Why President Obama’s Announcement on FGM is Important
According to estimates from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, at least 150,000 to 200,000 women and girls in the U.S. are at risk today of being forced to undergo female genital mutilation, often referred to as FGM. FGM is the collective name given to a number of cultural practices through which the female genitals are partly or entirely removed. Some of the common reasons for the continuance of FGM include rite of passage, marriageability, and preservation of family “honor.” These practices can have serious health consequences. While immediate complications can be severe pain and bleeding, longer term problems include chronic infections, infertility, problems during pregnancy, and pain during sexual intercourse.
FGM has long been considered a violation of the human rights of women and girls under international law. Specifically, FGM denies women and girls the rights to physical and mental integrity, freedom from violence, health, non-discrimination, and the right to life where the practice of FGM results in death. These rights are protected under a number of international and regional treaties, including the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), to which the U.S. is a party.
In 1996, the U.S. Congress joined international efforts and enacted landmark legislation criminalizing the practice of FGM on U.S. soil on anyone younger than 18 years of age. In 2013, it took a further step in the National Defense Authorization Act by making it illegal to knowingly transport a girl out of the U.S. for purposes of carrying out FGM. Moreover, immigration authorities are now required to provide information to immigrants about the severe health and legal consequences of performing those cultural practices. State legislatures have also been active in enacting statutes that criminalize the procedure. To date, about 20 states have laws against FGM. In Illinois, for example, FGM is a criminal offense punishable by up to 30 years of imprisonment.
While the enactment of such legislations marks an important step towards abandoning the practice of FGM, there has been a vast gap in the enforcement of laws both on the national and local levels. A big problem is that individuals at immediate risk of FGM rarely choose to report to authorities. They are often under community pressure not to involve law enforcement and fear that their report will result in violators, usually their parents or close relatives, being arrested, prosecuted, and possibly deported. As of 2012, only one prosecution related to cases of FGM has been brought forward in U.S. court.
Advocates suggest that the key to ending FGM in the U.S. lies in educating the public about the implications of this act. As pointed out by Jaha Dukureh, a survivor of FGM, “[l]aws have been passed to try to address FGM in the U.S., but girls continue to be cut. Part of the difficulty … is the lack of awareness and up-to-date research/statistics on the prevalence of FGM.” That is why President Obama’s recent announcement that the Department of Health and Human Services will conduct a study on the number of women and girls at risk or living with the consequences of FGM is so important for ending FGM. It means the U.S. government is taking the issue seriously and giving authorities and advocates the information they need to protect women and girls from FGM in the U.S.
“[A]s we enter these summer months,” said Joe Crowley, one of the congressmen who supported the study, “we know families will be taking their children overseas to reconnect them with their homelands, [and it is important] that they understand that it is against the law to transport their child overseas for the purposes of receiving FGM.” While it is always easier to buy peace by keeping quiet, it must not be forgotten that presently, hundreds of thousands of our women and girls are at immediate risk of FGM and forced to make the hard choice between complying with their “cultural norm” and defending their physical integrity and dignity. Thus, the problem of FGM demands and deserves a higher level of public awareness, which will hopefully be achieved through this new study.
— Pengli Li’16 is a Cornell Law Student and Research Associate at the Avon Global Center for Women and Justice