Speak up to keep our daughters safe from female genital mutilation
I am a survivor of female genital mutilation (FGM). I am also a mother. I’ve dedicated my life to ending FGM and other gender-based violence; I refuse to see my children’s peers undergo the same trauma I endured.
While many consider FGM to be an international issue, it affects women and girls here in the U.S. An estimated 500,000women and girls have been affected by or are at risk for FGM in this country, often through a practice called vacation cutting. This is when young girls are sent abroad, usually during school vacations, to undergo FGM.
Summer is an especially important time to raise awareness around FGM because this is the time that many girls are sent away for cutting vacations. We must educate local families and community members, health care providers, teachers, guidance counselors and other mentors about vacation cutting so they can do their part to protect girls.
When we don’t spread awareness in our communities and schools, there are dreadful consequences. A New York City girl, who feared a trip to her parents’ home country would be a cutting vacation, turned to her school guidance counselor for help. The counselor had no awareness of FGM or vacation cutting and dismissed the student. Ultimately, the girl was sent away and forced to undergo FGM.
The good news is the U.S. has a federal ban on FGM in general and vacation cutting in particular. That means that families that send their daughters overseas (to countries that have not banned FGM) to undergo the procedure are still subject to prosecution in the U.S.
The bad news is that many families are not aware of these legal consequences. But once they are made aware of the U.S. ban on vacation cutting, they are often dissuaded from forcing their daughters to undergo FGM.
We need to make sure parents and families are informed about the impact (physical, psychological, sexual) of FGM, as well as the legal consequences of vacation cutting. We also must spread awareness in schools and health centers — if we cannot reach and convince every parent of the dangers of FGM, surely we can reach every school so that every child has somewhere to turn for support.
My organization, Safe Hands for Girls, conducts workshops so that educators understand the dangers facing their students and health care providers know how to offer culturally competent care to survivors. But everyone can contribute to this work. It starts with speaking up about FGM to raise awareness and break down the stigma of a practice which many people are uncomfortable discussing and confronting.
FGM is a physical mutilation that is tangled up in shame, taboo and silencing. Women and girls affected by FGM are right here in the U.S., and they must be empowered to choose their own futures and control their own bodies. When we speak up, we take steps so they can do just that.
Parent to parent, woman to woman, human to human — let’s work together to eradicate FGM and protect our girls from vacation cutting. Laws have been passed, but these laws will only be effective if we speak up and educate our communities about the human rights and public health issue that is FGM. If we join forces to spread awareness, we can change the world.
Jaha Dukureh is the founder of Safe Hands for Girls, an organization that works to eliminate FGM and all violence against women.