When Westerners talk about female genital mutilation (FGM), most imagine poor, African women. They think of rural villages with limited access to electricity and health care—places and lifestyles that seem to have nothing in common with their own.
I was born in Gambia, a country where over 75% of all girls are mutilated, and moved to the US when I was fifteen. There are many differences between my home country and my adopted country, but FGM is not one of them. According to a 2016 report (pdf) from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, in the US, more than 500,000 girls have survived, or are at risk of being subjected to, this violation of human rights.
In Gambia, and in many countries around the world including India, Kenya, and the United Kingdom, FGM is a cultural practice—a tradition meant to keep girls pure and chaste. Some cultures mutilate babies at birth. Others perform the mutilation as a coming of age ceremony: a right of passage from childhood into adulthood.
No matter the time or reason, the practice remains horribly dangerous and damaging. Survivors of FGM—of which there are more than 20 million globally—are at higher risk for infection, infertility, complications during birth, and depression. What’s more, the practice tells women that their value as a human is predicated upon their attractiveness to men. FGM doesn’t allow for individuality. It tells women there is only one way to be normal, beautiful, and desirable—and that is to have their bodies mutilated in order to fit one specific ideal.
Regardless of where one is born, no girls, anywhere, are free from these damaging messages. While FGM is illegal in the US, we still permit versions of it—like labiaplasties, which rose by a jaw-dropping 80% among US teens over the last year. If American girls aren’t illegally forced into FGM by their parents or their traditions, they may still wind up needlessly altering their genitals in order to fit into their culture and its unattainable ideals about beauty.
FGM happens in Africa. It happens in Europe and in Asia. But it also happens in the United States, and it’s time we started fighting back.
That’s why I’ve worked so hard to change the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists’ (ACOG) recommendations for labiaplasties. With the exception of a very few medical necessities, the vast majority of women don’t need these procedures. And as their popularity rises, so too do our unreasonable expectations for how women should or shouldn’t look.
This year, with the help of the Justice Department and the thousands of signatures, my petition won on change.org—ACOG has finally issued new recommendations, discouraging all American surgeons from performing labiaplasties on minors. That change—however small—represents countless hours of advocacy and gives hope to the thousands of girls in the US who suffer from FGM.
We are witnessing the global rebirth of the feminist movement. Millennials like me are standing up against tradition, against sexism, and against the inequality that has held women back for so many centuries. FGM lies at the heart of this struggle. Fighting against inequality means fighting against body shaming, against unfair gender expectations, and against the idea that women are worth nothing more than their appearance.
No girl should be taught that her appearance is what defines her and that, with a nip here and a tuck there, she’ll be “fixed.” All girls are already perfect. It’s time that American society caught up with that reality, and gave girls the support and the protection they deserve.