Beyoncé has often been controversial, but her recent video deserves unanimous applause for raising awareness of how girls are still treated as second-class citizens in too much of the world, where violence, female genital mutilation, and child marriage are too often the norm.
American women on the Right and the Left may have different opinions about tax policy, government’s role in regulating the workplace, and the size of the social safety net. But we should be able to speak with one voice on this: Women and girls everywhere deserve basic human rights and to be free from violence and exploitation.
We should call on American leaders to prioritize encouraging countries around the globe to recognize women’s human rights and make progress toward women’s full and equal participation in society. U.S. policy leaders should also double down on their commitment to ensuring that we don’t import some of the worst practices from overseas into our borders.
A Place to Start: Combating Female Genital Mutilation
The World Health Organization estimates that at least 200 million women and girls have experienced female genital mutilation (FGM), the term for the practice of cutting, removing, or otherwise damaging female genitalia. The purpose of FGM is simple: to prevent girls and women from the potential of experiencing sexual pleasure, and therefore to discourage sex outside of marriage. There is no medical benefit to this practice. Rather, it results in severe medical complications that can affect a woman for a lifetime.
If feminism stands for anything, it ought to be unequivocally against this abhorrent practice that violates women’s human rights and dignity, and seeks to render female bodies as vessels for men’s enjoyment, while denying women any of their own.
Rates of FGM in some parts of Africa are staggering: According to this report by the General Accounting Office, in Egypt, Sudan, Mali, Guinea, and Somalia, more than 80 percent of women between the ages 15 and 49 have reported undergoing FGM. Turning these country’s laws and customs away from this practice will be no easy feat. It should be a diplomatic priority to develop strategies to outlaw this custom and to educate leaders on the significant negative effects it has on women and society.
We also need to prevent this practice from being imported to America, and to prevent American citizens from being forced to undergo FGM elsewhere around the globe.
Preventing FGM in the USA
There is no solid data on how many girls or women in the United States have been subject to FGM. Yet there is evidence that some communities are seeking to continue their native-land’s tradition of FGM here in America.
Just this year, three Michigan-based doctors (Dr. Jumana Nagarwala, Dr. Fakhruddin Attar, and his wife, Farida Attar) with ties to an extreme Muslim sect were arrested for being involved in or practicing FGM. The assistant U.S. attorney on this case reports that at least 100 may have been cut in these facilities.
Newsweek reports that two girls from Minnesota who were victims were told “they were going to Michigan for a “special girls’ trip,” and “not to speak about the procedure.” Following the procedure, one girl reported barely being able to walk and that she “felt pain all the way down to her ankles.”
Congress made FGM a federal crime in 1996, and anyone found to have knowingly performed FGM on a girl under age 18 can be punished with up to five years of imprisonment. Twenty-five states have also outlawed FGM, and there’s a federal law against transporting girls under age 18 for the purpose of performing FGM elsewhere. Yet the White House and Congress can further deter this practice by encouraging more attention to and study of this issue and developing best practices for prevention.
The White House can take the lead by establishing a taskforce to prevent FGM. A leader at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue could bring each of the agencies to the table to work on a national strategy to end FGM. The Department of Health and Human Services can make the medical community more aware of the dangers and need for prevention; the Department of Education can raise awareness among schools; the Department of Justice should prioritize enforcement of the laws against FGM; and departments of Homeland Security and State can increase efforts to prevent the transportation of Americans to countries for FGM as well as trying to encourage international partners to join efforts to prevent FGM.
This isn’t an issue people like to think about. Yet it demands our immediate attention so we can make strides to encourage widespread recognition that women and girls deserve human rights and to be free from this kind of sexist violence. On this, American women can surely stand together.