On April 11, 2018, the Hoover Institution hosted a panel on female genital mutilation featuring Mary Wambui, the founder and director of Shelter Children’s Rehabilitation Center in Ngong, Kenya, along with Research Fellow Ayaan Hirsi Ali.
Titled “The Human Rights Violation of Women that Rarely Gets Discussed,” the event illuminated not only the great harm caused by female genital mutilation but also its shocking extent. The discussion drew on the experience of Wambui and Hirsi Ali not only as advocates against the practice, but as victims of female genital mutilation themselves.
The event was organized by Christie Skinner-Gilligan, wife of Hoover director Tom Gilligan, who has been a longtime friend and supporter of Wambui after meeting her during a mission trip to Kenya. Skinner-Gilligan invited Wambui to visit Hoover following a presentation on female genital mutilation before the UN Commission on the Status of Women.
The discussion was moderated by Hoover research fellow Alice Hill, formerly senior counselor to the secretary of the Department of Homeland Security and founder of the internationally recognized Blue Campaign to combat human trafficking.
“Congress came to agreement that female genital mutilation was wrong and should be criminalized in 1996,” explained Hill. “Unfortunately we have had very few prosecutions under that law.”
Despite measures to outlaw and condemn the practice at the federal, state, and international levels, female genital mutilation remains widespread. Hill cited estimates that more than 3,000,000 women are subjected to it each year around the world, with more than 500,000 total victims in the United States.
“Where I come from it’s not considered mutilation, it’s considered to be a purification,” said Hirsi Ali, who was raised in Somalia but later fled to the Netherlands to escape a forced marriage. Eventually moving to the United States, she founded the AHA Foundation, which advocates for the protection of women from female genital mutilation and other practices that infringe on human rights.
The way female genital mutilation is performed and the age at which girls are subjected to it differs among countries, regions, and groups, as does the role of religion versus culture in driving the practice. Hirsi Ali cited religion as the major factor in Somalia, while Wambui described culture as the most important factor in Kenya.
Compounded by religion, culture, and tradition, female genital mutilation does not lend itself to simple public policy solutions. By educating the public and international leaders about the brutality and extent of the practice, however, Hirsi Ali and Wambui hope to marshal the widespread resources needed to address this complex problem and protect women from being subjected to the same harm that they experienced as young girls.