FGM Survivor Stories Notes - Equality Now

FGM Survivor Stories Notes

What is the prevalence of FGM in Georgia?

The state of Georgia ranks tenth among all U.S. states for the number of women and girls subjected to or at risk of female genital mutilation (FGM) – an estimated 20,476(1). But the metropolitan area of Atlanta-Sandy Springs-Roswell alone ranks the sixth in the country for the highest number of women and girls who have been subjected to or are at risk of FGM in the U.S. – an estimated at 19,075(2).

According to a study by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ (HHS) Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) released in January 2016, an estimated 513,000 women and girls in the U.S. have undergone or are at risk of being subjected to FGM

What is vacation cutting?

Vacation cutting is the phrase commonly used to describe instances when a girl is brought to her family’s country of origin during school vacation to undergo FGM. Girls may be at risk of vacation cutting in countries with diaspora communities originating from countries with high prevalence rates of FGM.

While it can be a positive experience for girls to have a close connection to their family members and families’ country of origin, girls should be protected from this harmful practice. The federal law addressing FGM in the U.S. is 18 U.S. Code § 116 ‘Female Genital Mutilation.’ The law makes it illegal to perform FGM in the U.S., and as of 2013, to knowingly transport a girl out of the U.S. for purpose of inflicting FGM(3). Twenty-four states have laws against FGM(4), while Arizona, Florida, Georgia, Kansas, Louisiana, Nevada, New Jersey and South Dakota also have laws against “vacation FGM.” Laws alone are not enough, however. Effective prevention also requires education and awareness raising about FGM and vacation cutting.

If you have undergone FGM, believe you may be at risk of FGM, or know someone who may be at risk, call 1-800-813-5863 to report it to the Department of Justice, or 1-800-994-9662 for more information about available resources.

FGM in Sierra Leone and secret societies

About 89.6% of women and girls in Sierra Leone have undergone some form of FGM, the majority of girls being subjected to the practice before the age of 10.(5) Most women and girls in Sierra Leone undergo Type I or II FGM, but some undergo Type III – infibulation – the most extreme form(6). FGM is typically performed by traditional circumcisers, sometimes known as Sowei – though the name may vary by ethnic group(7).

There are several rationalizations given for why girls are subjected to FGM(8):

  • Removal of the clitoris or “male” parts is necessary for a girl to actually become “female.”
  • Uncut genitalia are unclean and ugly.
  • FGM will improve girls’ “marriageability” as well as preserve her virginity until marriage (and prevent adultery after marriage) by decreasing her sexual desire.

In Sierra Leone, girls transition into adulthood through initiation into secret women’s societies. These secret societies are often referred to as ‘Bondo’ or ‘Sande,’ though the names may vary. The secret societies exist in nearly all Sierra Leonean ethnic groups, and an estimated 90% of women are members of a secret society(9). Entry into these secret societies is considered to give women political autonomy and agency, and acceptance within society(10). During these ceremonies, girls retreat to the ‘Bondo bush’ with elaborate clothes and jewelry over days or weeks, and also are taught about their community’s traditions such as about marriage, domestic duties and community involvement.(11) While these are positive celebrations of local cultural values and promote a sense of belonging for girls in their communities, these initiations also typically include FGM, and sometimes are prerequisites for forced marriage. Girls who are uncut are often socially disenfranchised from their communities and considered ‘unfit’ for marriage.

Girls should be able to celebrate transitions to womanhood and learn about their cultural and community values without the violence and harmful effects of FGM or forced marriage. Many communities are starting to promote Alternative Rite of Passage (ARP) ceremonies for girls, and civil society organizations are increasingly promoting ARPs to reduce the prevalence of FGM. Girls get to experience the same ceremonies with their peers, learning about their cultural traditions and values and womanhood, with one exception—they are not cut. ARPs have been successful in contexts where FGM is part of initiation practices, when accompanied by awareness raising, and when girls are supported to continue their education.(12)

Sierra Leone currently has no law criminalizing FGM outright. Equality Now and our partners advocated for Sierra Leone to ratify the Protocol to the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights on the Rights of Women in Africa that explicitly bans FGM(13). Sierra Leone finally ratified the treaty in July 2015. This ratification by Sierra Leone provides a means for activists to put pressure on the government to implement the treaty and pass a national law explicitly banning FGM. Equality Now and our partners continue to advocate for such a law.14 Our partners and other local NGOs continue our work to end this practice through advocacy, education (including for traditional circumcisers), alternative rite of passage ceremonies, safe houses for girls fleeing FGM and radio and theater projects.15

(1) Mark Mather and Charlotte Feldman-Jacobs, Women and Girls at Risk of Female Genital Mutilation/Cutting in the United States (Population Reference Bureau, Feb. 2015), available here.
(2) Id.
(3) 18 U.S. Code § 116 ‘Female Genital Mutilation’, available here.
(4) Equality Now, FGM in the United States Infographic, available here.
(5) US Agency for International Development (USAID) Demographic and Health Surveys (DHS), Sierra Leone (2013), available here.
(6) 28 Too Many, Country Profile: FGM in Sierra Leone (June 2014), FGM in Sierra Leone (June 2014), available here.
(7) Id.
(8) 28 Too Many, Country Profile: FGM in Sierra Leone (June 2014), FGM in Sierra Leone (June 2014), available here.
(9) Id.
(10) Id.
(11) Id.
(12) Id.
(13) Protocol to the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights on the Rights of Women in Africa, Art. 5(b), available here.
(14) See e.g., Equality Now, African Activist Declaration from Equality Now Workshop (January 2014), available here; Amazonian Initiative Movement Sierra Leone, available here ; Inter-African Committee Sierra Leone, available here.
(15) 28 Too Many, Country Profile: FGM in Sierra Leone (June 2014), available here.