When I was 15 years old, I was sent from my home country, Gambia, to the Bronx in New York City for an arranged marriage. At the time, I didn’t realize that I was a survivor of female genital mutilation (FGM), which was done to me when I was a week old.
Right here in the United States, an estimated 500,000 women and girls have been affected by, or are at risk for FGM.
Summer is a particularly critical time when girls have an increased risk of being forced to undergo such mutilation. While most people think that this issue impacts girls and women in Africa, Asia and the Middle East, “vacation cutting”—the practice of sending young girls abroad (usually during school breaks) to undergo FGM—means that FGM affects women and girls in the United States.
The United Nations Population Fund and the United Nations Children's Fund have committed jointly to ending FGM, which is already illegal in 41 countries, including the United States. FGM has proven to be such a present challenge in New York that the state legislature passed a law in 2015 to raise awareness and public education about the consequences — physical, mental, emotional and sexual — of FGM and vacation cutting.
Here’s one story that is all too familiar. After she realized her family was planning to send her back to their home country during a school break, a New York City girl turned to her school for help. She explained to her guidance counselor that she was afraid to go home because she was going to be sent off on a vacation cutting. Instead of helping the child, the counselor dismissed the girl and sent her home. Despite her brave efforts, the girl underwent FGM.
Raising awareness and increasing public education is a step in the right direction. Although both FGM and vacation cutting are illegal in the U.S., many families are not aware that they are subject to prosecution in the U.S. even if they send their daughters abroad for mutilation.
We need to make sure that parents are made aware that vacation cutting, too, is illegal. Once they learn this fact, they often are dissuaded from forcing their daughters to undergo FGM.
As we know from the New York City girl’s tragic story, parents are not the only ones who need more information about vacation cutting. We also need to focus on educators and health care providers. And in general, we need to speak up about FGM in order to start tearing down the stigma often experienced by survivors.
Women and girls affected by FGM are not far away in remote African hamlets. We live in New York, Atlanta, Minneapolis, Boston, San Francisco and countless other cities and towns across the U.S. FGM is not only about protecting and improving women’s and girl’s health; it is a basic human rights issue.
FGM is my issue, but it’s not my only issue or only my issue. Let it be ours, together, as we work to promote more community outreach and public education campaigns. With every law passed and policy implemented, we move toward treating FGM like the public health threat it is. Through that work we will end FGM for girls here and around the world.
Jaha Dukureh is the founder of Safe Hands for Girls, an organization that works to eliminate FGM and all violence against women. Follow her on Twitter @JahaENDFGM