Millions of Women Risk Female Genital Mutilation. Will Obama Defend Them?
The US president could use his Africa trip to play a historic role in the fight to eliminate FGM if he chooses to
The return of a son of the diaspora to his ancestral homeland is always an emotional moment, even more so if this returned son is the first African-American President of the United States. That makes President Obama’s visit to Kenya and Ethiopia an important and inspirational occasion for Africans.
But President Obama is also visiting a region of Africa with enormous problems and one in particular that receives sparse attention from his administration: female genital mutilation (FGM). This barbaric practice is destroying the lives of millions of girls in both Kenya and Ethiopia and 25 other countries in Africa. More than one in four girls in Kenya are subjected to FGM; in Ethiopia it is three out of four girls who are mutilated.
FGM involves the partial or total removal of female genitalia. This ritual is very painful and traumatic for girls and often results in severe bleeding, chronic pain, fatal blood infections and greatly increased child birth mortality. It also destroys sexual pleasure.
I speak from experience. I was mutilated as a baby in the Gambia in West Africa, where three out of every four girls undergo FGM. My sister bled to death after being “cut”. My own ethnic group’s custom is infibulation, where the clitoris and the labia are removed and the vagina is sealed to insure a girl’s virginity until marriage.
While the origins of FGM are ancient and predate organized religion, there is one thing we know for sure: its purpose is to control female sexuality and lessen a woman’s humanity. Despite the number of women affected — over 130 million — efforts to eliminate it have been poorly funded and organized. There is a bitter truth in the former British government minister Lynne Featherstone’s comment that: “If people were cutting off half of men’s penises – which is the actual equivalent – this is a practice that wouldn’t have lasted four minutes let alone 4,000 years.”
Despite his African roots, President Obama’s contribution to the fight against FGM has been very modest. As president he has spoken publicly about it just once: “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,” he said at the African Leader’s Summit in Washington DC last August.
President Obama’s own Kenyan ‘extended family’, the Luo tribe, are noteworthy for the fact that FGM is rarely practiced by them. So President Obama’s female ancestors likely didn’t have to undergo this brutal practice but they would have been familiar with it. The Luo’s nearest neighbors, the Kisii tribe, practiced FGM and are still mutilating almost all their daughters. If nothing else, President Obama’s deep roots in Kenya make the struggle to end FGM as much his fight as it is mine.
I was brought to this country ten years ago as part of a forced marriage arrangement. Because I was infibulated, a Manhattan doctor had to surgically open my vagina so that I could have sex with a middle-aged man I had just met. I was 15 years old. I was able to escape that “marriage” and now I have my own family.
When my daughter Khadija was born I was very proud that she would never have to undergo FGM. But that couldn’t make me forget the estimated 6000 girls that are “cut” every day, or the suffering of the countless African female migrants in this country who are traumatized survivors of FGM. And there were others I met who had been taken back to Africa by their parents to undergo FGM - a practice called “vacation cutting.”
In 2014, I initiated a Change.org petition calling on the Obama administration to address the FGM problem in the US by first ascertaining the prevalence of FGM here and then devise a national plan to end the practice and provide services to FGM survivors. The petition was signed by over 220,000 people. The administration committed to addressing the issue but little has happened since.
In my campaigns in the Gambia against FGM, I’m always telling people that in the US it is a crime to mutilate a girl, that girls are respected and treated as equals. It is an effective statement because emigrants are admired for their embrace of modern ideas and customs. Just imagine the impact if the most famous son of Africa became fully engaged on this issue.
President Obama could play a historic role in the fight to eliminate FGM. Unlike any other world leader he understands our plight and he has a sensitivity that can only come from having daughters of your own. When President Obama visits Africa he should speak out about the evils of FGM — his voice would echo loudly across the continent.
I firmly believe that FGM can be eliminated in a generation like foot binding was in China. A pro-active Obama administration could help make that happen. It would be an extraordinary legacy for this African son that would earn him the gratitude and admiration of countless millions of girls who want this senseless mutilation to end.