02/06/2013 11:55 am ET Updated Apr 08, 2013

Zero Tolerance in Our Backyards: Ending Female Genital Mutilation

Eight years ago, a teacher called me from Atlanta urgently seeking advice. One of her students, a bright 15-year-old immigrant from the Gambia, confided to Ms. Smith* that she was on her way to New York where she said her father had plans to forcibly marry her to a stranger and subject her to female genital mutilation or FGM. Khadija* needed help. A few days later, Khadija confirmed on the phone that the marriage to a man twice her age had occurred in a Harlem mosque. However, her teacher misunderstood the mentioned procedure. Khadija told me she had been genitally excised as a baby and was scarred. She was scheduled to visit a Manhattan East Side surgeon to "deinfibulate" her to ease the consummation of her arranged marriage.

I paired up with Sanctuary for Families, an agency that provides legal and other services to thousands of victims. We desperately urged Khadija to escape the brutal violence she continued to endure, but the pull of family, culture, isolation and terror were too great for a young girl.

At the time, I was heading the international organization, Equality Now, which in the mid-90s had led the campaign on behalf of another teenager, Fauziya Kasinga, who had fled Togo to evade FGM. Also known as female circumcision and genital "cutting," FGM is a 5,000 year-old harmful cultural practice that predates any religion. It affects 100 to 140 million women and girls around the world, Muslims and Jews, Christians and animists, mostly in Africa, with sprinkles of countries in the Middle East and Asia. Cases of FGM occur in every country where practicing diaspora families settle.

Deemed a human rights violation by the United Nations, FGM causes severe lifelong physical and psychological consequences that vary with the extent of the practice, from a clitoridectomy to the removal and stitching of a girl's outer genitalia. FGM is performed to preserve a girl's virginity until marriage and to control her sexuality.

The Kasinga case propelled the United States to change its asylum laws and enact a federal law prohibiting FGM, with a dozen states following suit, including New York. In 1997, the Centers for Disease Control estimated that 168,000 women and girls were at risk or had been subjected to FGM in the U.S.; and the American Academy of Pediatrics published a policy condemning it. The public silence around FGM was broken; we were sailing toward its eradication.

Contrary to our hopes and expectations, the government's efforts stopped there. Unlike anti-FGM movements across Africa and Europe, the U.S. mostly ignores the issue under the pretense of cultural or religious sensitivity. While Khadija can rattle a dozen names of girls like her in New York and Atlanta, immigrant and U.S.-born, no one knows how many are at risk in the U.S..

Only after increased beatings by her "husband" did Khadija's father allow her to move into his brother's Bronx home a few blocks away. There, Khadija overheard her aunt calling family in the Gambia announcing their arrival and arranging the "cuts" for her two American daughters. Panicked, Khadija broke the vow of secrecy shrouding the ritual and warned her cousin about what would await her the summer after third grade. The terrified child told a teacher who cautioned the parents about possible immigration troubles if FGM occurred. The girl's baby sister, however, may not have been spared.

"Education is very important in communities like mine," Khadija says today. "The adults who care for us in one way or another can't afford to feel scared or threatened to speak up about FGM just because we're African. Our lives depend on it."

Khadija, now 23, remains a feisty young woman who is writing her autobiography while juggling a full-time job and raising two small children. She belongs to a growing cadre of FGM survivors who are speaking out against the practice.

"Providing support to these young women who are forging the next wave of anti-FGM advocacy is key," says Archi Pyati, the Deputy Director of Sanctuary for Families' Immigration Intervention Project who offers legal services to hundreds of women and girls from countries where FGM is practiced. "They have had enough and are not willing to suffer in the shadows anymore."

The struggle continues to bear its fruits. After three years of negotiations under the persistent leadership of Rep. Joseph Crowley (D-NY), President Obama signed the Girls Protection Act last month, closing a loophole in the federal law. Like the states of Georgia and Nevada, the U.S. now prohibits the transport of a child from the country for purposes of FGM. Questions abound as to how this law will be enforced and some are concerned that focusing solely on punitive measures could further marginalize those communities. Laws are key tools in social change and strong deterrents; this law will undoubtedly protect girls. However, we also need parallel strategies for sensitive community outreach and for developing strong and relevant protocols for FGM prevention.

Feb. 6 is the Day of Zero Tolerance for FGM when thousands around the world meet, march and mandate their governments to hasten efforts in eradicating FGM. New York is shamefully behind. At the very least, we must follow Rep. Crowley's leadership and ensure that the state law is amended to include his "vacation provision." Care providers must also take a stand and walk side-by-side with trailblazers like Khadija.

"Women have been maltreated for centuries in the name of culture, religion and tradition," Khadija concludes. "I've broken the chain and my daughter is safe, but so many are not. No girl deserves to go through the inhumanity of FGM. It's our responsibility to change the course of history; FGM is not going to end on its own. "

* Names have been changed.