This week, the Violence Against Women Act turns 25 years old. The act was passed in 1994 with bipartisan support because lawmakers wanted the government to do more to combat violence against women, ensure those who abuse and assault women are held accountable, and address new threats. While we have certainly made progress, our work is not done.
As we mark this 25 year milestone, a new threat to young women and girls exists in communities across the United States. Female genital mutilation is happening here in the U.S. and putting American girls at risk. As defined by the World Health Organization, female genital mutilation is the partial or total removal of the female external genitalia for nonmedical reasons.
There are no health benefits to female genital mutilation. It is traumatic for young girls to undergo, it is not a valid religious practice, and it is an intolerable violation of the rights of young women and girls. Female genital mutilation is violence against women at its worst. Protections against it should be included in the Violence Against Women Act before more women and girls are victimized.
According to 2012 data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, an estimated 513,000 women and girls in the U.S. have experienced or are at risk of mutilation, revealing it is far too great a threat for Congress to ignore.
Most people will be surprised to learn that the Violence Against Women does not already protect against female genital mutilation, but it does not. Republicans and Democrats alike must change this, and join forces to declare it is unacceptable.
The Violence Against Women already includes funding to help raise awareness about other forms of violence, meant to help communities better prevent and respond to domestic violence and other threats. Congress should make such funding available for those organizations doing the critical work of raising awareness about female genital mutilation among law enforcement, medical professionals, community leaders, and educators.
While the federal government should do its part, particularly by enhancing protections in the act, states also have an important role to play. At a minimum, every state should outlaw the practice. Currently, only 35 states have specific anti-female genital mutilation laws on their books. Fifteen states have yet to adopt laws to make clear that this practice is not allowed within its boundaries.
For instance, in Kentucky, almost 2,000 young women and girls are at risk of undergoing the mutilation and have no state protection. This is also the case in Indiana, Washington, Alabama, Wyoming, New Mexico, among others.
By adopting legislation to outlaw female genital mutilation, states would help protect vulnerable young women and girls, and send a clear message that this practice has no place in our society. This is important for encouraging immigrant communities, which may have left countries where it was considered necessary and culturally required, to reject these traditions.
Female genital mutilation is an unpleasant topic, and it’s understandable that few want to talk about it. But as human rights advocate and female genital mutilation survivor Ayaan Hirsi Ali says, “There are times when silence becomes an accomplice to injustice.” On this 25th anniversary of the Violence Against Women Act, let’s raise our voices and send a loud message to lawmakers that female genital mutilation has no place in the U.S.