Africa: U.S. Taking Steps to Stop Female Genital Mutilation

Washington — The United States is taking steps to stop the practice of female genital mutilation, says the U.S. ambassador for global women's issues.

At a February 6 forum at the State Department marking the 10th anniversary of the International Day of Zero Tolerance to Female Genital Mutilation/Cutting, Melanne Verveer recalled that in August 2012 the United States released its first strategy to prevent and respond to gender-based violence globally.

As part of the strategy, she said, beginning in 2013 the State Department's annual country reports will include sections on female genital mutilation/cutting.

"This strategy marshals U.S. expertise to address gender-based violence more effectively and establishes a governmentwide, multisector approach ... to ensure we are doing all we can to address this issue," Verveer said.

Female genital mutilation involves removing and damaging healthy female genital tissue, which interferes with the natural function of girls' and women's bodies. The practice causes severe pain and has several immediate and long-term health consequences, including difficulties in childbirth, the World Health Organization reports.

The practice also leads to pain during menstruation, intercourse and urination, Nawal Nour said at the forum. Nour is a Sudanese-born obstetrician/gynecologist at Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston, which does extensive outreach to diaspora communities in the United States. Some communities include women who have undergone genital mutilation or desire to send their daughters to their countries of origin to undergo it, she said.

Some 140 million women around the world have undergone genital mutilation, and 3 million girls are at risk every year, expert Sandra Jackson wrote in a U.S. Agency for International Development blog.

Verveer said that in January the U.S. Congress passed a law that makes it a federal crime for families to send their children outside the United States for female genital cutting. She added that, as a senator, Secretary of State John Kerry co-sponsored a bill that led to the legislation.

In December 2012, the United Nations General Assembly passed a resolution urging countries to condemn all harmful practices that affect women and girls, particularly female genital mutilation/cutting. The resolution was led by African countries, Verveer noted.

"The African states' involvement in the passage of the resolution is a sign of the kind of change that is occurring on this issue -- not just political will but also the coming together of activists and citizens and community leaders," she said.

Highlighting the strength of grass-roots efforts by women and men to stop the practice, Verveer recalled a visit she made to a village in Senegal. The village women told her they had banded together to talk about what they could do to stop genital mutilation, a painful traditional female rite of passage. The women said they had talked to the village chief and the local religious leader, who responded that they did not object to the women's position. That village became the first in Senegal to vote to end the practice.

In an effort led by the community's male leaders, word went out to other villages about shifting from a traditional norm to doing what is best for women's health. Later, Senegal adopted a national ban against female genital mutilation, Verveer said.

The elimination of the practice of female genital mutilation "is a human rights issue. It is a health issue. It is a social issue. It's even an economic issue. And while it continues, we (with our partners) have come a long way," Verveer said.

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