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Q&A with Shelby Quast: Americans and FGM

  • Frances Alonzo

Jaha Dukureh is a 24-year-old survivor of female genital mutilation. In June, she joined U.S. Representative Joseph Crowley, U.S. Representative Sheila Jackson Lee, and Shelby Quast of Equality Now to discuss their efforts to end female genital mutilation in the U.S. The group is asking the Obama Administration to commission the first study of female genital mutilation (FGM) in the US since 1997.

Shelby Quast, a senior policy advisor for Equality Now, told VOA's Frances Alonzo that American teenagers are experiencing FGM in this country or are taken out of the country for "vacation cutting."

QUAST: There was a congressional letter that was signed by 58 bipartisan members of Congress calling on the U.S. administration to address FGM, to implement the law that was passed in 2013 that closed the gap that allowed girls to be taken outside the country for purposes of FGM called “vacation cutting.” And that was sent to members of the Department of Education, Department of Health and Human Services, Department of Justice and the White House to address FGM and put this plan together and really actively do something to end FGM in the U.S.

ALONZO: I think what is most shocking is that FGM happens in the United States.

QUAST: It happens in the United States. We are hearing that there are girls who are being subjected to FGM who have not left the country but also to young girls who live here but who is taken to their parent’s home country for the summer and they come home very changed.

ALONZO: How does this come to light when they get back? I mean, how is this a prosecutable crime if this is not just something talked about and more than likely these young ladies don’t have a regular gynecological exam?

QUAST: That was part of the discussions that we were having with these different departments and that is that front line professionals not only need to be aware of what’s going on but that they need to know how to respond once they do become aware. So it could be schools, it could be school counselors, it could be school nurses. It’s somewhat clear that something has happened. And a lot of times, these girls are aware that’s going to happen.

When children are applying for visas, especially when going back to these particular countries that still practice this, that Department of Justice is working with these embassies to say that someone that age applies for a visa, we need you to inform them that it is against the law for them to take that child to get FGM. But also making the embassies in those countries aware. If a girl is aware this is going to happen and is seeking help, that she can say that. Or, there’s a hotline that she can call. So, not just law enforcement. That’s one piece of it. But how do we start raising awareness about the law, about the practice, about the rights of girls?

ALONZO: So this is more of a community policing?

QUAST: That’s part of it as well. It has to happen within the community. We have to have the discussion. Most people don’t know there is a law against this in the United States or, candidly, what FGM is. So many of those frontline professionals who are engaging with girls and with families and with these communities that they need to be better informed.

ALONZO: Now this doesn’t only happen in African countries, this does happen in Asia, correct?

QUAST: Yes, Indonesia is one, a very large prevalence country. One of the areas that has been of concern to Equality Now is the prevalence or want to medicalize FGM. And in some way try to make that legitimate and really what the call is at the U.N. and what we are trying to say is that any type of FGM is a human rights abuse. And so we want to make sure that there are no laws in place that are protecting FGM and legitimizing it.

ALONZO: You mean medicalize, meaning there are actual physical doctors performing this cutting.

QUAST: Correct. Yes. And that in Indonesia where the law says that if it’s performed by a medical doctor then it’s legal. And we’ve obviously, that’s incredibly problematic and we are trying to see that they really look at that law, look at the international standards are calling for and that they reverse it. For Equality Now, it is really looking at those issues in that bigger picture and FGM is often done to prove virginity because it raises the value for early marriage.

So, when we really start to step back, I think that we do have to step up, we do have to lead the way and maybe previously, when it was believed that these things weren’t happening to U.S. citizens, that there might have been some people saying that then it’s not our problem. But it is happening here and it is happening to U.S. citizens and we can’t always put adolescent girls at the bottom of the priority list and I think we need to be very careful about that.
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