Zero Tolerance

A blog by Dr. Nina Smart from Soroptimist Club Camino Real Region, California.

“Female Genital Mutilation – FGM – is a global issue that continues to present challenges for Soroptimists when attempting to improve the lives of women and girls. Though a difficult subject to discuss, it is important that we face the ugly truth about FGM.

According to United Nations Reports, this harmful traditional practice affects over 200 million girls and women today. As a Soroptimist and a non-violent activist who has worked for 15 years to end FGM, I have a personal investment in eradicating this practice and, to that end, I’ve been proud to share my own story of survival. I have dedicated my adult life to researching FGM, and through SWF International, the Los Angeles based organiSation I founded in 2004, I work with other activists to find effective solutions to end this practice.

At the global level, FGM is a human rights violation, but at the local level, it is a traditional practice believed to protect the family honour of a girl, shape her identity, and if not performed, will bring shame to her community, her household, and especially her father. Hence, involving men in our global efforts to end FGM is critical. The United Nations’ initiative ‘He for She’ is a step in the right direction on the very challenging road to ending FGM.

Education of both men and women on the many effects of this harmful traditional practice also proves essential to finding those effective solutions we seek. Learning that women and girls who survived the extensive bleeding during and after an FGM procedure still have a lot of problems urinating, bearing children as well as enduring lifetime psychological and emotional damage allows community leaders, often male, and the very women who perform the cutting to work together with non-violent activists. Finding alternative ways to address the economic factor of FGM, often ignored when discussing this harmful practice, benefits both the girls at risk and the women who earn a living when performing this procedure. Eradicating the practice requires rethinking and retraining that must involve everyone in the practising community for it to be a lasting change.

Communities around the world practice FGM for different reasons including hygiene, aesthetics, curbing women’s sexuality, religious beliefs and health. The United Nations has declared FGM as a human rights violation and many states, even those with high prevalence of FGM, have banned the practice.  But criminalisation of FGM is not the only answer for the estimated three million girls and women in Africa alone who are at risk of being cut each year.

‘Education not Mutilation,’ said UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon in his 2016 address celebrating International Day of Zero Tolerance for FGM, is the answer. Soroptimists have dedicated themselves to this idea of education as a means of achieving the goal. To that end, members of SI Camino Real Region helped raise awareness about FGM by inviting me to speak at the region’s 2009 Spring Conference. I spoke about this human rights violation and shared my own very personal survival story. For a decade now SI Downey members sponsor SWF International programs that break the silence on FGM in Sierra Leone, where over 90% of women and girls are mutilated by force.

Understanding the impact that Soroptimists make in African women’s lives, SI Downey has enthusiastically supported girls’ education as well as vocational training for young women who have escaped FGM.  Furthermore, SI Downey sponsored a safe house where girls and women can hide, and are protected from being mutilated against their wishes. After hearing my presentation on FGM at their club’s programme meetings and learning about the impact our Soroptimists have had, members of SI Los Angeles, SI Bellflower, SI Whittier, SI Alhambra, San Gabriel, San Marino, as well as members of SI Desert Coast Region have financially supported my organisation’s efforts to end FGM in the past two years by protecting hundreds of girls at risk. In Cluj and in Bucharest, Romania as well as in Mumbai, India, Soroptimists from both federations helped raise awareness about FGM among those eager to learn effective ways of promoting girls’ education and ways to end mutilation. There is also an extraordinary collaboration between Soroptimist members of SIGBI who support the ‘Alternative Rite of Passage: Girls need education, NOT circumcision’ program in Meru, Kenya.

Finally, the help of all Soroptimists is needed to raise awareness about FGM and its terrible consequences. SI Europe has already highlighted effective ways for Soroptimists to get involved in this cause. We can invite speakers to inform our club members about FGM, we can sponsor ongoing projects that protect women and girls from being mutilated, we can host and attend workshops that inform migrant populations about the legal implications of FGM in respective communities, and we can support human rights education for both girls and boys in countries with high FGM rates. These are effective ways our SI clubs can help make Zero Tolerance for FGM a reality for all the women and girls we serve”.

By Dr. Nina Smart

zero tolerance