The honor no girl wants

In my more than 25 years of spreading awareness and educating audiences about the crime of honor violence, what surprises people the most is that women are as often the perpetrators of abuse as men. The notion of a mother holding down her daughter’s writhing body while another relative or community member performs a female circumcision, or even the thought of a mother locking a teenaged daughter in a bedroom until she consents to marriage—as my own mother did—is difficult to reconcile with our traditional views of motherhood and the mother-daughter relationship.

I have shared this fact now with thousands of audiences—from the world’s most elite gatherings such as TED (Technology, Entertainment, Design), to small classrooms of university students. And yet despite nearly unilateral agreement in much of the Western world that honor violence is horrific and should be stopped at all costs, the violence persists.

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The United Nations estimates that at least 125 million women and girls have suffered female genital mutilation (FGM) in Africa and the Middle East since 1989. This involves the cutting or cutting away of female genital organs. FGM, along with forced marriage, facial disfigurement and psychological abuse, are forms of honor violence—or violence with the intention of protecting the so-called “honor” of the perpetrator.

It would be understandable—but wrong—to assume these acts are relegated to societies outside of the Western world. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention believes 150,000 to 200,000 American girls are at risk of FGM. Research conducted by the African Women’s Health Center of the Brigham and Women’s Hospital found that approximately 228,000 women and girls in the U.S. have either suffered the procedure or are at risk of FGM, a number that increased by approximately 35 percent between 1990 and 2000. FGM often occurs behind closed doors, or via a practice with the distasteful moniker of “vacation cuttings,” where families take their daughters abroad to have the procedure performed.

However, a tide may be turning. In the U.K., a petition started by student Fahma Mohamed and backed by The Guardian newspaper recently rode a wave of mass public support to the office of the Education Secretary, Michael Gove. Mr. Gove has committed to writing to schools, asking them to help protect girls from FGM. Earlier this month, Members of Parliament gathered in the House of Commons to view a new documentary, Honor Diaries, on the issue of honor violence.

Seeding this level of awareness in the U.K. is a momentous step, and marks a dramatic change from when I was growing up and a blind eye was turned when a young girl was abruptly taken out of school and forced into marriage—as my own sisters were.  But we need other countries to stand up and cast a similar spotlight on the issue, uncomfortable as it may be.  Here in the U.S., passing the International Violence Against Women Act, which has been lingering in Congress, would be a symbolic step, and one that also provides much needed resources like training and intervention support in countries where honor violence is endemic. Simultaneously, we need to spread awareness of the statistics and come to terms with the fact that there are girls in our communities who are victims. Educators have a particular responsibility and opportunity to support girls at risk. 

Ultimately, we need to acknowledge that even though we might be born in a democracy, those basic human rights that we believe in are not really accessible to all. We need to be looking for the invisible women who are suffering and help them find access to the human rights they deserve. On International Women’s Day, we will recognize the progress made for women’s equality and freedom. Yet, as long as honor violence persists in our world, no woman is truly free.

Sanghera, a survivor of honor violence, is an international advocate for gender equality and the founder and chief executive of Karma Nirvana, a UK-based nationwide helpline supporting all those impacted by forced marriages and honor-based violence.