My great aunt, Georgeanna Gibbs Browne, born in 1876 in Philadelphia, was a victim of female genital mutilation/cutting (FGM/C). Her upbringing was church-going and “upper crust.” Newspaper clippings describe her twirling across dance floors at summer soirees and charity balls.
Old medical journals report that “clitoridectomies” were indeed performed in the U.S. and Europe well into the 20th century, billed as a cure for female hysteria, nymphomania, and the perils of masturbation. In Philadelphia, at the same time that Georgeanna was nearing puberty, Charles Karsner Mills, a prominent neurologist and academician, was experimenting with the procedure.
My great-grandparents may have embraced Mills’ pioneering medical approach in hopes that the procedure would somehow suppress Georgeanna’s budding sexuality or help solidify the family’s standing in Philadelphia’s social hierarchy. I’ll never know their rationale. All I have now are a few sepia tone photographs: One of a young, smiling, cherubic girl with curly hair and twinkling eyes, and another taken about a decade later. Her hair is cropped and slightly wild, her eyes a bit dazed, her expression stricken.
Today there are 200 million survivors of FGM/C living around the world. Defined by the World Health Organization as “the partial or total removal of the female external genitalia…for cultural or other non-therapeutic reasons,” FGM/C can cause grievous harm and even death. Governments have banned it. United Nations resolutions have condemned it. But far too few foundations are funding efforts to end it. In the United States, the CDC estimates that over half a million women have been cut or remain at risk.
As with my great aunt Georgeanna, each of the 6,000 girls who endure “the cut” each day do so for complex and deeply-rooted reasons. FGM/C can mark a festive and essential transition from girlhood into womanhood; make women more likely to secure “good” husbands; or be perceived to enhance beauty and hygiene. Despite having no religious justification, the practice has been falsely invoked in the name of god. All these justifications reflect women's lack of power and agency in decisions about their own health and bodies.
Despite obstacles and opposition, FGM/C survivors and activists have risen up. FGM/C survivor and activist Jaha Dukureh founded an international nonprofit, Safe Hands for Girls, that empowers youth in Georgia and her native Gambia, where she played a pivotal role in winning a countrywide ban on the practice in 2015. Mariya Taher joined other young leaders to lift the veil of secrecy over “khatna”, a form of FGM/C practiced in South Asia and among the diaspora. Their new nonprofit, Sahiyo, has been helping women tell their stories and emerge from the shadows. Kakenya Ntaiya struck a bargain with her Maasai parents in Kenya, agreeing to endure the cut, but only if she was permitted to pursue her education. She earned a doctorate and founded a Kenyan girls’ school. The one key admission requirement? Parents must vow not to cut their daughters.
These dynamic, creative, and innovative leaders have strategies and solutions, but they need resources. The Wallace Global Fund was a pioneer in this area due to the vision of Gordie Wallace, who began championing the rights of girls at risk in the 1970’s. I have worked with the foundation on this issue for over a decade and see how much progress can be made with dedicated resources. But more philanthropic support is needed. Just as young women (and men) in the U.S. are mobilizing against campus sexual assault, more and more young women (and men) from Cairo to Banjul to Nairobi –from Detroit to Phoenix - are rising up and speaking out against FGM/C. More philanthropic dollars are needed to amplify their voices and support their solutions.
Last week, I joined more than 200 participants from 23 nations at the first-ever End Violence Against Girls: Summit on FGM/C, in Washington D.C., where I drew inspiration from my great aunt Georgeanna. I envisioned the sepia image of her as a teen magically transforming. I imagined the fear and confusion in her expression melting away, as she emerged strong and confident and even a little bit fierce. In the days since the Summit, I picture her joining with other survivors and activists from all over the world. Instead of wilting, they'll bloom. Instead of whispering, they'll roar.