Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) and the Information Age: How Much is Too Much?

By Erin Matson, NOW Action Vice President

Yesterday NOW issued an Action Alert asking you to urge your members of Congress to support the Girls Protection Act (H.R. 5137), which would make it a crime to transport girls outside the U.S. for the purpose of cutting their genitals. Illegal in this country, Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) is a horrific and brutal violation of human rights — cutting off all or some of a woman’s or girl’s genitals so as to make her “clean.”

Recently the American Academy of Pediatrics endorsed, and not-quickly-enough rescinded, the idea of a ritual “nick” to cut girls’ clitorises as a sort of “compromise” in order to allegedly reduce the harm of FGM. (These days, it seems the word “compromise” is being tossed around quite a bit by politicians and institutions to justify the ongoing infringement of human rights for those within historically disadvantaged groups.) Even the language of the dangerous nicking proposal suggested that girls could be “tapped” rather than having someone, typically a non-medical professional, forcibly hold their legs apart and gouge their genitals, often removing the ability for sexual pleasure and raising the risk of serious medical complication and even death.

In the course of writing our Action Alert, as well as our letter to the American Academy of Pediatrics, we deeply considered including photographs of FGM itself because this issue is not an abstract acronym but an extreme, violent, and unfortunately widespread, result of sexism against women around the world. It is not customary for us to include photographs with our alerts to the public, but we believe that the public, with fair warning, has a right to know what looking the other way can do to women and girls. After long discussion we ultimately decided to issue our Action Alert with text only, but the discussion itself brought up several interesting questions, including: What is the nature of consent to be photographed? Is there such a thing as consent to be photographed when a photograph has been taken during an act of violence against the person depicted? How do you balance the public’s right to know against an unknown individual whose face cannot be seen?

I’m writing this post because I urgently want you to write your members of Congress about the Girls Protection Act (see link below – please take action now), but I’m also curious: How do you answer these questions?

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