JahaDukureh speaks on a panel at the first civil society summit on FGM/C in the United States in December 2016. [Photo: USIP]

The Tipping Point: Can the World End Female Genital Mutilation/Cutting?

In December, the very first U.S. civil society summit on female genital mutilation/cutting (FGM/C) took place in Washington, D.C.

The fact that the summit was the first of its kind speaks to some of the challenges we face in tackling FGM/C. In the communities where this problem occurs around the world, the silence is too often deafening, as I’ve seen first-hand in many of the countries I’ve visited.

But that silence is slowly receding thanks to survivors and advocates who are working to end the practice, both in the United States and around the world.

It’s receding in Egypt, where local artists are using humor to spark conversations among families.

It’s receding in Indonesia, where universities are researching the practice to make policy recommendations.

It’s receding in Bohra communities in India and around the world because groups like Sahiyo are giving people a platform to speak out.

And it’s receding here in the United States, thanks in no small part to leaders like Senator Reid and others in Congress.

But we know that while the silence may be receding, the practice itself is not.

In 2016, UNICEF’s estimate of how many women and girls have undergone this practice jumped by 70 million to 200 million. And that news comes despite the documented declines in high-prevalence countries like Egypt.

So we are up against population growth and other factors that are increasing the number of women and girls are at risk. That’s the sort of sobering reality that should give everyone a sense of urgency for this work.

The UNICEF report also changed the map. We are no longer talking about a handful of regions — we’re talking about countries on almost every continent, including the United States.

Now more than ever, this is an issue that needs our attention. That’s why the United States has made it a part of our foreign policy and it’s also why we are proud to be part of the global movement to prevent and respond to FGM/C.

Of course, we are deeply committed to the Sustainable Development Goals, including the targets on FGM/C. And our policy framework is strong. The U.S. strategy on gender-based violence that President Obama launched in 2012 makes clear that FGM/C is a harmful practice that requires a multi-sector response — one that includes community-led responses, a change in social norms, and political commitment.

FGM/C is also addressed in the first-ever U.S. strategy on adolescent girls. And the State Department has made ending harmful practices like FGM/C one of our three key objectives in implementing that strategy.

So while my time in this job ends next week, the focus on this issue will continue, because the foundation for that work is in place.

Around the world, we’ve built on that foundation through diplomacy, through programming, and through partnership. For example, my colleague Arsalan Suleman, who serves as the U.S. Special Envoy to the Organization of Islamic Cooperation, has helped lead the State Department’s efforts to engage religious leaders on this issue, which is critical.

And two years ago, my office launched a social media campaign on the International Day for Zero Tolerance. That was our first-ever online campaign, and I’m proud to say it was not the last.

Since then, we’ve included FGM/C in broader online campaigns. It was a part of our #DadsAndDaughters campaign in October, when we focused on how fathers can advance gender equality in their personal lives. And it was a part of our social media campaign for the 16 Days of Activism. These campaigns are important because they bring the practice into the open.

On the program side, the most exciting thing we’ve done to date has been a program in Guinea, where U.S. diplomats led a national campaign to end the practice. More than 200 villages banned FGM/C thanks to this campaign.

Girls in rural Guinea, where a U.S.-led campaign has led to hundreds of villages banning FGM/C. [State Department photo]

While the U.S. will take some credit for that, we certainly did not do it alone. It’s my view that the campaign was successful because we had such a tremendous group of partners — from the government of Guinea, to local and international groups, to young women and community leaders.

In October, Secretary Kerry announced that the State Department will dedicate more than a half million dollars to build on our success in Guinea. We will partner with organizations on the ground to support survivor-centered approaches to end FGM/C in West Africa and Southeast Asia.

So our work and our commitment will continue. But what will also continue is the critical need for survivors, advocates, and organizations to push for progress, and to speak out for action.

More than 20 years ago, I worked with then-Senator Joe Biden when he worked on the Violence Against Women Act back in the 1990s. At the time, domestic violence was viewed in a very different way than it is today. Many people thought of it as a family matter, rather than as a crime.

Senator Biden would tell a story. If the police responded to a domestic disturbance, they would tell the husband to take a walk around the block. And then they would pull the woman aside and ask her, do you really want to send him to jail? Do you really want to do that to your family?

Today, that is no longer the case. While we are far from perfect on this issue, the United States has made tremendous progress in changing the way people view domestic violence.

That’s our goal for FGM/C as well. There’s no doubt that social change is badly needed. And while it will take time — certainly more time than any of us would like — it is possible.

As the great Dr. King said, the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.

That bend does not happen on its own. It happens because of people who organize the very first summit on an issue. They start conversations and break taboos. They stand up for survivors and for those who are at risk.

That’s what we need moving forward. And I have no doubt that as this Administration comes to an end, we will keep the momentum going.

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