GBV from an Advocate: FGM and Forced Marriage

I work for the AHA Foundation, a leading organization working to end honor violence that shames, hurts, or kills thousands of women and girls in the US each year, and puts millions more at risk. Specifically, we work with honor violence that includes forced marriage, child marriage, and female genital mutilation (FGM). Our organization, founded by women’s rights activist Ayaan Hirsi Ali, provides direct aid to women and girls at risk, offers training programs to educate service providers and law enforcement, and raises awareness about these issues across the country.

A common and very frustrating misconception that I encounter within my job is the unconscious determination people have in separating “here” and “there”, or “us” and “them”. When I tell people about what I do, a shocking number immediately proclaim with certainty and confidence, “This type of violence doesn’t actually happen in the US. It only happens in other countries – it’s just the way things are done there and it’s their tradition. It’s a tragedy, but we would never let things like that happen here.” The sad reality that I face every day with my job though, is that these cases of gender-based violence occur far more often in the US and in other western nations than most people realize or are willing to accept. Regardless of where they happen in the world, these acts of violence are plainly violations of human rights and need to be stopped.

When a girl is forced to undergo FGM, she is being stripped of her rights and freedoms as a female. This practice is conducted at a young age (4-14), before girls are old enough to actively understand or object. It is often done with the intention of curbing a woman’s sexuality, ensuring her virginity before marriage, and preserving family honor. It has no health benefits whatsoever, but it can result in a number of tragic physical and psychological consequences that will affect a woman for the rest of her life. The number of girls at risk in the US has quadrupled since 1997, with the Center for Disease Control estimating that 513,000 women and girls are at risk of FGM in the US alone. FGM is a violation of human rights which is based on a traditional practice that is simply done to control women. As no equivalent procedure is done to curb a man’s sexuality, we consider this horrendous procedure a clear act of gender-based violence. No woman or girl should have to undergo this practice, and yet it continues to happen in every corner of the world today.

When a young girl is taken out of school for a forced marriage (with an oftentimes much older man), she loses her freedom entirely. Any ambitions to pursue a higher education or dreams of a career, to marry a man or woman of her own choosing, and live a life of personal freedom is abruptly and forcibly taken away. Marrying a girl off at a young age immediately withdraws her from childhood, and forces her into a lifetime of servitude and intimate partner rape. While many assume child marriage does not occur in the US or other western nations, it is a problem which is often overlooked and ignored, leaving young girls exceptionally vulnerable and unprotected. According to a survey conducted by the Tahirih Justice Center, approximately 3,000 known or suspected forced marriages occurred in the US over a two-year period. Young girls are significantly more likely to be married off than young boys, making this violation of human rights and access to personal freedom a clear form of gender-based violence targeting women and girls.

Regardless of where a girl lives, she deserves freedom. These acts of gender-based violence intending to target, manipulate, and control females are plain violations of human rights. No girl should be subjected to any type of violence in order to meet the standards of or be accepted by her community. Freedom should never be optional, and together we must stand against these harmful acts and protect women and girls around the world.

Kendall Waldron is an advocate in human rights and women’s empowerment. With a Master’s Degree in International Business from Hult International Business School, she has worked on multiple human rights projects around world, including translating for the International Criminal Tribunal of Rwanda following the Rwandan Genocide. Currently, Kendall works as a consultant for the women’s help organization The AHA Foundation.

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