies due to the medical costs associated with FGM/C-related complications.
Without critical action to stop FGM/C, an additional 15 million girls between the ages of 15 and 19 will potentially be affected by 2030. As part of its work to advance human rights and empower women and girls, the U.S. Department of State remains committed to ending FGM/C and addressing its consequences for survivors. The Department’s efforts focus on raising awareness about its prevalence, addressing the social norms that drive it, and promoting legal and policy frameworks criminalizing this practice through its programs, reporting, and diplomatic engagement.
The U.S. Department of State’s FGM/C programs work directly with survivors, communities, youth, religious leaders, and local grassroots organizations. These programs raise awareness among communities about the negative impacts of the practice and increase their capacity to implement laws and legislation prohibiting it. U.S. Department of State officials continue to engage diplomatically with host governments and through bilateral and multilateral partners to end all forms of violence against women and girls, and in 2017, the Department contributed $5,000,000 to UN efforts combatting FGM/C. The U.S. Department of State’s annual Country Reports on Human Rights Practices include country-by-country information on FGM/C prevalence, the most common types of genital cutting, as well as international efforts taken to address it.
The Department’s efforts to end FGM/C are complemented by those of other federal agencies. In 2017, USAID worked with civil society and other external partners to design a three-year pilot activity, “Koota Injena: Clan Engagement as a Tool for Abandonment of CEFM and FGM/C and Promoting the Value of the Girl,” which is currently being implemented in Kenya. This activity will tackle the common root causes and social motivators that drive CEFM and FGM/C, such as the lack of women’s agency, expectations of masculinity, unresponsive health services, inactive protection networks, and limited economic opportunities for women and girls.
On the domestic front, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) engages with at-risk communities and community organizations throughout the United States to share information and best practices on ending FGM/C and increase awareness that the practice is a serious crime in the United States, as well as a form of child abuse when performed on children. DHS’s U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) engages with immigrant communities from countries with a high prevalence of FGM/C and provides them with information and resources highlighting FGM/C-related assistance, including through a detailed brochure on FGM/C.
The United States is committed to working with its partners to change attitudes surrounding FGM/C. The message is simple: No girl should have to endure the detrimental effects of FGM/C. No girl should be deprived of her dignity and self-worth. Every girl deserves the right to live up to her greatest potential. Today, we join the global community in recognizing the International Day of Zero Tolerance and helping to break the culture of silence surrounding FGM/C.
About the Authors: Emily Kearney serves as a Policy Advisor and Megan Kamm is an Intern in the Secretary’s Office of Global Women’s Issues at the U.S. Department of State.
Editor's Note: This entry also appears in the U.S. Department of State publication on Medium.com.