Remarks at the Civil Society Summit on Female Genital Mutilation/Cutting (FGM/C)

Catherine M. Russell
Ambassador-at-Large for Global Women's Issues 
The U.S. Institute of Peace
Washington, DC
December 2, 2016

As prepared

Thank you, Nancy, for that kind introduction and for hosting this event today. The State Department could not have asked for a better neighbor. The leadership that you and the Institute bring to countless issues concerning U.S. foreign policy is truly invaluable. I’d also like to recognize the organizers, particularly Shelby and Jaha. It’s almost hard to believe that this is the very first U.S. civil society summit to end FGM/C. Because after all—and I’m going to borrow a sentiment from the Prime Minster of Canada here—it’s 2016. We need to be on top of this issue, and the many others that hold back progress on gender equality.

The fact that this is the first summit of its kind speaks to some of the challenges we face in tackling FGM/C. In the communities where this problem occurs around the world, the silence is too often deafening, as I’ve seen first hand in many of the countries I’ve visited these past three years. And this group knows better than most how difficult it is to break that silence.

Yet, we have seen progress. And that is because of people like Jaha and Shelby, and people like you. So on behalf of the United States, I’d like to thank the many groups, particularly the survivors, who have worked tirelessly to end the practice, both here and around the world.

I’m here today to say one thing—and that’s keep it up. You are making a tremendous difference through your work. Policymakers are paying attention. Other survivors are finding the support and the community they need. And the silence is slowly receding and we are hearing their voices. It’s receding in Egypt, where local theater performances are using humor to spark conversations among families. It’s receding in Indonesia, where universities are researching the practice to make policy recommendations. It’s receding in Bohra communities in India and around the world because groups like

Sahiyo are giving people a platform to speak out. And it’s receding here in the United States, thanks in no small part to leaders like Senator Reid and others in Congress.

But we know that while the silence may be receding, the practice itself is not. In the past year, UNICEF’s estimate of how many women and girls have undergone this practice jumped by 70 million to 200 million. And that news comes despite the documented declines in high-prevalence countries like Egypt. So we are up against population growth and other factors that are increasing the number of women and girls are at risk. That’s the sort of sobering reality that should give everyone a sense of urgency for our work.The UNICEF report also changed the map. We are no longer talking about a handful of regions—we’re talking about countries on almost every continent, including the United States.

Now more than ever, this is an issue that needs our attention. That’s why the United States has made it a part of our foreign policy and it’s also why we are proud to be part of the global movement to prevent and respond to FGM/C. Of course, we are deeply committed to the Sustainable Development Goals, including the targets on FGM/C. And our policy framework is strong. The U.S. strategy on gender-based violence that President Obama launched in 2012 makes clear that FGM/C is a harmful practice that requires a multi-sector response—one that includes community-led responses, a change in social norms, and political commitment. FGM/C is also addressed in the first-ever U.S. strategy on adolescent girls. And the State Department has made ending harmful practices like FGM/C one of our three key objectives in implementing that strategy.

I realize that strategies may not sound very exciting, but I want to underscore that the foundation for this work going forward is very strong. While my time in this job ends in seven weeks, the focus on this issue will continue. Because the scaffolding for that work is in place. The policies I just mentioned form the foundation. And around the world, we’ve built on that foundation through diplomacy, through programming, and through partnership.

Let me highlight just a few examples. My colleague Arsalan Suleman, who serves as the U.S. Special Envoy to the Organization of Islamic Cooperation, has helped lead the State Department’s efforts to engage religious leaders on this issue, which is critical. And two years ago, my office launched a social media campaign on the International Day for Zero Tolerance. That was our first-ever online campaign, and I’m proud to say it was not the last. Since then, we’ve included FGM/C in broader online campaigns. It was a part of our #DadsAndDaughters campaign last month, when we focused on how fathers can advance gender equality in their personal lives. And it’s a part of our social media campaign for the 16 Days of Activism, going on now. These campaigns are important because they bring the practice into the open.

On the program side, the most exciting thing we’ve done to date has been a program in Guinea, where U.S. diplomats led a national campaign to end the practice. More than 200 villages banned FGM/C thanks to this campaign. While the U.S. will take some credit for that, we certainly did not do it alone. It’s my view that the campaign was successful because we had such a tremendous group of partners—from the government of Guinea, to local and international groups, to young women and community leaders. Last month, Secretary Kerry announced that the State Department will dedicate more than a half million dollars to build on our success in Guinea. We will partner with organizations on the ground to support survivor-centered approaches to end FGM/C in West Africa and Southeast Asia.

So our work will continue. Our commitment will continue. But what will also continue is the critical need for survivors, advocates, and organizations to push for progress, and to speak out for action. Some of you may know that I worked with then-Senator Biden when he did the Violence Against Women Act back in the 90s. At the time, domestic violence was viewed in a very different way than it is today. Many people thought of it as a family matter, rather than as a crime. Senator Biden would tell a story. If the police responded to a domestic disturbance, they would tell the husband to take a walk around the block. And then they would pull the woman aside and ask her, do you really want to send him to jail? Do you really want to do that to your family?

Today, that is no longer the case. While we are far from perfect on this issue, we have made tremendous progress in changing the way people view domestic violence. That’s our goal for FGM/C as well. There’s no doubt that social change is badly needed. And while it will take time—certainly more time than any of us would like—it is possible. As the great Dr. King said, the arc of the moral universe is long. But it bends toward justice.

That bend does not happen on its own. It happens because of people like each and every one of you. So keep pushing. Keep playing the long game. Think of the girls who will face this horrible practice every single day. Keep standing up for survivors and for those who are at risk. You can be the reason that change becomes reality, and FGM/C becomes history.

Thank you.