“It is what my Grandmother called the three feminine sorrows: The day of circumcision, the wedding night, and the birth of a baby.” – A Somali poem

Picture yourself as a young teenager, maybe thirteen at most. Perhaps you are getting your first period, you are experiencing the beginnings of womanhood. But then all of that is taken away and replaced with sheer pain and trauma. Your legs are being forced open and the most vulnerable and private part of your body is being mutilated and closed off for no reason other than to appease patriarchal ideals of women and virginity.

Female genital cutting includes procedures that intentionally alter or cause injury to the female genital organs for non-medical reasons. It is most often carried out on females between 0 and 15 years old. Anesthetic is not used during or after the procedure. In takes place in many countries in Africa, Asia, New Zealand, and the Middle East. It is carried out despite the trauma, risk factors, and pain that it causes. It is both a global and inter-generational issue.

Over 200 million women alive today have suffered through FGC. Three million are expected to be cut this year alone. It was estimated in 2013 that 91 percent of women and girls between the ages of 15-49 in Egypt had gone through FGC in their life.

Where there are strong beliefs about what is considered acceptable sexual behavior, FGC aims to ensure premarital virginity and marital fidelity. It is in many communities believed to reduce a woman’s libido and therefore believed to help her resist extramarital sexual acts. Many places uphold ideals of femininity and modesty, which include the idea that girls are clean and beautiful after the removal of body parts that are considered unclean and unfeminine.

As a result of the plethora of issues attached to FGC, focus groups were held in March, 2017. There were three focus group sessions of refugee clients who were from practicing or previously practicing cultures. Different age groups were represented from Somalia, Eritrea, and Ethiopia. Lively discussions were held centered on questions about what kind of interest was there among the communities to participate, what people’s concerns were, what new conversations have started surrounding the issue, and what resettlement programs are going to do going forward.

In regards to concerns, some participants shared heart breaking stories of their experiences with health care providers who were not aware of FGC. One participant shared how her first visit to an OB/GYN doctor in a hospital shocked the doctor, who then invited fellow doctors and interns to look at her genitals. The participant stated that she was very embarrassed as a result, and thought that if the doctor had been aware of FGC then he would not have embarrassed her in that way. To think that after all the trauma this woman had already been through, that this doctor would add to that, is disheartening and wrong. Situations like that one have happened to countless women.

These conversations and sharing of personal stories sparked many ideas and proposals for what can be done. That goal being to develop factual, meaningful, and user friendly resources on FGC that are well informed by communities and tailored to specific audiences, like medical professionals. These educational resources were the main desire of women in attendance. For doctors that were not educated, many of the women wanted to have a written description of what occurred and what the cultural reasoning was for FGC, so that they would not have to relive the trauma of FGC in explaining it. The women also wanted parenting support, nutritional aid, and mental health support during the adjustment period in the United States. We have started facilitating parenting, nutritional and hygiene support groups for these women and other refugee clients in the community who have expressed interest through various in house programs in our agency. For example, our Social Adjustment Services program began holding parenting and hygiene support groups for clients needing these types of services.

USCCB/MRS believes that, with well-developed resources combined with the trusted relationship these organizations have with refugee communities, FGC could be properly and sensitively addressed with refugee communities to work towards elimination of FGC. Better care could then be given to women who have already gone through the procedure, because health care professionals could be better informed on the issue. Many sites in the US have agreed to contribute to this project, including San Antonio. These sites, with their efforts, including conversation with refugee communities directly, will provide facts and material that can be used for creating resources.

The women are still talking about the convention and many were pleasantly surprised that this was becoming a broader issue that so many people wanted to be addressed in America. Thanks to the hard work of different communities and survivors of FGC, and their continued efforts in promoting conversation and advocating for women’s sexual rights, there is hope for change. The women in attendance were all passionate to help make change happen. They do not want to keep quiet on this issue nor should they.

For more information on FGC, visit: https://brycs.org/clearinghouse/highlighted-resources-on-female-genital-cutting.cfm

This month’s guest blogger: Juliana Horn, Non-Projected Arrivals/Extended Care Services Director, Catholic Charities Archdiocese of San Antonio