Voices from the Field

Voices from the Field is a place for administrators, teachers, school support staff, community, and family members to learn what experts -- researchers, practitioners, family -- from across the country think by reading a short post that includes the latest promising practices on a range of school climate topics, along with references and related resources.

What Can States Do to Address Female Genital Mutilation/Cutting in the U.S.?

Is your state on the list? As of September 2021, only 40 states have laws prohibiting FGM/C.

Female genital mutilation/cutting (FGM/C) isn’t widely discussed or understood in the U.S. But FGM/C among girls in our schools and communities is more common than many of us imagine.

According to the World Health Organization, FGM/C “comprises all procedures that involve partial or total removal of the external female genitalia, or other injury to the female genital organs for non-medical reason.”

Because ritual FGM/C is done in secret and often unacknowledged as a problem in our society, the true scope of the problem is not known. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that at least half a million girls and women in the U.S. have experienced or are at risk of FGM/C in this country.

FGM/C can result in lifelong physical and emotional scars for girls who are victims. The initial physical trauma is often compounded by the secrecy and shame girls feel after the ritual, as well as by the risk of lasting physical and mental health problems.

Many victims of FGM/C are of school age. That puts educators and community leaders who work with youth in a unique position as key intervention points for girls who are at risk or have experienced FGM/C. By partnering with policymakers, we can work toward wide-ranging FGM/C education, intervention, and recovery strategies.

What Are Current Federal and State Strategies to Address FGM/C?

“Ending [FGM/C] requires a multi-sectoral approach that brings together law enforcement, child protection professionals, educators, physicians, religious leaders, government agencies, advocates, and survivors. The approach must be holistic and always keep the best interest of the girl or woman who is either at risk of or a survivor of [FGM/C] at the center of its efforts.”
Equality Now

Schools, communities, and policymakers are working together to create comprehensive, strategic approaches to prevent, recognize, and intervene in FGM/C among our girls and young women.

Federal Law

Federal efforts to protect girls from FGM/C have evolved over recent years. The Female Genital Mutilation Act of 1995 made it a felony to perform FGM on anyone under age 18. However, it was struck down as unconstitutional in 2018 by a federal judge in Michigan, who ruled that Congress did not have the authority to pass the FGM/C law by associating it with the Commerce Clause. The judge ruled that there is nothing “commercial or economic” about the practice.

In response to rising pressure to protect girls, the Stop FGM Act of 2020 was signed into law. The Act clarifies that FGM/C is linked to interstate or foreign commerce, giving Congress the authority to reinforce the original FGM/C law. This means federal authorities can once again impose the law banning FGM/C by prosecuting those who plan or carry out FGM, resulting in prison sentences for offenders of up to 10 years. The act additionally mandated that government agencies report to Congress the estimated number who have experienced or are at risk of FGM/C.

“The U.S. Government opposes FGM/C, no matter the type, degree, or severity, and no matter what the motivation for performing it. The U.S. Government understands that FGM/C may be carried out in accordance with traditional beliefs and as part of adulthood initiation rites. Nevertheless, the U.S. Government considers FGM/C to be a serious human rights abuse, and a form of gender-based violence and child abuse.” —The U.S. Department of State, Bureau of Consular Affairs

Statewide Action

After the Female Genital Mutilation Act was declared unconstitutional, many FGM/C prevention advocates began to push for states to act locally to protect girls and women. As a result, U.S. schools, communities, and states across the country have been implementing promising practices and programs to help educate, protect, and support women and girls.

Because state-level prevention strategies are often carried out at the school and community levels, FGM/C prevention experts recommend that many sectors work together on efforts that are interwoven and collaborative. Two states that are implementing comprehensive strategies to combat FGM/C are Virginia and Massachusetts.

Virginia

Beginning in 2017, Virginia began a first-of-its kind statewide rollout of legal sanctions coupled with a school curriculum to address the growing FGM/C problem. Angela Peabody, founder of the Global Woman P.E.A.C.E. Foundation in Centreville, Virginia, has been at the center of this work, bringing awareness to and advocating for prevention of FGM/C for much of her life. Growing up in Liberia, Peabody witnessed firsthand the effects FGM/C could have on young girls. As a child, she had a playmate in her youth who suddenly disappeared.

“No one could say what happened, except ‘she went to the bush,’” Peabody recalls. “A couple of years later she came ’out of the bush’ and she was totally different. She was not the same child we knew; she didn’t want to play paper dolls, she was really withdrawn.”

As an adult, Peabody did some research and realized her friend was a victim of FGM/C; that was what had so utterly changed her. Once Peabody moved to the U.S., she became an advocate for FGM/C victims, beginning with extensively researching and writing about the topic for publications. “The more I wrote, the angrier, more frustrated I became. I knew I wanted to do something in addition to interviewing survivors and writing articles,” she remembers.

With encouragement from her sons, Peabody founded the Global Woman P.E.A.C.E. Foundation with this mission: “We empower women and girls through education to help end gender-based violence, especially female genital mutilation.”

The foundation began with community-level outreach activities. Staff worked to raise awareness through community education in places like churches, as well as by educating healthcare providers about who is at risk and warning signs. In 2014, the foundation started the only FGM/C support group for survivors in the Washington, D.C. area.

Then, a few years ago, Senator Richard Black of Virginia (now retired) saw a homemade flyer about FGM/C, and after some research, reached out to Peabody as an expert on the topic to learn more. As a result of their meeting, they decided to work together to create statewide change in Virginia.

In 2017, Senator Black and Peabody testified in Richmond and were successful in getting a bill passed making FGM/C a misdemeanor. This made Virginia the 25th state in the nation at the time with a law against FGM/C.

But Peabody knew this wouldn’t be enough to deter the type of people who commit FGM/C. “As an immigrant, you bring your culture with you wherever you go,” Peabody says. “People feel strongly about their culture and don’t let it go when they move to a different environment. We dance to our music, we eat our food, we wear our clothing. If we do all that, what do you think people who believe [FGM/C] should be done to their family members feel? Of course, they’ll try to do it here if they think they can [do so without significant legal consequences].”

Peabody and Senator Black worked to have higher fines levied and more significant jail time imposed on those who committed FGM/C. As a result of their tireless lobbying, in 2018, the law was amended, making FGM/C a class 2 felony, with harsher prison sentences and a $100,000 fine.

Senator Black and Peabody also wanted to bring FGM/C awareness to educators and students across the state. In 2019 they again lobbied at the state capitol, and as a result, Virginia SB 1159 was passed. The bill

“requires any [middle or high school] family life education curriculum offered by a local school division to incorporate age-appropriate elements of effective and evidence-based programs on the harmful physical and emotional effects of female genital mutilation, associated criminal penalties, and the rights of the victim including any civil action.”

It was the first bill of its kind passed in the United States.

“Recognition, respect, honor, and inclusion for another’s cultural beliefs and practices. … School staff members have to be culturally competent, avoid stigmatization, and use culturally appropriate language when they address FGM/C with girls and families who are survivors or at risk of FGM/C.” —FGM/C Prevention: A Resource for U.S. Schools, Council of the Great City Schools

To prepare schools, Peabody and her colleagues at the Global Woman P.E.A.C.E. Foundation developed teacher education materials (including how to  recognize and report suspected FGM/C among students), created a curriculum and support materials, and trained educators and school counselors on how to teach the curriculum.

Peabody explains that the curriculum she and her colleagues developed is age appropriate and culturally competent. “It is meant for girls and boys and includes  all races. We recommend a lesson plan but the teachers have materials to work out their own lesson plans [to fit their students]. We included what to look for if your friend might be at risk. We wrote scenarios for teachers and students—red  flags and what to do and how to be on guard.”

Implementing FGM/C education in classes was delayed due to COVID-19, with middle and high schools across Virginia just starting to roll out the curriculum in spring of 2022.

In addition to the work already accomplished, Peabody says the Global Woman P.E.A.C.E. Foundation’s work in Virginia is still not done. The next steps are to lobby to have FGM/C curricula implemented in an age-appropriate way in elementary schools. The foundation will continue to integrate these statewide efforts with community outreach and education, and is specifically focused on getting more men involved in the foundation’s work.

“It took a while for people to accept that [FGM/C] happens here and has been for a long time,” Peabody says. “Just because you don’t have enough reported cases, doesn’t mean it’s not happening here. People with money and big houses could be doing [FGM/C] right next door to you. It’s not just important for teachers, counselors, law enforcement, and healthcare workers as first responders, but also important for you to know. Neighbors and communities need to know. You never know when you will be faced with it.”

Massachusetts

“Voices to End FGM/C is mobilizing a critical mass of storytellers and activists from across the globe by bringing people together to share and heal from their experiences of female genital mutilation/cutting (FGM/C), connect and grow as leaders in their own communities, and create short videos calling for an end to this harmful practice.” —Sahiyo

Listen to Angela Peabody tell her story about becoming an FGM/C advocate for Sahiyo’s Voices to End FGM/C project.

The organization Sahiyo has been instrumental in Massachusetts’s efforts to address FGM/C. Sahiyo’s mission is to “empower Asian and other communities to end female genital cutting and create positive social change through dialogue, education, and collaboration based on community involvement.”

Sahiyo does community outreach and education; trains first responders, healthcare providers, and educators; facilitates coalition and community building; and provides support and services for FGM/C survivors. The organization also created a landmark initiative called Voices to End FGM/C that educates communities and lawmakers and empowers survivors through digital storytelling.

Mariya Taher, co-founder of Sahiyo, has been working for over a decade to address gender-based violence through teaching, research, policy, program development, and direct service. After moving to Massachusetts, Taher (named one of six FGM/C experts to watch by NewsDeeply) began working with the Women’s Bar Association of Massachusetts to create a bill making FGM/C illegal in the state.

“Once [the Female Genital Mutilation Act of 1995] was ruled unconstitutional, the states had to pass their own laws. Only 19 states had a law before then,” Taher explains. “In Massachusetts, we pushed state legislators to take action.”

This was no easy task. It took seven years of advocacy and strategic partnerships with several legislative sponsors to see an FGM/C law passed. During that time, Taher worked tirelessly to bring attention to the issue among lawmakers. She brought in coalition members from community-based organizations across the state to advocate alongside her.

Finally, in August 2020, then-Governor Charlie Baker signed bill H4606, “An Act Relative to the Penalties for the Crime of Female Genital Mutilation,” into law. The State Senate unanimously passed the legislation, which made committing or transporting someone for the purpose of FGM/C a felony punishable by a prison sentence of up to five years and a fine of up to $10,000.

H4606 made Massachusetts the 39th state to criminalize FGM/C. Taher emphasizes the importance of engaging legislative sponsors, who helped advance efforts through the State House: “We worked with legislators who understood FGM/C as gender-based violence [to help us] advocate for policy. We had meetings and built on existing relationships. We asked, ‘Who has the interest? Who can champion this?’”

In addition to criminalizing FGM/C, H4606 also contains holistic components for FGM/C outreach, education, and civil remedies. However, realizing these activities has been challenging, in large part because there is no funding for these activities written into the bill.

“We are gathering recommendations, looking at next steps, and trying to find funding to further education and outreach in the state,” Taher says. “We are working with [Women’s Bar Association of Massachusetts member] Deborah Benson, a retired lawyer who was instrumental in getting the law passed, to try to get attention to the need for funding on FGM/C in the state budget. We have a multisectoral roundtable of 60 people from federal and state government, healthcare, and community-based organizations. We have the capacity to move forward.”

In addition to H4606, Taher and her colleagues at Sahiyo are creating recommendations and delivering FGM/C trainings for healthcare providers, policymakers, and gender-based violence organizations. For example, Sahiyo has trained Massachusetts Sexual Assault Nurse Examiners and has an upcoming training for the Massachusetts Children’s Alliance.

Taher also credits educators as “trusted individuals” in the lives of those at risk of or victimized by FGM/C. To that end, Sahiyo provided a training to the Massachusetts Healthy Youth Consortium to support educators in understanding the need for policy and advocacy efforts around FGM/C in schools.

While trying to further efforts in Massachusetts, Taher and Sahiyo are also expanding advocacy efforts to other states. For instance, they are currently working to get an FGM/C law on the books in Connecticut—the only New England state where the practice is not illegal.

“For the past two years we have made attempts to pass a law, but the topic is politicized,” Taher says, reflecting on the Black Lives Matters and other equity/equality activist movements. “We are working toward bipartisan efforts. Some organizations are resistant to legislation making [FGM/C] illegal. We don’t want to unintentionally harm marginalized groups who are impacted by it. We have formed a coalition focused on carrying out education and outreach throughout the state of Connecticut, but we don’t yet have a bill sponsor [needed to move it through the legislature].”

Undeterred, Taher says she hopes to build support in Connecticut and find a sponsor for an FGM/C bill next year.

Moving Forward

As states like Virginia and Massachusetts implement comprehensive approaches, other states that are looking to respond to this challenge through comprehensive statewide approaches will benefit from their lessons learned. Working together, educators, community-based organizations, and policymakers can implement comprehensive approaches that have the potential to change the lives of girls and women across the country.

 

Acknowledgments

This blog was developed by Kellie Anderson, with valuable input from Angela Peabody, Mariya Taher, Greta Colombi, and Sara Wolforth.

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