And it’s especially gratifying for me to be on this stage with Ambassador Melanne Verveer, our first ever ambassador on behalf of our country standing up for the rights of women and girls around the world – (applause) – and Joe Crowley, who, as you might gather, is a good friend of mine, has been for many years. He and his wife and his family are very close to me and my family, and I’m very proud that he is here on behalf of his legislation. I think it is also very important that Representative Dent is here as well. And this is the kind of a united front on behalf of an issue that we are extremely proud to see.
When I think about what we are doing, I know it is not the work of this day or this year, but of a generation. But the good news is progress is being made. And through education, through outreach, through advocacy, we see that progress taking place. You will hear in just a few minutes from some of the real leaders in this movement who understand the issues, who have been working in the science, research, health fields, who have been working in the grassroots, in the villages, in the legislatures of countries. And it is, for me, a great honor to have all of our panelists with us. There are a number of people, as Melanne just said, watching us through the miracle of technology far beyond the Ben Franklin Room, and they will have a chance to participate in the discussion later.
I think that the importance of this event is really proven by the quality of the panelists, by the representatives of ambassadors and leaders in so many fields. I am especially pleased to see from UNICEF Geeta Rao Gupta, because UNICEF has a very big role to play in the work to end this very terrible practice that has gone on for too long. I’ve also, though, seen for myself how progress can be made. You’ll hear in a minute from Molly Melching. Molly is a real hero of mine, a friend of mine. She will be talking about the excellent community-based work that the international organization Tostan that she began in Senegal is doing.
I first got to see this work in 1997 when I was in Senegal, and Molly took me to a village where the village elders had really been thinking deeply about what the implications were of FGM on their daughters and their granddaughters. And they were reaching the conclusion by asking a lot of hard questions about what does this do to a girl’s health, what does this do to her future ability to be a mother, what does this do to the quality of life of her family. And what they were learning was leading them to conclude that this practice really had to end, even though it had gone on for as long as anyone could remember.
And what was so striking about my visit with Molly that day in that village was that Tostan and Molly were putting this very impressive discussion into the context of democracy, and there was a wonderful skit that was being performed about what democracy meant and who got to have a voice and what kinds of concerns should be brought to the village. I know Molly reported that one woman said, “What do we do with this democracy,” and what the women decided with the support of the men in the village was to change the custom of cutting their girls. So they organized their arguments and they went to the male leaders and they talked from personal experience about the pain of the procedure, about the lasting psychological damage it causes, about the health complications during childbirth, including the risk of death.
They asked their local mullah to participate, and he then began to study and look to the Qu'ran and to talk with others, concluding there was no religious basis for the practice in Islam. And eventually, the village voted to outlaw it. Then they took to the road and the male leaders went from village to village, starting a discussion about the harm from female cutting, talking to neighbors who, just like them, had accepted it because their parents, grandparents, great-grandparents had accepted it.
And by the time I returned to Senegal a little over a year later, several villages had renounced the practice through this wonderful conversation that was started. It wasn’t somebody coming from the outside pointing fingers, saying how terrible they were. It was people from both outside and inside asking questions about why do we do this, and is it something we should continue to do, and is there another way perhaps to think about giving our girls what they need, like education, to be good mothers when their time comes.
Then they decided to petition Senegal’s president to ask for national legislation outlawing FGM. I remember being so impressed by this grassroots democratic movement that had taken to the road and gotten all the way to the capital of Dakar. And I invited the very first villagers from that village I had visited to come to a meeting, to sit at the same table with powerful officials and representatives of NGOs, and I was so proud to introduce them because they really had walked the walk. They were living the hard work of human rights activism.
All these years later, I am still very proud of the work that I saw and that is being done in so many places. Let’s be clear – this is a deeply entrenched practice in many places. So we have to be both unrelenting in our efforts to end it and understanding about what works and what doesn’t work. And I think you’ll hear that firsthand from the panelists. We enter into this with a lot of humility because we have to empower those people in those villages to make the decisions.
Now we cannot excuse this as a cultural tradition. There are many cultural traditions that used to exist in many parts of the world that are no longer acceptable. We cannot excuse it as a private matter because it has very broad public implications. It has no medical benefits. It is, plain and simply, a human rights violation. And as we think about the rights of young girls to be free from both physical and mental violence, we can understand why this is such an important issue that deserves attention from the United States Congress and from leaders across the globe.
I think that for me, the honest and direct conversation that we are having, especially hearing from those with firsthand experience, is what makes this different. Our partners from the UN will be leading efforts to raise international awareness. We will be looking at laws and resolutions. We will be looking at what can be done in families and villages. We will be making the case, this is not a women’s problem, this is not a women’s issue. This affects the human family, and therefore, we all have a stake in it. When a mother dies in childbirth due to complications caused by FGM, everyone in the family suffers. When women are sick from infections or girls miss out on their education, communities also suffer. And what we have seen in Senegal and elsewhere is that when men understand the trauma that FGC causes, they are among the most effective activists for ending it.
So we're elevating this issue, but it’s part of our overall elevation of the role of women and girls in our foreign policy economically, strategically, politically. Every aspect of our policy is intending to highlight and promote the role of women. And we are funding community-based programs that involve women and men in public awareness campaigns about the dangers of FGC. We're working in refugee camps and other humanitarian settings. Through USAID, the United States cofounded the international Donors Working Group on Female Genital Mutilation/Cutting, which needs continued high-level international support, and we will redouble our efforts.
I’m very proud to announce today that we will join with the University of Nairobi to fund a pan-African Center of Excellence in Kenya, which will advance African research and strategies to address FGC. This center will focus on developing local solutions to end the practice and offer medical training on how to support the women who have been hurt and damaged by it. I hope others in the business and international communities will join the United States in supporting this very important new initiative based in Africa, where we think it needs to be.
Now, Kenya has just passed an outright national ban on FGC, becoming the 18th African country to do so. Last year, the African Union called on the UN General Assembly to adopt a resolution banning it, and we will certainly work in any way we can to support the African Union in that. There is more to be done. We need more advocacy, more interaction between policy makers and those in the field. We need to empower men and women, and especially girls, to speak up for themselves. We need to ultimately overcome the deeply-rooted gender inequalities that, either tacitly or actively, permit and promote such practices.
So this is a very important day here at the State Department, and I’m especially delighted that we can have people here speaking about this, as well as others throughout Africa by means of the internet, so that we can become stronger in numbers and understanding and effectiveness. It is my hope that we can certainly see the abolition of this practice even sooner than within a generation, but no later than within a generation, and that we also do everything we can to create conditions for every child, girl and boy, to have the chance to live up to his or her God-given potential. Thank you all very much. (Applause.)