The United Nations has declared Feb. 6 International Zero Tolerance Day for Female Genital Mutilation.
Contrary to popular perception, female genital mutilation, or FGM, is relatively widespread in the United States as well. Indeed, according to a report by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more than 500,000 women and girls have either undergone, or are at risk of undergoing the procedure. Most, but not all, are immigrants to the U.S.
In November, a federal judge declared a 1996 federal law banning FGM unconstitutional.
To find out more, VOA’s Adam Phillips spoke with Ghada Khan, coordinator of the U.S. End FGM/C Network. That’s an umbrella group of 26 grassroots American groups fighting to end the practice.
Here is a transcript of the interview.
Phillips: What are the main ethnic or demographic groups that practice FGM in America today?
Khan: Female genital mutilation is something that cuts across socioeconomic status, different religions, different cultures and different areas.
There is no one set group that actually performs it. But the main underlying factor is control of female sexuality.
There is a lasting impact on women when they are physically harmed to control their sexuality, but also the messaging (is) that their sexuality is not something to be celebrated, and that there needs to be some control over their own bodies.
Phillips: What does female genital mutilation actually involve for a woman, physically?
Khan: In come cases, the entire outer and inner lips of the vagina are cut and the clitoris is also removed. And sometimes the entire outer lips of the vagina are sewn up to leave only a small hole for urination and menstruation. In some cultures, that hole is measured by the size of a corn kernel. You can imagine that sex after that type of procedure is done is extremely painful.
Some cultures might just cut the top of the clitoris or the clitoral hood; even that can impact the woman’s sensation during sex.
Phillips: But why would anyone want to limit the pleasure that women have during sex? How is that in anyone’s interest?
Khan: People want to control women and have them not be able to have sex except with their husbands. And also, controlling their experience during sex can also limit their desire for having extramarital relationships. But also (preventing women from) having pleasure during sex is in and of itself a form of control.
Phillips: But it’s not just the sexual health of women that is affected, correct? It’s also their overall health, and even their mortality that can be at stake.
Khan: The plethora of adverse health outcomes that come with this are many. (They include) impacting women’s labor and delivery outcomes (and) ranging from infections to hemorrhaging, to even death.
Phillips: Are there any other non-political, non-gender-based reasons for the practice?
Khan: There are cultures that think FGM is more hygienic, and that it keeps a woman clean. And in some cultures, it’s also seen as a way to increase fertility, when it fact it does not. These are all misconceptions and myths that come along with the practice.
Phillips: I know in Africa at least, the rates of FGM have gone down enormously, thanks largely to activism that has gone on at the grassroots.
Khan: We’re excited about that. It gives us hope that this can be stopped, and we thank them for their efforts.
Phillips: What was your reaction to the ruling in Detroit (Michigan) last November striking down the anti-FGM law?
Khan: At the U.S. End FGM/C Network, we were of course very disappointed in the judge’s decision to deem the federal statute against FGM unconstitutional.This law has been in place since 1996, and it’s been at the center of U.S. efforts, both nationally and internationally.
It really was a blow to all of us, but especially to survivors. However, we see some opportunities in that it raises awareness of the issue here.
We need to really unite on this to push for an appeal and to make sure that the evidence and the voices of survivors are amplified and are part of the main national conversation.
This interview was edited for length and clarity.