Will Obama keep his promise to end FGM in the US?

A few days ago, President Barack Obama called for the elimination of the “barbaric” practice of Female Genital Mutilation (FGM):

“…there’s no excuse…Female genital mutilation – I’m sorry, I don’t consider that a tradition worth hanging on to.  I think that’s a tradition that is barbaric and should be eliminated.  Violence towards women – I don’t care for that tradition.  I’m not interested in it.  It needs to be eliminated.” – Obama, Washington DC, July 28, 2014

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The president is correct.  Culture is no excuse for abuse.  He is also correct when he said “one of the single-best measures of whether a country succeeds or not is how it treats its women.”  That is why we in the women’s and girls’ rights movement commend the president for his commitment to end the practice of FGM.

FGM is the forced cutting of the clitoris or labia of young girls – often without anaesthesia – for cultural (non-medical) reasons. FGM can cause bleeding, infection, a lifelong lack of sensation, infertility and even death for an untold number of women and young girls.

Though sometimes performed by doctors, FGM is usually inflicted on girls by those who are not medically trained.  Among the instruments used:  scalpels, pieces of broken glass, even lids from a tin can. As shocking as it is to read words that describe these atrocities, it is even more disturbing to discover that this brutality is happening to women and young girls – today – right here in America.

President Obama understands that FGM is a problem in the United States.  Even though it has been illegal since 1996, outdated estimates are that a shocking 200,000 girls in America are at risk of being torn and mutilated.  In some cases, parents take their daughters on “cutting vacations” to their countries of origin, where they have the painful and humiliating practice performed. These little girls return to their classrooms and communities in the United States after forever scarred. 

To uncover the true size and scope of this gender-based violence, we must study and investigate how many girls have undergone this abuse and how many more are at risk. That is why Obama’s commitment to launch a comprehensive new study of FGM in America is so important. As the writer/producer of the benchmark FGM documentary film Honor Diaries, I offer to the esteemed investigatory panel the expertise and research of myself, and of the nine women’s rights activists featured in Honor Diaries, to contribute to the important work of Ambassador Catherine M. Russell and the Office of Global Women’s Issues as they study the issue of FGM in America.

As Obama said, we are at a historic crossroads where we can finally make gender equality “part of everything that we do” – and free millions of women and girls from male oppression, mutilation, subjugation and abuse. Just recently, Mrs. Obama spoke out against the kidnapped Nigerian girls through the #BringBackOurGirls campaign.  Women and girls’ rights groups are joining together in films like Honor Diaries and in public forums like David Cameron’s Girls Summit.  The UN is hosting speakers like Malala Yousafzai, whose story touched millions of Americans’ hearts and minds.  And now  Obama has vowed to use the most powerful office in the world to eliminate FGM.

I call on all women and girls’ rights organizations around the world to come together at this critical moment – with the President of the United States, the First Lady, Ambassador Catherine M. Russell and millions of concerned Americans – to finally put an end to FGM in our time, and to liberate and empower women and girls around the world, and right here in America.

Kweskin is producer and writer of Honor Diaries, an award-winning documentary film focused on women's rights and gender empowerment.