and Help Eradicate Female Genital Mutilation
Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) is one of the great human rights violations of our time. The latest estimates say that least 200 million women and girls1 around the world have had parts of their genitals cut off, usually without their consent. Even at age eleven, Danielle stands up to this injustice by speaking out against FGM at the United Nations and working with the King of Saudi Arabia to ban the practice. But you don’t have to have a platform as big as Danielle’s to move the world closer to an FGM-free future.
Most of the victims of FGM are in a nearly powerless position. They are typically children born in countries that are poor, where most people don’t have much education, and human rights aren’t strongly protected. They are growing up in societies where women are widely seen as inferior to men, so they can’t safely speak out for themselves. The people with the power to end FGM—the leaders of the countries where it is practiced—have not made it enough of a priority, so the practice remains. Changing this will require ordinary people around the world to speak on behalf of those without power.
So how can you do this? One of the biggest obstacles to ending female genital mutilation is that it is a taboo subject. Because it is associated with sex and female anatomy, most people aren’t comfortable talking about FGM. As a result, many people in Western countries never hear about it and don’t even know that it exists. You can change that by making a decision to educate yourself about FGM and talk about it with others, even if those conversations feel a little awkward.
Educating yourself includes not only learning the medical facts about female genital mutilation, but also learning about the reasons people do it, learning about the campaigns to end it, and hearing what FGM survivors say about their experiences.
Here are some useful resources to start you off, but the Internet has hundreds more articles, videos, and podcasts to deepen your knowledge:
- The World Health Organization’s basic information about FGM, 2 with facts and statistics that are useful to know when talking about it.
- The UN’s answers to frequently asked questions about FGM 3and the efforts to stop it.
- More detailed information about different types of FGM, 4 what they involve, and where they are practiced.
- An essay by Ayaan Hirsi Ali, 5 a Somali survivor of FGM who has become a prominent activist against genital mutilation. She argues, like Danielle does in the novel, that much of the discussion about FGM hides the brutal reality of this procedure.
- A powerful and emotional talk by an FGM survivor 6 from Sierra Leone who came to Australia as a girl and struggled with the trauma of what had been done to her.
- Once you’ve educated yourself about female genital mutilation, it’s important to break the taboo and share with others what you’ve learned. When your friends are talking about injustice, human rights, or women’s issues, you can be like Danielle by being the first to bring up an awkward subject and tackle it directly. Ask friends what they know about FGM, and point them to resources that can give them more information.
When you’re talking with other people about female genital mutilation, you’ll often hear the argument that FGM is an important rite of passage in some cultures, and that it is intolerant to oppose or criticize it. Some people even say it is racist (and an example of “Western imperialism”) to condemn FGM, because most of the people doing it are from Africa and the Middle East.
To change people’s minds, you’ll need to be able to listen to them carefully and then answer their concerns with good logic and facts. Here is some more advanced reading that can help you do that better:
- An interesting article by philosopher James Rachels 7 on cultural relativism. This is the idea that we don’t have any right to judge the practices of another culture. Rachels shows why this view doesn’t make sense in this instance.
- Explanation by ethicist Karen Musalo 8 of the view that human rights are universal. This means that whoever you are, or whatever society you’re born into, you have the same human rights as anyone else—and that culture doesn’t allow other people to violate those rights.
- BBC summary of how human rights relate to FGM. 9 Includes information on the harms and pain caused by different types of FGM.
There are a few key tips to keep in mind when you’re working to convince people why they should work to stop FGM:
- Universal human rights apply to everyone everywhere, even if the local culture doesn’t actually recognize all those rights. Since almost all experts agree that FGM is a human rights violation, it’s essential to uphold women’s and children’s human rights by ending FGM.
- Some cultural practices that offend Western culture, such as leaving dead bodies out to be eaten by animals, do not cause anyone real harm. Cultural relativism can explain why those people do those things. But FGM causes girls and women excruciating pain, brings risk of serious side-effects, can lead to a lifetime of health problems, and interfere with a woman’s ability to engage in sexual relations.
- The focus of anti-FGM activists in America and the rest of the developed world should be on how to protect girls, not on judging the cultures they came from.
- Even though FGM has been illegal in the United States since 1996, it is still happening here10. Doctors believe that over half a million women and girls in the US are at risk for FGM, with some of these being subjected to the cutting every year. Some are mutilated in secret in America, while others are taken overseas to undergo FGM in their home countries. So far, only one person has been prosecuted under the federal FGM ban. Making people aware that this is happening in their own community is a powerful driver to action.
Once you’ve made people aware of the hidden reality of FGM, and convinced them it’s a problem that’s worth their concern, what’s the next step? One of Danielle’s greatest talents is mobilizing people to work together, and you can do the same. Even though students usually don’t have the opportunity to travel to FGM-practicing countries and work directly with victims, you can collaborate to raise money and awareness for charities and advocacy organizations that provide the help women need.
Some ideas you might try:
- Arranging to make a presentation for students at your school.
- Forming a club for people who want to end FGM and inviting inspiring guest speakers. Holding bake sales or other fundraisers to get money for donation.
- Finding a Guinness World Record to break and using the resulting media interest to draw attention to FGM and the charities working to stop it and assist the victims.
When selecting FGM-related charities to support, it’s important to make sure that they are reputable and doing effective work. These are some of the most respected:
- The Ayaan Hirsi Ali (AHA) Foundation 11 focuses on education and advocacy to end FGM, and also deals with forced marriage and “honor killings,” where young women suffer violence due to perceived immorality, or because they have been the victims of sexual violence.
- The Daughters of Eve 12 takes an approach focused on the needs of girls and women—especially those who have already suffered female genital mutilation.
- 28 Too Many 13 provides support for organic activism within societies where FGM is common. It also offers some great suggestions for how you can get involved and have a real impact in support of this cause.
In addition to raising support and awareness for anti-FGM organizations, you can also:
- Share information about FGM on social media, connecting people with the right mix of talents to work together and have an impact.
- Sign petitions calling on politicians to be more aggressive in fighting genital mutilation.
- Write to your elected representatives and urge them to make protecting people from FGM a higher priority.
Conduct research to expand your knowledge and awareness of this practice and the efforts to eradicate it.
For more information, please see the following entries in the companion book A Chronicle of Ideas: A Guide for Superheroines (and Superheroes): Female Genital Mutilation (FGM), Female Circumcision.