Last month, Jaha Dukureh held the hand of a pregnant 17-year-old girl as she went through a particularly painful experience in the delivery room. Dukureh supported the girl after she fled an arranged marriage.
“I was looking at the doctors just because they are looking at her, they know something happened to her, but they didn’t say anything about it.”
Like Dukureh herself, the soon-to-be mother was a survivor of female genital mutilation – but none of the doctors or nurses assisting in her birth inquired about that.
She said she wanted to say to the people in the hospital, “This girl almost died because of this and you guys are just looking at it as if it’s culture. She’s [a minor] and you’re not even asking…why this happened to this girl when FGM is illegal in this country.”
“That bothers me,” Dukureh said in a phone interview with ThinkProgress. “FGM needs to be looked at as child abuse.”
The 25-year-old founded Safe Hands for Girls to advocate for greater awareness and more stringent laws around FGM. She’s working to make sure that the same sort of requirements for reporting child abuse apply to female genital mutilation, a form of gender-based violence which is increasingly common in the United States.
FGM is a cultural practice which involves all or partial removal of the female genitalia. It was outlawed across the U.S. in 1996.
According to a study by the Population Reference Bureau, in 2013 as many as 507,000 women in the U.S. had either been subjected to or were at risk of being subjected to FGM. That’s more than twice the number estimated in 2000, partly because of an influx of immigrants from the 29 countries where FGM is practiced.
Dukureh is trying to ensure that girls in America are kept from the fate she suffered in the Gambia, where, just a few days after she was born, almost all of her genital area was sewn up.
Last year, she started a change.org petition to call on President Barack Obama to develop a strategic action plan to end FGM in America. It was signed by more than 221,000 people. Her efforts drew attention from Representatives Joe Crowley (D-NY) and Sheila Jackson-Lee (D-TX) who are spearheading an effort to keep girls in America from being subjected to FGM.
The two lawmakers introduced a bill to coincide with the International Day of Zero Tolerance to Female Genital Mutilation last month. The measure calls on the federal government to develop and implement a national strategy to keep American girls safe from FGM.
Crowley authored the 2013 Girls Protection Act which closed the so called “vacation FGM” loophole in existing law through which parents faced no legal action for subjecting their daughters to FGM while traveling abroad.
It’s rare for cases to be brought against anyone for FGM, in part, because its perpetrators are often community members, family, or even the parents of often very young victims. So far in the U.S., there has only been one successful conviction under the federal law banning FGM.
Dukureh thinks enhanced enforcement mechanisms like the ones Crowley has initiated are important, but envisions a broad plan that not only treats FGM with the same reporting responsibilities as child abuse, but that reaches individual parents who might carry out FGM – and their children as well.
“When people are traveling outside of the country, if they are traveling to a country where FGM is practiced we [should] give them information at the airport. We [should] make sure that they have information that tells them that this is illegal and if you put your child through it, when you come back, you are going to get prosecuted,” she said, and added that’s just one element of what will need to be a multi-faceted effort.“ Unless we know where these girls are and try to reach them through education, through outreach, through various methods and make sure that they get the message early, before this happens to them.”
Dukureh is running education and advocacy program for young girls in Atlanta, but could only get 11 girls to sign up for it. That’s partly because parents are wary of sending their daughters to an after-school program that deals with harmful cultural practices they might still value.
“[The parents] know that we are talking about female genital mutilation, and empowerment, and child marriage and all of that, [so] a lot of parents are afraid that if their kids come to our program, [because] they think we may end up reporting them,” she said.
FGM is not only a deep-seated cultural phenomenon, but one that often goes unseen. That’s why Taina Bien-Aimé of the Coalition Against Trafficking in Women says striking the right balance between advocacy efforts and legal enforcement is so important.
As a longtime campaigner against FGM, she feels that education alone is not enough.
“Often times women don’t know the ills they suffer are a consequence of FGM because they don’t know what a healthy vulva looks like or a whole clitoris looks like, but what we find even with education, sometimes even [after informing people of] all the risks that could even include death, people still perform it,” she said of her experiences advocating against FGM in various parts of Africa.
And parents often think that by perpetuating the practice of FGM, they are acting in their daughters’ best interest since it’s often seen as a way to promote chastity and it’s sometimes a requisite for marriage.
“It is a deeply ingrained harmful practice that precedes religion – some even say that Cleopatra was infibulated. It’s a 5,000 year old practice,” Bien-Aimé said in a phone interview.
The fact that its victims are often so young – anywhere from a few days old to 15 – doesn’t make the effort any easier. She noted, “It’s similar to incest where child not in a position of power, and not free to leave the house or protect herself.”
Mary Wandia, the FGM Program Manager at Equality Now, an international women’s and girls’ rights organization, points to another challenge: gathering evidence.
Unlike frequent bruises or black eyes that a teacher or doctor might notice and report to police, FGM is harder to spot. That’s why she says that it needs to be thoroughly addressed across the various agencies a child might come into contact with.
“We have also helped to strengthen the law, but there is still no action plan on ending FGM [in the United States]. It is not embedded into the health, justice, education and social services to ensure that girls are protected and survivors are given the support they need,” Wandia wrote in an email to ThinkProgress. “The law is not everything, but it is an essential starting point and its effective implementation sends a strong message that FGM is not acceptable and it will not be tolerated.”
In her short time advocating against FGM, however, Jaha Dukureh has seen parents change their minds on FGM – even without the threat of jail time.
“I’ve seen parents that were very against what I’m doing and now they’re the ones that are helping me, and combatting FGM, and defending me,” she said. “So I think over time, with education, we’re going to get there, but we need to do more.”