THE NEW YORK FOREIGN PRESS CENTER, NEW YORK (Virtual)
MODERATOR: Hi. Good afternoon, all, and welcome to today’s New York Foreign Press Center briefing on U.S. efforts to combat a form of gender-based violence known as female genital mutilation, or FGM. My name is Mahvash Siddiqui, and I’m today’s moderator. Just a reminder, this briefing is on the record.
It’s a pleasure to introduce our speakers. Our first speaker is Maryum Saifee. She is a senior advisor at the State Department’s Office of Diversity and Inclusion. Maryum will discuss the need for integrating diverse voices and survivor perspectives into policy efforts.
Our second speaker is Shelby Quast. Shelby is a human rights lawyer and a girl rights activist. She will discuss civil society and survivor efforts to counter FGM. Shelby is a recipient of the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Global Woman PEACE Foundation for her work on FGM.
Our third speaker is Susan Masling, senior trial attorney at the U.S. Department of Justice’s criminal division. Susan is a recipient of the 2015 Global Woman PEACE Foundation’s Award for her FGM advocacy.
I will first go over a few ground rules. This briefing is on the record. The views expressed by our nongovernment speakers are their own and do not reflect the views of the Department of State or the U.S. Government.
Following our speakers’ opening remarks, I will open the floor for questions. And if you have a question, go to the participant field and raise your virtual hand, and wait for me to call on you. When called on, please enable both your audio and your video and identify yourself by your full name and your outlet.
And with that, it’s my great pleasure to introduce Maryum Saifee. Maryum, take it away.
MS SAIFEE: Thank you, Mahvash. And it’s an honor to be with such esteemed co-panelists as Susan Masling from the Department of Justice and Shelby Quast, a longtime activist and advocate in civil society. So I think – amongst all of us we’ll have some great perspectives on this issue. And thank you for convening. I know this is – March is Women’s History Month, though our office, the Office of Diversity and Inclusion, believes every day of every second of every month should be Women’s History Month. And so it’s great to have this opportunity and this platform.
I’ll talk a little bit about my office that I’m coming from, the Office of Diversity and Inclusion, and how that relates to the topic today that we’re talking about around advancing gender equity and countering forms of gender-based violence, including FGM, or female genital mutilation.
So my office was started just last summer, so it’s very new. It’s a start-up office within the State Department. Its mandate is to build a more inclusive workforce, one that reflects the diversity of the country. And our Secretary of State has repeated many times that our nation’s greatest asset in terms of advancing national security are our people and the diversity of our people. So our office is focused on how we can build this inclusive workforce to advance foreign policy.
And today’s topic intersects very personally to me. I happened to work at a previous Foreign Service assignment – I’m a Foreign Service officer, so I rotate every few years, like Mahvash – and I was in the Secretary’s Office of Global Women’s Issues. And my – the head of my community was coming into the – to Houston to inaugurate a mosque, and I in my personal voice said, “Hey, actually I’m a survivor of FGM myself,” and a lot of people in the State Department – it was documented in human rights reporting, so it was there that the South Asian Bohra Muslim community practices FGM, but it wasn’t widely known. This was back in 2015.
So because of me and my diverse lived experience and my perspective, I was able in that role to shape policy in a new way, and really make our efforts as a U.S. Government more inclusive. Before that, the U.S. Government, like the international community, was largely focused on countries that we knew about having high prevalence. So this was in sub-Saharan Africa; this was the UNFPA and UNICEF joint program to end FGM that still exists, and it’s a wonderful program the State Department has partnered with, USAID has partnered with, and others.
So because of me being able to bring my perspective in, I was then able in a very concrete way to expand the scope to Asia, to Indonesia. In 2016, UNICEF released information that half the girls in Indonesia are cut before 14. So the number of people affected by FGM went from 120 million girls up to 200 million. And so when the data was coming out, there had to be context to say, hey, it’s not that prevalence maybe isn’t rising at that rate; it’s that we have new data. So that’s another piece I hope we can in the Q&A discuss, is the need for inclusive data collection so that all survivors – this is a topic, as other panelists will probably discuss, is very taboo; it’s very difficult. I myself in my personal capacity shared my story as a survivor and had a really wonderful experience within the department because it so aligned our efforts to end FGM that colleagues were amplifying my story, and also I had the ability at the State Department to bring in new voices.
So one of the first things I did was coordinate with the team in Global Public Affairs and the Foreign Press Center and others to have white American Christian survivors of FGM that nobody had heard of be part of a video that included voices of survivors across religious backgrounds, across race, class, geography, all of it. Because we know that gender-based violence is global in scope and it affects everyone, all of us. And so that’s something that I was really proud to do, and I can say that because of my lived experience I was able to shape the policy in new ways. So thank you again for this opportunity.
MODERATOR: Maryum, thank you so much for your excellent remarks. Really appreciate your efforts as well.
And now over to Shelby Quast. Take it away.
MS QUAST: Hi, and thank you for having us and having this important discussion. It’s so important that the press and the media cover these issues that often don’t get the attention they deserve. And I also really want to thank Maryum. It’s survivor voices that are speaking out and breaking those myths that really take this issue forward.
Where I come at this from is I’m a human rights lawyer, as you mentioned. And one of the things we often hear is these issues can’t be solved with the law. Laws are not the solution here. However, I just want to say that any law that’s not used doesn’t have impact, but when a law is used it can be a tremendous tool to accelerate social change, for prevention, to raise awareness, for education, and to help with responsibility. So who is responsible for implementing the law? And those issues become very important, and good laws, as I mentioned, are part of a bigger package. So they’re part of societal change, cultural change.
And in the United States, we had the first law on FGM in 1996. But really not that much was known about it. And it wasn’t until several years later that civil society began to question – and I’m talking 20 years later – that civil society really began to question: Well, what about this law? Who’s implementing it? What’s the issue in the United States? Who’s affected? And that pushed to hold the government accountable to say, tell us how many people are affected in the United States; which girls are at risk. And there was a number that came out from our Center for Disease Control of 513,000 girls who’d either experienced FGM/C or were at risk of FGM/C. And at that time, that was tremendous information. I think we now know we need to get better data. We need to get more data, and that’s happening. But that role of civil society and the role of survivors – and not only working with law and policy makers to advocate that there should be laws in place, that we should protect our girls from all types of violence, including FGM/C, and that there shouldn’t be any segments of the population that are not prevented from violence.
So civil society played that role of really working with law makers, of meeting with them, and talking with them, with survivors. And I think that was what, again, really changed the course, was so many survivors began to break the silence. They started to speak out and share their stories of this is happening right here in the United States; it’s not just something that happens over there. And that became a bit of a gamechanger.
And again, looking at the government agencies – and we’ll hear more from Susan Masling – but what’s their role in implementing the law and ensuring that they’re doing their part, so not only Department of Justice, but the Departments of Health and Human Services, Department of Education, Homeland Security. And it really is a broad swath of people that implement the law or are responsible. First responders – so we also talk teachers and health care to ensure that survivors have those services and resources that they need to recover, that people who are potentially at risk know what to do. How and what are their rights to not be cut, and what can they do if they think that they’re at risk? So that type of engagement with civil society and survivors really became a gamechanger.
And in 2013, we passed another law that said – we’d looked around and looked at best practices. In the United Kingdom there were some laws against taking girls outside the country, and civil society advocated to have a law in the United States, a federal law, that stated you cannot take girls outside the country for purposes of FGM/C. So not only was it illegal in the United States at the federal level, but you also could not take girls outside the country for purposes of FGM, which added another layer.
And then it’s – there’s – so laws are used for prevention and can have a tremendous impact there, for awareness, for education, and when necessary, for prosecution. And we have seen litigation in the United States, which led to an amendment of that 1996 law to make it stronger. Civil society had a tremendous role. They were stronger now than they were back in 1996 to come in and really advocate for a stronger law that coincided with international standards and definitions. And we also have seen litigation, in a sense, testing the laws in Australia, in India, not only in the United States, in the UK. So we have seen again that not only having a law but then pushing to ensure that that law is implemented, that that law is used.
And the other piece with civil society that becomes very important was coming together. So I sit – and both Maryum and Susan have had roles with the U.S. End FGM Network, and that brings together different actors, different civil society groups from across the U.S., but there are similar networks in Asia. They just had a very large meeting yesterday. It’s a relatively new network bringing together civil society actors. And there are networks in Europe and in – there’s an Arab network.
So there are networks in various areas of the world, and there’s something called the global action to end FGM that brings those networks together, and civil society is playing a tremendous role in ensuring at the – or at the international level, so along the Sustainable Development Goals, which for the first time ever has a target to eliminate FGM/C. And that target doesn’t apply to just a small number of countries, it applies to all countries. And as Maryum said, it’s a global issue, and ensuring that civil society is coming together along with governments are coming together to see that this is a widespread issue that affects so many girls and communities, and that we need governments to come together to address it.
So that’s, again, a role for civil society and survivors to ensure accountability that, like laws, that the Sustainable Development Goals are being achieved. And that really – excuse me – applies to each country.
So I think there’s something really to look at how we coordinate with media and government to ensure the story’s out there; with survivors, with civil society, and with first responders and law enforcement. So I look forward to any questions that might come up as this goes on.
MODERATOR: Thank you so much, Shelby, for your grassroots-level as well as your international efforts, and thank you for your remarks.
I’ll turn it over to Susan Masling now. Susan, over to you.
MS MASLING: Hi, everybody, and thank you to the Foreign Press Center for giving us this platform to discuss this issue, to my panelists who I’ve worked with for many years and who have really done more than just about anyone to advance this issue, and to the journalists who showed up and are interested in this. So I’m very pleased to be here.
I’m here on behalf of the Human Rights and Special Prosecution Section, which is an office in the Criminal Division of the U.S. Department of Justice. HRSP, as we’re known, prosecutes human smuggling, international violent crimes, and human rights abuses including war crimes, torture, genocide, use and recruitment of child soldiers, and female genital mutilation.
The U.S. Government considers FGM to be a serious violation of human rights, also considered to be a form of gender-based violence, and a form of child abuse. In the United States, FGM is illegal under every state under their child abuse laws. It’s also illegal under 40 state-specific FGM laws, many of which have recently been passed, and as Shelby mentioned, under the federal law which dates back to 1996. She also mentioned, I believe, or alluded to the new law, which civil society worked hard to pass, called the STOP FGM Act. I just want to say a few words about that.
It was enacted on January 5th, 2021, and it strengthens the existing law by increasing penalties for commission of FGM from five years to 10 years in prison; expands the scope of prosecutable conduct; clarifies the jurisdictional basis for the law; and requires yearly reporting by federal agencies about their efforts to eradicate FGM. And I’m going to speak a little bit about that in a few minutes.
To date, there have been three prosecutions under the federal law. In 2017, nine girls between the ages of 6 and 8 were subjected to FGM at a Detroit medical clinic. DOJ brought charges against two doctors, the health care officer manager, and five parents. The FGM charges were dismissed by the judge on the grounds that Congress lacked the constitutional authority to enact the FGM law. As a result, DOJ asked Congress to revise the law to address the purported constitutional issues and to strengthen the law in other ways. Ultimately, this and efforts by civil society led to the passage of the STOP FGM Act, which was passed unanimously by Congress, and did strengthen the law, as I mentioned.
More recently, in 2021, a federal grand jury in Houston, Texas, indicted Zahra Badri for taking a 7-year-old girl out of the United States for purpose of having her undergo FGM in a foreign country. That marks the first time that charges were brought under the so-called “vacation cutting” provision of the federal statute, which Shelby also mentioned. It prohibits taking a girl out of the U.S. for the purpose of FGM. There will be a trial in that case in August in Houston, Texas.
And the first case brought was in 2004. Following an FBI sting operation, the operators of a tattoo parlor in Los Angeles were charged with and pled guilty to conspiracy to commit FGM after they offered to perform FGM on two young girls.
And as important as it is to enforce the laws and bring perpetrators to justice through litigation, as Shelby mentioned, these cases represent just a small part of the U.S. Government’s efforts to eradicate FGM. There is a U.S. Government interagency working group that’s met for almost 10 years to discuss a whole-of-government approach to dealing with FGM in the U.S. and abroad. Members include DOJ, Health and Human Services, Department of Homeland Security, Department of Education, Department of State, and the USAID.
I have only limited time, so I’d like to briefly summarize some of the important work being done by some of the agencies to try and eradicate FGM. Five years ago, the Department of Homeland Security began a public engagement program at U.S. international airports to inform travelers about the dangers of FGM and its legal and immigration consequences. Operation Limelight USA is conducted during school breaks when there is a higher likelihood that children are being transported from the United States to countries where FGM is practiced. Since its creation in 2017, Operation Limelight has been conducted at 14 airports across the country with thousands of passengers reached and informed about FGM. It’s modeled after the successful Operation Limelight program that began in the United Kingdom.
The U.S. Government is also educating persons entering the United States about FGM by notifying refugees and visa recipients coming from high-prevalence countries about the physical and mental harms caused by FGM and about the legal consequences of committing FGM in the U.S. For example, all consulate sections in high-prevalence countries must display fact sheets on FGM in both English and local language and provide the fact sheet to travelers over the age of 14.
The U.S. Government also recognizes the importance of supporting local efforts to increase services, education, and partnerships to stop FGM. For example, the Justice Department’s Office of Victims of Crime awarded $5 million in grants to support community projects around the country designed to increase direct services, education, and community engagement to eradicate FGM.
Training and education for law enforcement and other stakeholders is another import of our – important part of the U.S. Government efforts in this area. The Justice Department and Department of Homeland Security have sponsored local, state, and federal training for law enforcement officials to ensure they understand the physical and psychological effects of FGM, best practices for interactions with FGM survivors, and how to investigate and respond to allegations of FGM. Similar trainings have been sponsored for educators, immigrant and refugee service providers, and medical professionals.
As Maryum said, the U.S. Government recognizes that FGM is a global issue that transcends borders. There have been many important programs by the Department of State and USAID – for example, the Department of State contributed $5 million to UNICEF to support the United Nations Population Fund/UNICEF Joint Program to End FGM, and led by DOS and USAID, the U.S. Government virtually co-hosted the 2021 annual donor working group meeting on FGM with UNICEF. The donor working group brings together key international governmental and inter-governmental organizations and foundations committed to eliminating FGM. The meeting focused on using innovative financing to meet global FGM elimination goals and included participation from multilateral organizations and donor countries.
Finally, I wanted to mention a program that the USAID has undertaken in cooperation with the Government of Egypt since 2017, where they have trained judges and prosecutors to more effectively investigate and convict perpetrators of violence against women, they’ve trained social and health workers to prevent and respond to cases of violence against women, and they’ve engaged youth, parents, and community leaders in discussions to highlight the consequences of violence against women and girls and FGM, as well as the importance of empowering girls in the household, society, and in the economy.
I think as both my fellow panelists have mentioned, more data is really needed to help inform the U.S. Government’s response to this complex crime. The Center for Disease Control is working to improve our understanding of the FGM in the U.S. As noted, there was an indirect estimate study prepared several years ago which gave the estimate of 513,000 women and girls at risk. However, this was extrapolated data, and the figure does not account for factors that can influence behavior change among those women, such as whether or not practices from a home country are continued when people come to the U.S. and the impact of United States laws that ban the practice.
In 2020, in an effort to better understand FGM and its impact on women and girls in the U.S., the CDC began an in-depth study talking to women who were born or whose mothers were born in a country where FGM is common. They asked women in four major U.S. cities about their FGM experiences, including health outcomes, attitudes, and beliefs about FGM. I believe that study will be published later this year, and hopefully it will lead to a greater understanding of this complex practice and will improve our ability to help eradicate FGM. Thank you very much.
MODERATOR: Thank you, Susan, for your excellent interagency and international efforts, and thank you so much to Maryum, Shelby, and Susan for your excellent opening remarks. Let’s open the floor for questions. If you have a question, please raise your hand and wait for me to call on you. You’re also welcome to type your question in the chat room.
Great. Alex, why don’t we go with you. Please introduce yourself and your outlet. Thank you so much.
QUESTION: Of course. Thank you so much for doing this. My name is Alex Raufoglu. I represent Azerbaijan’s independent news agency, Turan, here in Washington, D.C.
You mentioned the role of civil society, but in the countries where civil society is not – is still treated with mistrust, if you want, and nearly don’t even exist – I’m talking about countries like Azerbaijan, Russia, and others – what are some of other tools that the U.S. Government has at its disposal to use to move the needle on this? And some activists are highlighting the role of internet media, social media, and digital campaigns to change minds about domestic abuse. I wonder if this is – if these tools are still useful in your opinion, and how to polish them up moving forward.
And my second question is about Ukraine, because I recently returned from the region. And when you go to the train stations in Poland and other countries, you see people coming off the trains. It is striking that the overwhelming majority of them are women with children. I’ve covered many different refugee crises, including the ones in the South Caucasus, and I’ve never seen that degree of gender imbalance. How does that affect the needs and the response that the international community has to mount? Thank you so much again for doing this.
MODERATOR: Thank you, Alex, for your question. I’ll turn to Shelby Quast to respond to that. The first question is very pertinent to this conversation here on FGM. Shelby, besides the law enforcement efforts, what can – and civil society efforts, what other efforts such as social media or media engagement do you recommend? I hope I got Alex’s question right, but over to you, Shelby. Thanks.
MS QUAST: So just to – thank you, Alex, for the question, and one of the big things that we note is because it’s also on the global platform, it takes it out of just being in local communities and allows additional tools. So engagement at the UN level with UN agencies and also with the U.S. at the diplomatic effort to raise these issues where they may not have been discussed before and to start having discussions. And part of that was when we saw a shift of FGM/C being changed from something described as a religious or a social issue to a form of violence. And when it was described as a form of violence, different people were having different discussions at the diplomatic levels.
There is also a lot of NGOs that are looking at this issue within the broader construct of violence against women and girls and what does that look like. And as you mentioned, social media has become incredibly important for survivors to be talking with each other across platforms, and civil society to be discussing and working together and understanding that FGM/C actually fits within the programs that they’re working on, but also that this is happening to so many women and girls around the world. They’re not alone; it’s not just them. But this is a very large problem and there’s a global movement to address it.
So I’m hoping that addressed part of that question.
MODERATOR: Thank you so much, Shelby. Do – Maryum, do you have a response to that as well?
MS SAIFEE: No, exactly what Shelby said.
MODERATOR: Excellent. Thank you very much. Let me look – let me see if there are any other hands up there. Great. We received a few pre-submitted questions.
MS QUAST: Mahvash, can —
MS QUAST: Is it possible to just touch base on the other part of the question that Alex raised?
MODERATOR: Absolutely go forth, yes.
MS QUAST: And I think one of the things that we see and that is so often ignored is in conflict – in post-conflict, in humanitarian crisis, the impact on women and girls is often tremendous. And we see a lot of forms of violence being exacerbated at that time, and really trying to raise awareness to the people that are coming in to provide aid and provide assistance that they are aware of – the particular impact on women and girls often is there. Not just FGM/C, but rape and sexual violence and child marriage – it’s a very broad issue that we really need to focus on what’s happening to women and girls in those particular issues.
So I thank you very much for raising it, and I think the media plays a tremendous role in elevating those issues. So again, thank you for everyone who is here.
QUESTION: Thanks so much.
MODERATOR: Thank you, Shelby, and thank you, Alex, for the very good question. Let me turn it over to Jordan Dakamseh. Please introduce yourself and your outlet. Thank you.
QUESTION: Yes, good afternoon. My name is Jordan Dakamseh. I report for Ad-Dustour – it’s a Jordanian newspaper – and also for my own website, a New York-based website called the Jordan Report. Thank you very much for this brief. And I will tell you why I joined: this is not an issue in Jordan at all. I believe, after I listened to the three distinguished speakers, there is a problem with the approach, because we have absolutely not to convince government to make laws, we have to convince the parents that the practice of FGM/Cut is harmful to the kids and to women. And this is one – this is really very important issue. Otherwise, we will make 10 years and we have the same spot.
Second, from my experience, this is not really – many people don’t consider this as violence against women. And then because – 90 percent, maybe 80 percent – so let’s say, to be correct, the majority of practice is done by woman against woman, it’s not by man. And man in North Africa and Africa and in the Horn of Africa, when man, for example, gets angry if his wife is not virgin – let me be clear – but he will never oppose that whether she is cut or not cut in those countries.
And I just want to share with you something. I have worked in Sudan for six years, and then there I took the opportunity during my off time to conduct a survey. And 1,000 girl – we speak to 1,000 girl. Not me directly. I hire people to do a survey in their own dialect for 1,000 women. And then we choose the questions that are asked by, like – it’s like international question, which is – it’s related to human rights, it’s related to health, it’s related to woman rights, everything. And the majority of woman, they really don’t like it, but most of them – unlike what Ms. Masling said, not even one case is done in the clinic, for example, in Sudan. All of them done by something called midwife.
And again, before I end – and this is actually a contribution to the meeting – we have, if we need – we need to change. We have to change the approach. We have to convince people why this is wrong. And also, I – like, a few months ago there was a network, and I’m not sure if they came to us, the United Nations, because we all work remotely. And they were – like, they said this is like a practice; they didn’t want to show that this is a fight between man and woman. It’s not – you have to know it has nothing to do – and it’s nothing to do to religion. There is nothing in religion stating that this practice is related to religion. And they don’t say it’s because of religion or because God told us or because of a prophet told us. They will say because this is our tribal traditional. And then if you try to take it from them, they feel you are assaulted them. They want their rights. They believe this is – by not doing, they lose their rights.
So you have to know – we have to know it’s not only that the U.S. Congress will issue a statement also or a law or regulations, but we have to make people comfortable that this is for their benefit and people benefit, and this is very painful. Thank you so much.
MODERATOR: Jordan, thank you so much for your very helpful remarks. Shelby, do you want to comment, in addition to what Jordan just said, in terms of your work on engaging the United Nations and incorporating this into the SDGs?
MS QUAST: Yeah, I think the – including this in the Sustainable Development Goals, where all countries have agreed that this is one of the targets is to eliminate harmful practices against girls, which in this situation is child marriage and female genital mutilation, it’s an – puts it, I think, on a platform to discuss it. And one of the things that we’ve seen in my work with NGOs in various parts of the world is that there are activists actually on the ground in most countries where FGM is taking place that are working to do what you said: to address what are the real harms. Many women and girls aren’t aware that they’ve been subjected to FGM/C and that that’s the cause of so many of those lifelong pain and difficulty that they’re experiencing; and as you said, that the terminology is different in each local community that might practice it.
And understanding that those harms are the result of this and that they could prevent that type of harm becomes, again, a piece of awareness raising and discussion and education. And one of the areas oftentimes where the law can happen – again, it’s not to punish that, but it’s a – it opens the door to have that discussion that potentially wasn’t open before, to have discussions with younger people in that society, with older people in the society that may not want to simply comply. And a lot of that is really, as you mentioned, understanding what is the impact and what is the health impact; what’s the impact on society, and why is addressing this practice actually good for the community? And we hear a lot of activists in local communities saying let’s celebrate the very positive parts of culture and practice and let’s eliminate those that cause harm.
So it’s not – and I think that idea that’s coming just from the UN or just from the SDGs or just from U.S. Congress is quite different. In each country, my experience anyway, is in the countries where this is practiced there are local activists that are working to end or address the practice.
MODERATOR: Excellent. Thank you so much, Shelby. I’ll turn this question to —
MS MASLING: I just have one response to Jordan. I just – sorry to interrupt.
MODERATOR: Yes, please, absolutely.
MS MASLING: But I want to make a reference to the point about the law is just a tiny piece of it, which is technically true, but we have heard from women and girls and families who feel pressure to perform this act that the law can be kind of – it’s not just a sword; it’s a shield is the expression that I’ve heard. It can be something that’s cited by these women to their families back home, to their husbands, to their grandparents, aunties, whoever saying, “Look, this may be a tradition, but we can’t do it here in the United States or elsewhere. I’ll lose my – I might lose my immigration status or I could be sent to jail or whatever.” So it is a small piece, but it does – it can be helpful in the overall picture, but it goes towards what Jordan was saying, that the parents have to be convinced or the people within the family and the community that are arguing to continue the practice.
MS SAIFEE: And one thing I’ll add to what Susan and Shelby said – and Jordan, thank you so much for your comments and also your advocacy work to help end the practice, using journalism as a megaphone. And I also lived in Jordan for two years as a Peace Corps volunteer many moons ago, so have fond memories of the country. But your point about this is women perpetrating violence against other women; it’s intergenerational structural violence – an important piece of it is that in many of these cases the drivers are different. It could be religion; it could be culture; it could be a rite of passage ceremony, like in Sierra Leone. So every country, it manifests differently, even sub-regionally.
But what I will say is that when it comes to religious leaders, for example – that’s one driver of many, not the only – is that it’s rooted in patriarchy; it’s rooted in sort of these gender-based violence kind of norms, so it’s important – and the State Department, when I was in the Office of Global Women’s Issues, was intentionally inclusive in engaging religious leaders and community influencers, both Muslim and Christian and – because we knew that it’s happening. And so those that have influence in their communities, when they speak up, it’s a holistic approach.
So Susan’s comment – the law is one piece of it, because it is important for – I can say personally as a survivor, knowing that there’s a law that says this is not okay, it does give you kind of something to hold onto, to say this is a norm. I mean, whether it can be enforced perfectly or not – that’s something that all countries struggle with in terms of enforcement of norms. But it’s important to have that on the books. And we’ve worked with religious leaders – I know there’s been fatwas from al-Azhar in Egypt and the Coptic community as well, so I think there’s a lot of hope in this and a lot of folks – I think even Pope Francis has issued a statement on FGM quite recently, and so it’s been amplified over and over, and I think that’s where you as journalists and the Foreign Press Center for convening are so critical in helping to amplify this even further. So thank you.
MODERATOR: Thank you, Maryum and thank you, Susan, both for your very good comments.
Susan, this question is for you. If someone suspects that a girl in the United States is at risk of being subjected to FGM/C who should be notified?
MS MASLING: That’s a really good question. And if somebody you know is facing or has been a victim of FGM or somebody be at risk – did you ask – was it in the United States or overseas? I’m sorry.
MODERATOR: In the United States.
MS MASLING: In the United States.
MODERATOR: And if you have any – any information on overseas, I’ll be happy. But I know you mainly focus on United States.
MS MASLING: Okay. The answers are different, and unfortunately there is no dedicated FGM reporting hotline. However, it should be reported to the Human Rights Violators War Crime Center, the DHS tip line, the FBI tip line, or 1-800-4-A-CHILD. And I believe, Mahvash, I’ve sent you a document, a press release, that has all those numbers in there, rather than having me read them off now. There are tip lines, and that information does get to the right authorities.
Overseas is another situation where girls may find themselves in possibly being – learning they’re at risk of being subjected to FGM once they’re overseas, and in that case they can contact their nearest embassy or consulate or the Office of Consular Citizen Services, and that’s 888-407-4747 or just look at the Department of State website. But those are – thank you for those questions.
MODERATOR: Thank you, Susan. I’m going to now ask a few submitted questions by our journalists. We have a question from Olukorede Yishau from Nigeria: Does any of the – do any of the panelists have information about the FGM challenge in Nigeria?
Shelby, I know you do a lot of work, but Nigeria – do you want to take that on, or Maryum?
MS SAIFEE: I’m happy to comment a little bit. When I was in the Office of Global Women’s Issues, one of our areas, it’s – in Nigeria, my understanding is it transcends religion, so it’s different communities as well as there’s a practice called medicalization, which I think is something that happens, and I’ll explain it for folks, that in some countries it’s – the process is conducted by medical professionals. I know in Egypt, for example, that was another issue – in the law itself, there was a loophole in a sense that said it’s okay for – if it’s for medical reasons. So I believe that’s been strengthened a bit recently, which is really exciting to see, but that’s a phenomenon that happens in Nigeria, but – and other parts of the world.
In my own community, I can speak personally, that’s part of it. It’s sort of medicalized by a professional to sanction it, even though, again, there’s – the World Health Organization – I think it’s very important when you’re reporting on this: there’s absolutely no medical purpose. So unlike male circumcision, where they haven’t weighed in on this and that’s a completely different topic – but FGM specifically, female genital mutilation, there’s – it only causes harm.
And so that’s part of what – and when I was in the Office of Global Women’s Issues, we would amplify that over and over again, to say there is literally no justification. Because sometimes, in some communities, we would hear, oh, it’s for purity or it’s for these sort of – for hygiene or things like that. And that’s just a myth. And the WHO, this authoritative source, has weighed in very – I think it was one of their most tweeted tweets when it came out, because it was so needed for an authority to sort of say that in clear terms.
MODERATOR: Excellent. Thank you, Olukorede. He’s from The Nation, by the way. Thanks for your question, and thank you so much, Maryum, for your excellent response to that.
There’s one more question from Anul Bakra (ph) from Egypt. The question is: “The process of female genital mutilation is linked to several factors, the first of which is the education level, the second is the social level, and this is a very deep issue in many countries, especially the third world, in non-urban areas. The question is: What is the means that you propose to confront this issue on the immediate and near level as well as on the far level?” Let me know if one of you wants me to repeat that question.
MS SAIFEE: So I’m happy to give some remarks, and I think Shelby and Susan will have a lot to say, especially Shelby with the work that in her previous life she did with Equality Now, which is a big organization that’s really focused on advocacy work. I’d say that, as I’ve mentioned before, the reason we need an inclusive approach is because the drivers vary. So urban/rural, that’s one issue. For example, in Sierra Leone, it happens largely in rural communities. There’s a ritual called the Bondo ritual. And so it’s less prevalent in urban communities.
However, I can say personally in my experience – I’m a U.S. diplomat; I went to an Ivy League school, and I was cut. So – and my community in India is quite economically mobile and very tech savvy. A lot of our surveys that we do are actually on WhatsApp and different mechanisms that way. So one thing that is a truth to this issue that sometimes isn’t widely known is that it really is transcending economic class, geography, urban centers, rural centers, religion. And I say that a lot because I think there are – when I first told my own story in my personal voice, people were completely shocked, like, how can someone who sounds like me, who’s a U.S. diplomat, who – all these things, like – my own colleagues looked at me like, what, that doesn’t make sense.
And again, gender-based violence is global in scope. It’s happening here in the United States. It was considered a cure for hysteria up until the 19th century. It’s happened to white Christian communities here in the United States that people just don’t know about. So just because you don’t hear about something doesn’t mean it’s not happening.
And so another point that I wanted to bring up at some point was just on data collection. We need to do inclusive data collection that’s disaggregated, that we actually – so we can know. So what happened in Indonesia in 2016, that half the girls were cut. That’s a big country; it’s a populous country. And to know that, now we can develop policy and interventions to really address this issue, because again, it’s a very taboo topic.
Even in my own community it’s very – I mean, I was one of the first to speak out, and I did it because I had the support of my parents who are very much against this. This was done without their consent. And so – because they felt that my dad’s sister who did this to me felt, oh, very strongly, like in order for me to get married I had to do this. So she just did it anyway. And so sometimes it happens in that in that way.
So it’s really – the approaches need to be survivor-centered. So to kind of pivot back to my world on inclusion and why it matters, because each intervention needs to be really localized to the community. There isn’t a one-size-fits-all approach, so what works in my community may not work in Gambia or Sierra Leone or in Egypt or Nigeria, or even in Jordan. There could be pockets that we just don’t know about.
So I think it’s important for us to be open, and when survivors do speak out, another piece of this is to provide the services to them, the mental health support, and when they’re included in panels or – to really think through is this going to be a safe space for them as well. And how can they meaningfully inform policy rather than only tell their stories, which I don’t do anymore – I don’t tell my story in graphic detail, because it’s triggering; it’s traumatizing.
But what I will do is speak on a panel like this and say we need data; we need action; we need survivors at the table; we need a holistic approach that’s human rights grounded, that engages the legal sector, it engages everyone. Because like any of these complex issues that are – have been around for thousands of years, this is how we’re going to solve it.
MS QUAST: Could I add to that?
MS QUAST: Maryum had excellent contribution there, and I think it’s – what she said is extraordinarily important. If I could just add another piece to the context that we see, and it’s a term called medicalization. So we’re seeing this happen by medically trained doctors in hospital facilities. Egypt is a place where we’re particularly seeing that. And there’s a thought that because it’s done in a medical facility, it’s better, it’s safer. And there’s a real discussion among medical practitioners and survivors that this isn’t something that just happens on one day; this is something that has lifelong implications – for mental health, for physical health, and they’re ongoing. So yes, it might happen on that one day in a more sanitary thing in the hospital, but that doesn’t make this an acceptable practice – one that’s safe, that doesn’t have the same implications as when it happens elsewhere.
So part of this is how are we engaging with the medical practitioners, with hospitals, with doctors, with nurse practitioners, with midwives who often are doing this either when a child is born, or upon the mother, and is there a way to actually use that as a – at a time to raise awareness about the harms that it causes, to let a mother know who may have been subjected to FGM/C why she’s having that difficulty in labor or with sex, and why she’s experiencing those things, and why to not do that to her daughter?
And then the other, last piece that, again, I think we really want to look at is this can be an income provider for practitioners, for doctors, for other – whether it’s in a clinical facility or not. And understanding that there is sometimes a reason that people are pursuing this, that it’s not always for the benefit of the child or the mother, and again, that’s just one thing. And we see – I just want to echo what Maryum said – it is contextual, and very different in each place that it occurs. And really to address it, understanding those drivers and the survivors and the community in that specific place. There is no one-size-fits-all. So I just wanted to address that one piece that we hadn’t talked about yet.
MODERATOR: Thank you, Shelby, and thank you, Maryum, for sharing your personal story and for inspiring us all with that. I will – we have time for one last question. Jordan Dakamseh, who made those very good comments earlier, has posed a question for Susan Masling: “Does the U.S. law distinguish between cutting and FGM?” Over to you, Susan.
MS MASLING: I would not do it justice. I would like to read from the statute, which I don’t have in front of me. But they say that – the law says – defines female genital mutilation using the definition given by the World Health Organization. So I believe that that encompasses various forms of cutting. So it does not distinguish between the two.
MODERATOR: Great, thank you.
MS MASLING: But if you look at the law, which is 18 USC 116, you can see the exact definition that it’s given.
MS QUAST: And can I just jump in again, if I may? And as Susan said, it reflects the international definitions. But there is – this, again, is extraordinarily contextual what is actually occurring. So it might look quite different among just girls within one community, as opposed to there are definitions to help guide practitioners. But any cutting or damage done to a girl’s genitalia for nonmedical reasons fits within that broader definition. And there’s no distinguishing between cutting and FGM, and I think that’s one of the things that we’re looking at, is to ensure that anything that is done to a girl’s genitalia for nonmedical reasons, that that’s what we’re addressing. Because really, it does look so different from community, and even within a community. So I just wanted to say that.
MS MASLING: No, that’s an important clarification. And it’s also – brings up something that’s important for the medical community, I think as both of you have talked about, is that because it can look so different, and because it’s often done on young girls whose genitalia is not formed, doctors may have a difficult time recognizing it, seeing who’s been cut, knowing is it different from person to person, and every person’s genitalia is different. So there is a great need for education in the medical community, and I believe that some of the grant work being done currently through the Department of Justice is working to develop tools for medical practitioners, with photographs and other kinds of trainings, so that people can be more able to recognize this when, for example, a girl goes to a Child Protective Services office for an exam, or goes to her yearly check-up.
And that also goes to I think what Maryum was saying about the role of doctors and midwives and others to play in this whole thing. Those are trusted professionals in this community, and it’s not going to come from us sitting here in Washington or New York telling people what to do, but it’s going to be that family’s health care provider, or that family’s religious leader, or whoever, that knows about the practice, that can talk and engender trust with the family, and explain that there is no good reason to do it. And that, I think, is where the question keeps coming up: How is there going to be change? Where is there going to be change? What’s the way to do it? And even though it is going to be different for everyone in every community, I think you have to look to those important community-level relationships like with a doctor or like with a faith community to get those folks educated so that they can help relay the message to the parents and to the families.
MODERATOR: Thank you so much for that, Susan. Thank you so much, all. We’re now out of time. I appreciate our three fantastic speakers for participating in today’s briefing, and for educating us on this very important issue. Thank you also to our wonderful journalists for joining us today and asking some very good questions. Today’s briefing was on the record. I will share a transcript with everyone who’s participating today, and I will also post this on our website.
And with that, thank you so much for your time and inspiration.
MS MASLING: Thank you.
MS QUAST: Thank you.
MS SAIFEE: Thank you.