Female Genital Mutilation and Designer Vaginas in Britain: Crafting an Effective Legal and Policy Fr

Lisa Avalos’s article, Female Genital Mutilation and Designer Vaginas in Britain: Crafting an Effective Legal and Policy Framework (48 VAND. J. TRANSNAT’L L. 621 (2015)), is available here.

When people in the West hear the term “female genital mutilation” (FGM), they typically think of a practice that occurs in developing countries, particularly in Africa. It usually comes as a surprise to learn that FGM also occurs in the United States and Europe, where we generally assume that cultural norms and respect for human rights stand in the way of such harmful practices.

But the reality is that FGM has taken root in developed societies because immigrants and refugees from FGM-affected areas bring the practice with them–they do not leave it at the border. About 500,000 women and girls are living with FGM in Europe, while in the United States, the number of girls at risk of FGM has more than doubled in the last ten years. Britain is the focus of my Article because, with 30,000 girls at risk of FGM, an influx of immigrants from FGM-affected countries, and an anti-FGM law that has been ineffective at stopping the practice, it is an excellent illustration of the difficulties faced by all Western countries on this matter.

Because FGM is so unexpected in the West and so repulsive to many, there is often a knee-jerk desire for a quick fix. Often, this takes the form of calls for prosecution of FGM perpetrators. But as the recent trial of Dr. Dhanuson Dharmasena in the United Kingdom demonstrates, prosecution is no silver bullet, and prosecutions driven by emotion can erroneously target physicians who are doing their best to deliver medical care to FGM-afflicted women.

While prosecution is important, it is only one key aspect of the comprehensive anti-FGM strategy that is needed in the West. The purpose of my Article is to give a reasoned and holistic treatment of the range of strategies that must be included in the effort to end FGM. At the core of such strategies are grassroots work to educate and raise awareness among FGM-affected diaspora communities in the West and to create safe spaces for individuals from those communities to share their experiences and speak out against FGM. In addition, education and awareness-raising among professionals who work with such communities–including physicians, social workers, and teachers–is critical.

Legal reform is another important aspect of a comprehensive anti-FGM strategy. Although Britain was one of the first countries to pass a law against FGM back in the 1980s, that law has been largely ineffective at stopping FGM. Other countries–notably Kenya, Uganda, and Ireland–have more recently enacted anti-FGM laws with more robust protections for young girls. My Article includes model legislation on FGM that could be adopted by any country seeking to strengthen protection against FGM.

No doubt the idea of a “quick fix” to the problem of FGM appeals to many who are appalled at the practice. But truly effective strategies for eliminating FGM must be grounded in education and awareness-raising–both within FGM-affected communities, and among professionals who work with such communities. These approaches require investments of time, funding, and persistence in order to succeed.

Lisa Avalos

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