February 6th is International Day of Zero Tolerance for Female Genital Mutilation (FGM). It might shock some that this practice is still both prevalent and pervasive. Approximately 200 million girls and women alive today are victims of this abuse. Over 30 countries, predominantly in Africa, the Middle East, and Asia, continue this practice.  

FGM is categorized into four major types, all of which involve the partial or total removal of the external female genitalia or other injury to the female genital organs for non-medical reasons. The procedure has no health benefits; instead, it causes severe bleeding, infections, long-term urination problems, cysts, and increased risk of childbirth complications. Treatment of these health complications is estimated to annually cost health systems $1.4 billion, a number expected to increase unless FGM is eradicated.

Beyond the immediate health risks, FGM constitutes an extreme form of discrimination against girls and women. The practice is a violation of their rights to health, security, and physical integrity, and in the worst cases, it can result in death.

The prevalence of FGM, carried out primarily on young girls between infancy and age 15, underscores a grievous aspect of gender-based violence that stems from the very essence of being female. 

This issue brings to the forefront a critical conversation about the importance of acknowledging biological realities within the human rights discourse, especially when it comes to protecting women and girls from harm. The continued prevalence of FGM in various cultures demands the necessity of defining and understanding such biological and gender-based realities that contribute to such practices. 

At the heart of the argument for acknowledging the reality of biology is the premise that without a clear and courageous recognition of what it means to be a woman or a girl, efforts to protect them from gender-specific abuses like FGM are hindered. It is their very biological sex that places them at risk of being subjected to practices designed to control their bodies and sexuality, underlining the importance of a gender-responsive approach in human rights protections.

The resistance to acknowledging the biological differences that make women and girls susceptible to specific forms of violence is more than just a semantic issue; it’s a matter of life and death for millions. Clearly acknowledging what it means to be a woman or girl is central to understanding the rationale behind such practices and, consequently, to developing effective strategies for their eradication.

Make no mistake, this issue is not confined to far flung places around the world. In the US, 41 states have specific laws that prohibit FGM, while the remaining nine have nothing on their books.

In 2016, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) unveiled a report drawing on data from 2010 to 2013, revealing a concerning statistic: an estimated 513,000 girls and women in the United States were identified as victims of Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) or were at risk of undergoing the procedure. Notably, a third of this number were girls under the age of 18. 

This significant rise in individuals at risk of FGM within the U.S. was linked not to an increase in the practice itself but to the growing population of immigrants from countries where FGM is most prevalent.

The report further detailed that 60% of the at-risk individuals resided in eight specific states: California, Maryland, Minnesota, New Jersey, New York, Texas, Virginia, and Washington. Furthermore, these individuals were not evenly dispersed across the country; 40% were concentrated in five major metropolitan areas: New York City, the Washington D.C. area, Minneapolis-St. Paul, Los Angeles, and Seattle. A majority, 55%, of these women originated from Egypt, Somalia, or Ethiopia—countries known for their high prevalence of FGM and significant immigrant populations in the U.S.

In January 2021, the U.S. took a significant step forward in the fight against Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) with the enactment of the STOP FGM Act of 2020, signed into law by then-President Donald Trump. This pivotal legislation armed federal authorities with enhanced powers to prosecute individuals involved in performing or facilitating FGM, doubling the maximum prison sentence from five to ten years for such offenses. Moreover, the Act mandates that federal agencies keep Congress informed with reports on the number of girls and women at risk or affected by FGM, alongside detailing efforts aimed at eradicating this harmful practice. This law represents a crucial advancement in protecting girls and women from this violation of human rights, but there is more to be done to address the specific vulnerabilities of women and girls. We must continue to work against FGM until the number of women and girls affected is zero.