10/14/2014 05:23 pm ET Updated Dec 14, 2014

#ENDFGM: A Tipping Point for Female Genital Mutilation?

Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

(This post contains graphic descriptions.)

Last week, a new campaign to end female genital mutilation launched in Nairobi, Kenya. The effort, The Girl Generation: Together To End FGM, taking place in 10 African countries, aims to end FGM in one generation.

The World Health Organization defines FGM as any of a range of procedures (four major types) that "intentionally alter or cause injury to the female genital organs for non-medical reasons." There are several names for what we are talking about: female genital cutting (FGC), female circumcision and female genital mutilation (FGM) are all ways used to describe the partial or complete removal of external female genitalia. In some cases the clitoris is removed. In the most extreme, the entire vaginal opening is stitched closed, leaving only a small space for urine and blood. Call it what you will, but, in any case, it is a gender-based human rights violation carried out on at a massive scale. As described in the fact sheet above:

  • It is a sociocultural practice, there are no medical reasons to perform these procedures
  • There are no health benefits for girls and women. As a matter of fact, there are a whole host of potential medical complications, as well as short and long term negative health impacts including excessive bleeding, infection, lifelong pain, sex and childbirth complications, problems with urination, menstruation, and, for good measure increased chances of getting sexually transmitted diseases.
  • Many practicing communities believe that the procedure will ensure that girls and women do not pursue their own sexual pleasure.
  • There are 29 countries in Africa and the Middle East where most procedures take place.
  • More than 125 million girls and women alive today have been cut, most procedures are carried out on girls, newborn-15.
  • Between now and 2030 an estimated 80 million girls are expected to be affected
  • FGM is not tied to any one religion. In the 28 countries that make up the majority of those in which FGM is practices, Christians, Jews and Muslims have practices FGC on their girls.
  • Laws are changing, but the actual practice continues.  Earlier this year in Egypt, in the first case of its kind, a doctor was prosecuted on charges of female genital mutilation after a 13-year old girl died following an operation. An estimated 91% of married girls and women have experienced FGM in Egypt.

There are very few cultures that don't produce culturally acceptable misogynistic practices involving women's bodies. The idea that female genitals are dirty or that menstruation is a source of shame, for example, really knows no borders. Female circumcision is a practice carried out primarily by women elders in a community. While it is easy, at a cultural remove, to condemn the practice, parents and communities adhere to the tradition because they love their daughters and believe that FGM is important for their future well being and security. The practice also has economic and social value. It is how circumcisers make their living and also a source of recognition and respect. I'm not going to delve into the particularities of cultures that elevate women in this way, only say that there is a thriving currency, one that includes safety, security and status, in playing for patriarchy points.

None of those things changes the fact that it's a human rights violation. So is denying women safe abortions, for example, but that doesn't stop us.  If you are inclined towards "all cultures are equal" anti-universalism, consider the universalism of all girls and women having the ability to go to the bathroom, give birth and enjoy sex without pain and suffering. Those are not culturally bound needs and rights.

The new campaign includes solutions ranging from education and health care improvements to engaging members of diaspora communities.  Immigrants, to countries such as Australia, Canada, England, France, and the US, are forcing consideration of FGM globally.  Today in the UK, it is estimated that  20,000 girls are at risk and that up to 66,000 are living with the health consequences of having had the procedure performed on them.  No one actually knows the scope of the problem in the US, or in the UK - either in terms of vacation cutting or of actual illegal procedures taking place in these countries. The last study, conducted in 1997, estimated that 168,000 girls and women.

The UK outlawed FGM in 1985, but the first prosecution of a case took place in April of this year.   It wasn't until 1996 that FGM was outlawed in the US.  In 1994, 17-year old Fauziya Kasinga fled her home in Togo in order to avoid a forced circumcision after a forced early marriage.  She came to the US seeking political asylum.  A year later, Judge Donald V. Ferlise found that her case did "not reveal any past or future or present persecution" and that she was not being targeted as a member of a "particular social group."  His decision was, apparently, par for the course for Judge Ferlise who, in 2006, was found by a federal review panel to have a "bullying" and "bias-laden" courtroom. In the meantime, Kasinga was held in a US detention center for two years until, through the persistent efforts of Equality Now, the US recognized FGM as a form of gender-based persecution and the legitimate basis for women seeking asylum. Kasinga was released. Soon after, a law explicitly banning the practice in the US was passed. Only in 2013 was a loophole in the law, that put girls at risk for "vacation cutting," closed. ("Vacation cutting" is when families send girls to their home countries to have the procedure performed.)

Jaha Dukureh, a woman living in Atlanta, Georgia, has been an outspoken advocate for ending FGM and the need for the US to address the problem. She was a week old when she underwent the procedure, and has lived with the consequences her whole life.  Earlier this year, she started a petition urging the government to commission a study in the US. In a Guardian piece published earlier this year, with the spot on title, "In Washington, they don't want to talk about vaginas," Dukureh wrote, "FGM is not something that is happening in a far away place. It is happening here to American girls," she says. "When these kids are being sent back they are told they are going to meet their families. Often the parents are not to blame, they take their kids back home and it can be done without your permission - you go out and come back to a mutilated child."

In July, at the 2014 Girl Summit, held in London, the US committed to undertaking this study and less than two weeks ago, the Department of Health and Human Services held a meeting with members of communities affected by the practice in the US.

These initiatives are an important component of global efforts to end FGM. National and international advocacy programs are designed to encourage social change that involves cross-generational discussion, the creation of substitute rituals and improved information and education.  Actions like Dukureh are critical, not only because they help immigrant girls in the UK or the US, but because of the close ties between immigrant and home country communities.  Campaigns such as The Girl Generation hope to leverage the importance of these relationships.

Programs like this work and can effect change in a remarkably short time. For example, in Senegal, an education-based movement organized by Tostan has led to a majority of Senegalese villages committing to ending FGM.  Their model includes intergenerational learning, a focus on human rights and health care. Tostan's success has been in understanding the interrelationships between communities and encouraging entire intermarrying villages to stop the practice.

Equality Now, a founding partner of The Girl Generation: Together To End FGM has a list of suggestions for how you can help this initiative. Also, for more information check these sites:

The Girl Generation: Together To End FGM from The Girl Generation on Vimeo.