Only four days before Christmas, when many minds were fixated on the year-end holidays, two important steps were taken almost unnoticed to combat female genital mutilation globally, raising hopes that millions of girls might be spared the excruciatingly painful and harmful yet persistent practice.
In what Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon called “historic” UN action, the General Assembly voted in a series of resolutions to ask all countries to ban the procedure, which the World Health Organization estimates affects about three million girls every year. The World Health Organization, like other UN agencies, classifies the practice as a health hazard, an act of violence against women and a human-rights violation.
The practice is most prevalent in the western, eastern and northeastern regions of Africa, some countries in Asia and in the Middle East and among certain immigrant communities in North America and Europe. The General Assembly resolutions do not have enforcement powers, but it is important that a large number of nations were willing to support public action on the issue, especially since some governments still argue that genital cutting is a cultural or a religious practice that cannot be ended easily. Well-meaning Westerners, unaware of the brutality involved, sometimes supported that misplaced multiculturalism.
On the same day as the General Assembly vote, the United State Congress approved a law that would make it a federal crime to take a girl out of the country to have the procedure performed in other nations where it is widely practiced. Female genital mutilation, commonly called FGM, is already illegal in the US, where those who facilitate or perform it face prison sentences.
“The existing federal law banning this harmful practice did not protect girls from being taken outside the U.S. to have FGM performed,” Equality Now, a New York-based international organization that has led the fight against the practice for decades, said in a statement welcoming the Congressional move. The new legislation, attached to a defense authorization act awaiting President Obama’s signature, prohibits transporting a girl abroad to subject her to cutting. Those found guilty of doing so can now be fined and imprisoned for up to five years.
“We became aware of an increasing number of cases of American girls that had been victims of FGM,” Faiza Mohamed, an expert in women’s human rights and director of Equality Now, said in the statement. “Largely due to increasing diaspora communities from countries where FGM is practiced, these girls were at particular risk of having FGM performed on them when returning to their parents’ home country, often during school vacations. This amendment has closed the gap in the law and strengthened protections for American girls across the country.” European countries have also enacted laws against taking girls abroad for the practice.
The American law was introduced in the House of Representatives by Joseph Crowley, a New York Democrat, and Mary Bono Mack, a Republican from California. In the Senate, the Democratic majority leader, Harry Reid, backed that chamber’s version of the bill.
While it is often difficult to monitor FGM abuses comprehensively because they remain hidden within families or ethnic communities, increasing awareness of the criminality attached to the practice, and efforts to educate immigrants about the harm caused to girls – some still infants – may bring the practice to the attention of law enforcement officers more often.
The World Health Organization has clearly condemned female genital cutting of any kind. There are gradations of harm, depending on how much of the genital area is excised. WHO explained its blanket rejection of the practice in a 2008 statement: “First and foremost, it is painful and traumatic. The removal of or damage to healthy, normal genital tissue interferes with the natural functioning of the body and causes several immediate and long-term health consequences. For example, babies born to women who have undergone female genital mutilation suffer a higher rate of neonatal death compared with babies born to women who have not undergone the procedure.
“Communities that practice female genital mutilation report a variety of social and religious reasons for continuing with it,” WHO said. “Seen from a human rights perspective, the practice reflects deep-rooted inequality between the sexes, and constitutes an extreme form of discrimination against women. Female genital mutilation is nearly always carried out on minors and is therefore a violation of the rights of the child. The practice also violates the rights to health, security and physical integrity of the person, the right to be free from torture and cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment, and the right to life when the procedure results in death.”
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Barbara Crossette is the senior consulting editor and writer for PassBlue and the United Nations correspondent for The Nation. She is also a member of the Council on Foreign Relations. She has also contributed to the Oxford Handbook on the United Nations.
Previously, Crossette was the UN bureau chief for The New York Times from 1994 to 2001 and previously its chief correspondent in Southeast Asia and South Asia. She is the author of “So Close to Heaven: The Vanishing Buddhist Kingdoms of the Himalayas,” “The Great Hill Stations of Asia” and a Foreign Policy Association study, “India Changes Course,” in the Foreign Policy Association’s “Great Decisions 2015.”
Crossette won the George Polk award for her coverage in India of the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi in 1991 and the 2010 Shorenstein Prize for her writing on Asia.