Female Genital Mutilation in white, conservative America

Jenny, who underwent Female Genital Mutilation as a five-year-old in the United States

Born and raised in a conservative, white household in the United States, Jenny was five years old when her parents arranged for her and her sister to undergo Female Genital Mutilation (FGM), a harmful practice involving the partial or complete removal of external female genitalia for non-medical reasons.

The Center for Disease Control and Prevention estimates there are 513,000 women and girls in the United States who have experienced or are at risk of FGM. It is commonly viewed as something that happens amongst specific diaspora populations. Much less is known about FGM occurring in local, Christian communities.

Here Jenny shares her story in her own words:

“I grew up in mid-West America, in a conservative, Christian home. There was a lot of focus on making women be submissive. Men were the leader of the household and girls were taught it was our job was to serve them. I believe this was the way everyone believed.

We did whatever men told us to do, and as far as sex was concerned our job was to pleasure them. But sex for pleasure was wrong for women. It was a sin against God and if you said anything or talked about sex that was a sin.

I was five when I underwent Female Genital Mutilation. I was told that a lady I didn’t know was going to take my sisters and me on a special trip, we went on an airplane without my parents. The morning after I arrived I was laid down on a cold table. I had no idea what was going to happen and nobody explained anything to me.

They took off my panties and lifted my dress. I felt very exposed and bare. I began to fight and cry, someone held me down and covered my mouth and eyes with their hands. Then I felt the cold metal and the first cut. The pain in that moment was unbearable, no other pain in my life has ever compared.

When I woke up afterward, I was unable to move because my legs had been bound by rope. The rain was falling against the windowpane and I could see my doll and blood on the ground. I remember getting a fever, I couldn’t eat anything and was covered with a cold, wet cloth.

Gradually I got better and we were sent home. Our mom had made a cake, which was odd because she never normally made cakes. We were told we were celebrating our obedience to God. We were told it was something we could never talk about.

I remember my sister and I weeping in each other’s arms, knowing we had this terrible secret to keep.

Apart from that time, we never talked about being cut, and when I was growing up I thought it happened to all girls. It was only when I studied human anatomy in college that I realized I wasn’t like everyone else.

I tried to forget what had happened to me, to pretend everything was fine. But FGM has had a terrible impact on my body, it’s been a daily struggle with no reprieve, even the simplest things have felt like a battle.

Up until I had a hysterectomy, my periods were excruciating and I’d be in bed for a couple of days at a time. I’ve had numerous bladder and urinary tract infections, and sex was always, always painful.

As a child, I was taught that just thinking about things was sinful — never mind actually doing it — so even the idea of telling someone about what I’d been through was a sin that could send me to hell. I didn’t want to go against God’s will so it stopped me from seeking help.

It was the death of my sister a few years ago that motivated me to change my life. If she hadn’t passed away I don’t know if I would have ever ventured out. I felt devastated that I had lost the only person who really knew me, we were best friends and as long as we had one another it was ok. We understood what the other was going through without having to say anything.

For a long time after she died, I isolated myself. I’d always kept our family secrets but eventually, I realized I could only do it for so long. I started going outside my church to a new bible study group with women I didn’t know. That is when I discovered that what my parents had taught us was not the same thing every woman had been taught.

I got on well with one of the women and felt I could trust her. I started telling her about my own experiences and this opened the door to me asking lots of questions about what we had been told growing up.

It’s been a big journey, in the last three years I’ve realized that some of the things we were taught about religion were inaccurate.

Religion is a powerful thing. When you are taught to believe in an angry God, it is a very effective way to manipulate people, it’s crippling. It’s awful to use religion this way, and I can see this is happening all over the world.

“What people are being told is just not true, lies are being used as a way to oppress women and girls. God gives people free will, he doesn’t control us like puppets. My parents made choices and we were the victims.

When you find out the truth, you can’t go back. It’s been a battle because I am making changes. I am like, wait a minute, I want to do what normal women are doing. I want to be like everyone else, experience the same freedom. I want a voice, I haven’t had a voice my entire life.

In a way, my sister has saved my life through her death. I think if she was still here I never would have started asking questions. I would much rather she were alive but because of her death, I credit her with the path I am on now.

I’m sharing my story for my sister because I don’t want there to be anyone else suffering alone and in silence. And this is what inspired me to set up a petition to encourage Kentucky lawmakers to pass a law banning FGM in the state, as well as provide the resources needed to educate communities on this practice and provide survivors with the support services they need.

For parents who do not want to cut their daughters but are part of a community that endorses the practice, having a law that prohibits FGM will empower mothers and fathers to withstand social pressures and say no.

For people in other states, it will send an important message that Kentucky is not a “safe haven” where girls can be bought across state lines to be cut.

The law will also help raise public awareness, which is badly needed, and will encourage women and girls who’ve been cut to question what has been done to them and why.

Since I launched my petition, over 36,000 people have signed and I have been contacted by four other women that have had FGM in America, and one had her daughters cut. They are where I was a couple years ago, shocked to find this is not a normal practice for everyone and wondering what else they have been taught that is not true.

I think it is important for people to understand just because so few Americans have spoken up, it does not mean it is not happening here. There is such a silence that surrounds this practice, that until we are talking about it more, we are really never going to know the amount of girls in the US that have been affected. We have to remove the shame, make it a subject safe to talk about.

This is not a race, culture, religious, region or anything else kind of issue. It is a human issue, period.”

FGM is happening to women and girls in at least 92 countries

Jenny’s story is featured a new report, ‘Female Genital Mutilation/Cutting: A Call for a Global Response’, which brings together for the first time evidence that women and girls are being cut in at least 92 countries, a far greater number than has generally been acknowledged.

According to figures released by UNICEF from February 2020, at least 200 million women and girls have undergone FGM in 31 countries worldwide. This figure only includes states where there is available data from large-scale representative surveys, incorporating 27 countries from the African continent, together with Iraq, Yemen, the Maldives, and Indonesia.

The new report by US Network to End FGM/C, End FGM European Network, and Equality Now has identified at least 60 other countries where the practice of FGM has been documented either through indirect estimates, small-scale studies, anecdotal evidence, and media reports.

Jenny is one of the millions of women and girls around the world who have undergone FGM but are not being represented in global data, which at present is woefully underestimating the scale of the problem and the number of people needing support.

FGM occurs across cultural, religious, and socio-economic groups, and is not recommended in any religious texts. It is typically carried out on girls between infancy and age 18, with women occasionally subjected. While it is often done without anesthetic, it is increasingly happening in medical settings performed by healthcare professionals.

Although the type and justifications for FGM can vary somewhat within different cultures, it is deeply rooted in gender inequality and often is a reflection of the patriarchal desire to control the sexuality of women and girls.

The testimonies shared in the report by Jenny and other brave survivors demonstrate how women across the world are uniting in their commitment to end this harmful practice, irrespective of where it occurs. We owe it to survivors and those at risk to ensure that political commitments made by governments, including the USA, to end FGM are finally fulfilled.

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