Ending FGM in America

17 November 2015

Leyla Hussein reports on her recent trip to the USA, where she encountered great enthusiasm for the movement to end FGM to take off. 

More than half a million women and girls living in the United States are at risk or have undergone FGM, according to a Population Reference Bureau study - the highest number of FGM survivors living in the west.

Following the success of The Cruel Cut fundraiser in London, the sponsors Art for Activism were keen to stay involved in the campaign to end FGM. (The Cruel Cut was a BAFTA nominated documentary on FGM in the UK that I presented and was aired by Channel 4.) 

The founders, Lisa Erickson and Caroline Pridgeon, suggested we start engaging a conversation about the practice in the US.

At first I had my doubts, as the US presents totally different challenges to the UK in terms of its state laws and reaching out to grassroots communities and organisations.

As I’m not known to shy away from a challenge, it wasn’t difficult to convince me to visit the US. My aim, however, wasn’t to start a campaign, but mainly to observe the current status on tackling FGM there.

One of the lessons I’ve learned in the UK in terms of building momentum came from being given the privilege to lecture at universities and being part of the UK media campaign, which allowed us to reach out to the wider UK population.

If we are going to end FGM in a generation, we need to engage with young people as well as start a national dialogue where politicians have no choice but to commit to ending FGM.

My assumption was the US wasn’t ready for my pink vagina tent incorporated with vagina cupcakes to engage in the conversation on FGM (find out more about my UK work here: leylahussein.com). 

However, in the early stage of my trip, I learned that wasn’t the case.

I found during my first talk at the civil society conference (which was hosted by the NGO Committee on the Status of Women/NY and the Planned Parenthood Federation of America) that the audience was more than ready to engage after I showed a clip from The Cruel Cut documentary.

Leyla gives a talk at Columbia University

We thought it would be best to focus on the East Coast of the US during this initial trip.

I had the opportunity to speak at elite and Ivy League universities such as Columbia, Barnard College, University of Pennsylvania, Trinity College, Georgetown, and Harvard Law School.

The theme of my talk was to share our experience in tackling FGM in the UK and how to support FGM survivors, as well as to discuss how the best UK practices could be applied to the US.

I also met with INGOs such as Equality Now in New York and Washington and Plan USA who gave me a clearer picture of how the state laws work in the US as well as the current status of the end FGM campaign in America.

FGM has been illegal in the US since 1996. However, the practice of taking girls abroad to undergo FGM wasn't outlawed until 2010.

This is very similar to what happened in the UK, as FGM was outlawed in 1985 and the law against "vacation cutting" came into effect in 2003.

Basically, the current status on ending FGM in the US is similar to the UK ten years ago.

However, from our visit, I am hopeful that the process can be sped up by sharing experiences, connecting activists and galvinising the public.

I felt there was a great hunger for something to happen in the US, especially at the grassroots level. This led me to meet with the Diaspora African Women's Network (DAWN) in Washington, DC to get a sense of the experience of the diaspora community in the US.

This left me feeling hopeful, as I got the sense that they expressed the need to create dialogues on tackling FGM and other forms of violence against women and girls.

Jaha Dukureh's US campaign, instrumental in challenging Congress to address FGM, needs to be better resourced, funded and supported. Jaha has built a current space for FGM survivors to speak, for which I was thankful and I took the opportunity to share Jaha's work in all of my talks.

However, America is a large country, and we need more voices to speak up on the issue. 

I could write a much longer blog on my experience in the US, but one of the main outcomes I found was the need for an FGM-specific forum where frontline professionals in health, education and law enforcement as well as survivors and youth-led movements can work together.

I felt that everybody was working in isolation and hopefully this forum will lead to a national media campaign that will trigger public outrage and ongoing political will.

Hopefully by joining forces, the US can finally rally the army that will end FGM in one generation. As the UK has a "special relationship" with the US, this is an opportunity to finally have a worldwide voice and end FGM globally. 


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