Cover of “Behind Closed Doors: Exposing and Addressing Harmful Gender-Based Practices in the United States”. Credit: Population Institute - Photo: 2024

Abusive Gender Practices “Tragically Embedded” in American Life

By Thalif Deen

UNITED NATIONS | 5 April 2024 (IDN) — The United Nations has continued a longstanding campaign against female genital mutilation (FGM) and child marriages, both still prevalent, mostly in Africa, Asia and the Middle East.

According to the UN children’s agency UNICEF, FGM refers to “all procedures involving partial or total removal of the female external genitalia or other injury to the female genital organs for non-medical reasons”.

Described as a violation of girls’ and women’s human rights, over 230 million girls and women worldwide have been subjected to FGM.

Africa accounts for the largest share of this total, with over 144 million. Asia follows with over 80 million, and a further 6 million are in the Middle East.

Another 1-2 million are affected in small practising communities and destination countries for migration in the rest of the world.

The practice is described as “universal” in Somalia, Guinea and Djibouti, with 90 percent or higher, while it affects about one percent of girls and women in Cameroon and Uganda.

But a new report from the Washington-based Population Institute (PI) points out the prevalence of FGM, child marriages and femicide in the United States, and its widespread harmful gender-based practices.

In a new study released April 3, the Population Institute, a nonprofit which advocates for gender equality and sexual and reproductive health, says while few Americans realize these practices exist here, through meticulous research and analysis, the report, entitled “Behind Closed Doors: Exposing and Addressing Harmful Gender-Based Practices in the United States,” sheds light on their hidden prevalence and deep roots in American culture.

“To cast these gender-based harms as outside problems only is rooted in misguided American exceptionalism,” says report author Maniza Habib, research associate with the Population Institute.

A wake-up call

“This a major disservice to the countless individuals within our own communities who need support. ‘Behind Closed Doors’ is a wake-up call, urging us to confront the uncomfortable truth that harmful gender-based practices are a problem that involves us and our communities,” she argued.

They aren’t “foreign” problems; harmful, abusive gender practices are tragically embedded in American life, the report shows. They occur “behind closed doors,” but on a surprisingly large scale, and demand recognition and redress.

For example:

  • The U.S. positions itself as a leader in combatting FGM/C abroad, yet more than 500,000 women and girls in the U.S. are at risk or have already undergone FGM/C.
  • An estimated 300,000 minors in the U.S. were married between 2000 and 2018, the vast majority underage girls.
  • The U.S. has one of the highest rates of femicide among high-income countries, 2.2 per 100,000 women. Women in the U.S. are 28 times more likely to be intentionally murdered by guns than women in peer countries.

The report is designed to help bring these issues out of the shadows and give U.S. policymakers and communities tools to address them. It comes at a time when a national conversation about them is getting underway, says PI.

April is national Sexual Assault Awareness and Prevention Month. But courts and lawmakers are only just beginning to grapple with them, often ineffectively.

The Washington state and  Virginia state legislatures just passed laws setting the minimum marriage age, though it’s unclear whether Governor Youngkin will sign Virginia’s new law.

Nine states and Washington D.C. still do not have any laws against FGM/C

They were only the 11th and 12th states to pass such laws, an indicator of how embedded the practice of child marriage is in the U.S.

A decision is pending from the U.S. Supreme Court in United States v. Rahimi, a landmark gun law case that stands to greatly exacerbate the already high risk of femicide by loosening a loophole that would allow people under domestic violence restraining orders to obtain guns, on the theory that depriving them of gun rights violates the Second Amendment.

That the Court would even consider such a question indicates how embedded femicide and the attitudes behind it are in the U.S.

Nine states and Washington D.C. still do not have any laws against FGM/C, according to the report, and of those that do, many lack provisions that fully protect those who are vulnerable and fail to inform communities about the harms of the practice.

No states have laws against virginity testing, yet there have been reports of U.S. physicians receiving requests for virginity tests, including before a forced marriage.

Studies show gender-based harms disproportionately impact the LGBTQI+ community. The report highlights that at least 510 anti-LGBTQI+ bills were introduced across the United States in 2023, which stand to make the problem even worse, and indicate how far U.S. policy has to go to redress it.

Gender-based harms are an urgent social problem in the U.S, the report finds. Their lasting physical, emotional, social, and economic effects demand more community investment, advocacy work, and survivor-led initiatives.

The report also emphasizes the importance of a non-judgmental, non-stigmatizing attitude and calls for policymakers to approach gender-based harms with solidarity, humility, and empathy, both in international discussions, and in addressing them as urgent domestic issues in the U.S., seeking culturally competent solutions to build a society that respects the bodily autonomy, rights, and dignity of all individuals.

“By fostering global awareness, advocating for change, and building alliances across borders, rather than stereotyping gender-based harm as a ‘foreign’ problem, U.S. policymakers, practitioners, and communities can better contribute to dismantling oppressive structures and fostering a future where every individual is free from discrimination and gender-based harm,” the report states. [IDN-InDepthNews]

Photo: Cover of “Behind Closed Doors: Exposing and Addressing Harmful Gender-Based Practices in the United States”. Credit: Population Institute

IDN is the flagship agency of the Non-profit International Press Syndicate.

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