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Susan Masling Speaks at the Global Woman Peace Foundation Event on 15 October 2016

October 15, 2016

16-10-15-end-fgm-walk-dc-img_2419-36Susan Masling spoke on 15 October 2016 at the Third Annual Walk to End FGM in Washington DC, supporting the great work of the Global Woman Peace Foundation, and representing the Department of Justice and the Criminal Division’s Human Rights and Special Prosecutions Section.

This is her address, which offers an update of the work by that Department , and across other US agencies, on Female Genital Mutilation, and which also makes it clear that the correct term for this harmful procedure is indeed ‘Mutilation‘.

Many words are used to describe the practice of Female Genital Mutilation, including circumcision, excision, cutting, even the thing. But the word I use here today — the word that Congress chose when banning the practice in the United States — and that word that most accurately represents what is happening to so many innocent young girls — is mutilation.

As Angela Peabody (Global Woman Peace Foundation’s Director) says, “lets call it what it is.”

As many of you know, the practice of FGM is thousands of years old. It originated in Egypt and predates both Islam and Christianity.

It is practiced throughout the world. It is estimated that 200 million women and girls in 30 countries aged from infancy to late teens have been subjected to this practice. Unlike male circumcision, the practice of the cutting of a girl’s vaginal flesh has serious medical risks, including, in some cases, death.

The practice is rightly recognized by the UN as a violation of human rights and as a form of child abuse.

The trauma is unlike other forms of child abuse because, strangely enough, most of those who carry out FGM do so because they believe it is in the best interests of the child.

Many of the very women who have been cut are those making the difficult choice to continue the tradition. And although it is shrouded in secrecy, it is a deeply rooted, accepted tradition.

Other speakers here today will probably talk to you about the trauma that is FGM.

I will describe how the USG is trying to prevent this trauma from happening to girls living in the United States.

It is difficult to believe but only 20 years ago, it was not illegal in the U.S. to do this to a girl.

Senator Harry Reid was one of the leading advocates for the passage of a law to criminalize FGM in the U.S.   In 1996, he spoke to the Senate, passionately about it in graphic detail, about the horror of this process.

He talked about the use of razors, glass and knives to excise all the female genitalia, stitching closed the remaining tissue to leave a tiny opening for urine and menstrual fluid.  He explained that the practice has no medical justification and is performed on healthy young girls, usually without anesthesia.

He told how girls may be tied down or held down by family members, who hear the screams of the child;  and he noted that the effects include shock, infection, trauma, hemorrhaging, scarring, infertility, and death.

Congress then took action, passing a law making it a felony to knowingly circumcise, excise, or infibulate the whole or any part of the labia majora or labia minora or clitoris, unless there is a medical necessity and the operation is performed by a medical professional.

Congress added a specific provision that states that the belief of the person doing the cutting that the practice might be required by custom or ritual is not to be taken into account.

Violations of this law are punishable by 5 years in prison, fines, or both.  Family members who assist or facilitate a child being subjected to FGM are also criminally liable.

That was a positive step in the right direction. But it did not completely address the problem.

One of the problems was that girls were being sent out of the country to have FGM performed elsewhere. Because this usually took place during school vacations, the practice became known as “vacation cutting”.

17 years later, in 2013, Congress closed the so called vacation loophole and amended the FGM law to make it illegal for a girl from the United States to be sent out of the country to be mutilated anywhere in the world.  It’s not just a crime to send a girl out of the U.S. for FGM, it is also a crime to attempt to do so.

That was another huge step towards eradicating FGM in the United States.

But if the passage of this law was sufficient to prevent FGM, we would not be here today.

Girls not old enough to attend kindergarten continue to be mutilated, here in the U.S. and abroad.

There numbers are higher than you might expect. The CDC estimates that over ½ million women and girls in the United States have been subjected to FGM or are at risk of being mutilated.

The federal law puts families on notice that FGM will not be tolerated in the United States.  Nor will we tolerate a girl being sent out of the United States to be mutilated.

I have heard from immigrants and refugee women who have found the U.S. federal law to be a useful and persuasive tool that can be used to stand up to family pressure to do this to their girls.

They have told us that the U.S. law against FGM can be a shield, because it gives them protection against pressures from family to continue the tradition and perform this act on their girls.

The law allows mothers and fathers to say to their families here and abroad, ‘Yes, this may have been our tradition but in the United States it is a crime.’

They say: ‘I could go to jail.  I could lose my status as a citizen or lawful permanent resident.’

But the law is also a sword, which allows the Justice Department to prosecute those who commit FGM on U.S. soil or ship girls off to have it done.

We can and will prosecute when sufficient evidence exists.  And while I cannot speak in any detail, I can tell you that, as we speak, the Department is currently investigating allegations of FGM taking place on U.S. soil.

But the Justice Department does not believe that prosecution alone can eradicate FGM.  Enforcing the law is not enough to save girls from being genitally mutilated.

The Obama administration recognized the importance of a whole of government approach when it created an inter-agency group dedicated to education and prevention of FGM.

These agencies, for example, are also working hard to eradicate FGM:

Department of State: leading the way on engagement with religious leaders; funded programs in Nairobi, Guinea and Kurdistan to promote broader education and dissemination of information on the harmful effects of FGM/C.
HHS: provided grant opportunities for domestic NGOs implementing innovative prevention strategies.
ICE: Created an innovative pilot program to identify girls at risk of vacation cutting and intervene at airports.
EDUCATION: Participated in webinars and other training on FGM for educators.

But no matter how much is done in Washington, this centuries old practice dating back to ancient Egypt won’t be eradicated with a top-down solution.  It will require change of beliefs and participation of all those concerned.

That is why HRSP has held a series of roundtable meetings in cities across the country – NY, Baltimore, Chicago, Newark, Miami, to bring together all stakeholders, and there are many:

Health professionals
Immigrant service providers and charities
Law enforcement
Family services agencies

In each of these cities, we were able to educate many professionals and members of the community who did not know that FGM was happening in the U.S.  They did not know that it was illegal, and they did not know what role they could play.

Just as important, these conversations generated ideas for change.
Some of those ideas have included:

Incorporating FGM training as part of medical school curriculum or continuing education requirements
Creating a tool kit for educators who are trying to assess whether a girl is at risk of FGM and what to do if she is
Creating special codes for FGM so that calls can be tracked and data can be collected when suspected FGM is reported to law enforcement or family services offices. Currently these calls may be coded as battery or sexual touching.
Clarifying the reporting obligations for law enforcement, doctors and school nurses.

After holding these meetings, it became clear to us that the entire community has a part to play in the effort to stop this harmful and unlawful practice and to keep girls safe.

One thing we can all do is be vigilant and watchful. To borrow a phrase from another law enforcement agency, “if you see something say something.”

The taboo and secretive nature or this practice is an obstacle to law enforcement and to change.  It is up to all of us to break the silence on FGM.

Knowing where and when to report suspicions that a girl has been mutilated, may be at risk, or that a person is performing this act will help law enforcement and child services agencies do their part.

Front line service providers can and must speak up. Family, friends, religious and other community leaders can and must speak up. To borrow another phrase, “it takes a village.”

And that is why we are here today. Each of us can play a part. Your presence here today supports the Global Woman Peace Foundation in their righteous work:

Paying for reconstructive surgery for survivors
Holding support and therapy sessions
Writing and producing educational materials for students and teachers
Funding projects in Liberia and reaching out across the globe to assist girls at risk.

President Obama, in his Zero Tolerance To FGM Day statement last year, said it best:

We call on girls and their families, teachers, health workers, community and religious leaders, and government officials to act together to make a difference. It’s time to put an end to this harmful practice, and to allow communities everywhere to meet their full potential by enabling women and girls to meet theirs. FGM/C has no place in any community.

Thank you


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This NoFGM website is owned and edited by Hilary Burrage, an authority on female genital mutilation (FGM).  Hilary’s introduction and general information about FGM can be found here, or for a more detailed, referenced discussion of FGM, you may like also to read her post Female Genital Mutilation: An Introduction To The Issues, And Suggested Reading and see her two books on this subject:

Eradicating Female Genital Mutilation: A UK Perspective (Hilary Burrage, Ashgate / Routledge 2015).   Contents and reviews  here.
FEMALE MUTILATION: The truth behind the horrifying global practice of female genital mutilation  (Hilary Burrage, New Holland Publishers 2016).   Contents and reviews  here.

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