Skip to main content

Implementing Survivor-led FGM Law in Washington State

By Mel Bailey, Communications Officer N. America, Equality Now

In the United States over 513,000 women and girls are living with or at risk of undergoing female genital mutilation (FGM). This figure is expected to be even higher since testimonies of survivors have shown that FGM/C is also happening in other communities that are not covered by those statistics, such as those originating from a number of countries in Asia, the Middle East, and local Christian communities in the US. 

FGM is a traditional practice that involves the partial or total removal of the external female genitalia for non-medical reasons. It has no health benefits and can cause a range of long-term psychological and physical health problems, including severe pain and infection, emotional trauma, sexual dysfunction, reproductive health issues, and in some cases, death.

There is a federal law banning FGM, but due to capacity and reach, state laws are essential to provide protection for at-risk communities. 

Currently, 41 US States have laws against the practice, however, the level of protection available under these laws varies from state to state. For example, in some instances, certain laws use harmful language that targets vulnerable communities.

Equality Now supports comprehensive, holistic laws that promote the prevention of FGM and do not further marginalize vulnerable communities, which is why survivor-led legislation is so essential to eradicating the practice. 

On the one-year anniversary of the enactment of the FGM/C Bill in Washington State, one of the most progressive FGM bills in the United States, we sat down with Mariya Taher, the US Executive Director of Sahiyo, an international organization working to empower Asian and other communities to end female genital cutting (FGC)that is leading on the implementation of the Washington State Bill, about why implementation is so important and how other states can learn from Washington’s example.

Question: What is survivor-led legislation, and how can survivors be involved in policy change?

When we’re thinking about survivor-led legislation or survivor-led advocacy efforts what we’re really talking about is how to ensure that the voices of those impacted by FGM/C are in the room and are able to have input into the type of policy that is formed, and that happens in many different ways. 

In Washington State, an FGM/C survivor wanted to reach out to the state senator to learn more about FGM/C legislation. Once that happened, the State Senator was really open to the survivor coming forward and having an open dialogue about the issue. 

What we really need are state legislators who are open and willing to speak with the communities that are impacted by FGM/C, and in Washington State, we’re really lucky to have that in Senator Keiser. 

Once that happened, a Coalition of survivors, advocates, and organizations working on the issue had additional opportunities to meet with other legislators to share additional information about FGM/C. 

That ability to have those frank conversations and do presentations where we really educate legislators on this topic – and there are always many questions that come about – to fill in those gaps, tell them, what is FGM/C, who does it impact, where does it occur, explain the negative impacts on health, mental health, sexual health, reproductive health, and being able to have survivors speak about their own personal experiences, makes it all more concrete, it makes it all real because there are folks in their districts that are impacted by this. 

The Coalition met regularly and was able to determine who could provide a wide variety of testimony during these hearings. We had advocates, healthcare providers, survivors, and the general public as well. Having a variety of people who can speak on FGM/C really helps to build support, and help build the components of what is needed in a bill. 

The coalition was able to discuss the draft Bill and determine what elements they wanted in the Bill. It was really important for the Coalition to include education and outreach components, meaning that there were state agencies that were designated to carry out those activities. There were also victim service funds, criminalization, and civil remedies, which meant that if someone chooses to sue their cutter, they can.

Question: Once a bill is signed into law, how important is implementation?

Implementation is so important, and even though we always cite that 41 states have passed laws, very few have implemented that legislation, and even fewer have communications and outreach components. 

Washington State is really interesting because the law passed very quickly this time; it’s important to note that there have been past attempts to enact FGM/C legislation. This bill gave the Department of Health (DPH) a budget to conduct outreach and education activities, and from the very beginning, the Washington Coalition had a meeting with the DPH to establish that relationship. 

Once the Bill was signed, it was immediately enacted, and the first step was to reach out and connect with experts and those with lived experiences and have them help guide how to build the outreach components. They shared a request for proposals to build out this framework, and Sahiyo, The US End FGM/C Network, and Mother Africa, as part of the coalition, applied for and received a grant to begin implementation in March 2024. 

We are reaching out to a wide range of folks, from state agencies to healthcare to impacted communities, community-based organizations, and survivors, to talk about the work we’re trying to do and create advisory committees and really get their input around how to best work with healthcare providers and build education programs in the state. The organizations that came together have that expertise in terms of FGM/C, but Mother Africa has that local community outreach expertise, so a lot of this is making sure the communities are on board. 

This is a really unique opportunity to show how other states could potentially model this format for implementation.

Question: What can other states learn from Washington State?

The Washington State Bill was interesting because it was very survivor-led, as opposed to previously attempted bills in Washington State. This Bill was very community-focused compared to previous attempts when communities were not informed at all. 

In addition, any time there was even a minor change to the language, it was brought up to the coalition of survivors, and I feel that more states can learn from that process as well.

Question: For Advocates: What does winning really look like?

I do think it’s important to recognize those small successes because they’re actually very huge and they are going to impact future generations and other survivors. 

In short, recognize the baby steps along the way because social change can take a long time. It’s a long-term game, so celebrate those small steps. But, I don’t think there’s ever a time that you can sit back and say “It’s all done.” 

Question: What are the next steps?

Recognizing how important it is for citizens in a particular area to reach out to their legislators, regardless if you’re from an impacted community or a survivor, or directly connected to this issue, even others who just want to bring awareness, being able to contact your state representatives or state senators would be a great way to get involved because they do want to hear from you and they do keep track of that information and that helps if you are able to raise an issue or a bill, that shows there is support.

Want to know more about FGM in the US? Visit Equality Now’s state map to see if there are laws against the practice in your state, and write to your state representative about implementation measures.