Earlier this month, amidst the COVID-19 pandemic, legislators in Kentucky passed a comprehensive ban against female genital mutilation (FGM) that supports survivors, educates professionals and communities, and criminalizes the practice. The legislative process began 13 months ago when Jenny, a courageous FGM survivor, came forward with her story and asked AHA Foundation to help her make a change in her home state. Jenny’s testimony was so moving, that the law was passed with unanimous support.
After hearing this great news, we reached out to Jenny to congratulate her on this victory and asked her to look back at her experience as a survivor turned advocate. You can read her answers to our questions below. You can find her story about undergoing FGM, published on our blog site last year, here. Both blogs have been edited for clarification and length.
AHA Foundation: What was it like to share about your story of undergoing FGM with legislators during the testimony? What kind of questions did they ask?
Jenny: It is difficult, to sum up, what this experience has been like, to advocate for a law by sharing a deeply personal story. I told a friend it felt a little bit like I was taking my clothes off in a roomful of strangers every time I told my story. At the same time, each time I told my story I found courage within myself I didn’t feel like I had, I found more healing. I knew that no matter the outcome of sharing my story, I found the greatest gifts in the process—my voice and healing.
For the most part, the responses I got from legislators were both positive and supportive. There were a few that wondered if FGM was a religious practice, or if my parents were part of a small religious sect that required it, and questioned how many others may be affected like me. I was also questioned a couple of times whether my story was true, I was even asked for proof. This was hard for me at first because it was a real risk for me to speak out. I knew they didn’t understand what risks I was taking each time I told my story, the battles I still had to fight outside those four walls I was sharing my story in. I understood it is hard for humans to look something in the face and accept it could happen to someone they love too.
A lot like this virus, we have all had to accept that FGM does not distinguish between age, races, locations, or socioeconomic classes, it is something that can hurt us or someone we love. When I told my story, I knew for most Americans, I was taking away the comfort of thinking FGM only happens in other countries, cultures, and certain religions.
I was in awe of the work the legislators do, the process that is taken for something to become a law. I never imagined the legislators would unanimously vote to ban FGM in Kentucky. I sent over 100 letters of support for this law, and even after the law was passed, I received emails from legislators thanking me for sharing my story. I was so honored they would take the time to write to me in the midst of everything happening in the world right now.
AHA Foundation: How did you work up the courage to speak out and testify? That must have been a nerve-wracking journey.
Jenny: I never once felt courageous or brave. I felt a responsibility. With knowledge, comes responsibility. I knew the truth about the practice of FGM, I knew how it feels to suffer the pain in silence, I knew the federal law was not enough on its own to protect not only my girls but any other little girl. I knew right here at home, in Kentucky, we didn’t have a law, and I felt that if I continued to remain silent, I was in a way saying that the practice was okay. I knew my God was wanting me to stand up and talk for those that can’t yet or may never be able to. Sometimes we have to do things that are uncomfortable for the greater good of others.
AHA Foundation: You worked closely with Senator Julie Raque Adams who sponsored the anti-FGM legislation. Tell us how that relationship started?
Jenny: Senator Julie Raque Adams was one of the first people I shared my story with when this process started. We met in her office while the legislature was not in session, so she came in dressed casually, with her dog in tow. Something about her presence just put me at ease and made me immediately feel comfortable.
After sharing my story with her, she offered to sponsor the bill. At that moment, which I never expected, she affirmed my story, she gave me a purpose for what happened to me and created the beginning of this incredible road of healing I’ve been on. She is one of the most hard-working people I have ever met, she is an amazing person who is really out there fighting for the people in her state. I will always be grateful to her for that day and for the work she put into passing an FGM law in Kentucky.
AHA Foundation: How did you feel after hearing the law had passed?
Jenny: This is a hard one for me to answer because I had a lot of mixed feelings. I was absolutely excited and so relieved to hear the law had passed. It was something I thought might not happen this year, due to the virus outbreak, and I was preparing to accept it might have to be talked about again next year. I was shocked when I heard it passed. I felt such gratitude for the legislators considering the bill important enough to push through in spite of the pressing things that we’re facing them due to the virus and limits on their being able to be in session.
I also felt some grief for those I wished could have been there with me sharing in that victory. I have felt like I have had chains wrapped around me my whole life, the chains that bind you in a secret pain no one sees because of the silence, and through Kentucky passing the law, my chains are broken and I feel free.
AHA Foundation: Have you thought about carrying on your work in the other states without laws?
Jenny: One of my first thoughts, after hearing about an anti-FGM law passing in Kentucky was, 12 more to go! While I am so thankful to have a law in my home state, I don’t think my work with fighting FGM is finished. There needs to be a law in every state for a little girl to be safe.
Passing laws is just the first step in ending FGM. There is still so much education that needs to take place for professionals that might encounter a girl at risk or someone that has endured the practice of FGM. The world is consumed by the coronavirus, which is understandable, but like so many other abuses people endure, somewhere in this country a little girl is being cut, as we watch the news. This would be a high-risk time for some girls because it is like a school holiday when often the risk is greatest for girls from families that believe in this practice. I have had sleepless nights thinking about the girls suffering in silence, even as I write this.
Although we have to adapt our approach, we are blessed to be in a world full of technology, with so many ways to connect during this pandemic. I hope to still be able to share my story, talk with legislators, and educate professionals through the use of technology during this time. I am willing to write thousands of letters if that is what it takes!
During this crisis the world is facing, I have been struck by how small it makes the world, how we are all going through the same things, and having to work together to support and protect each other. Fighting FGM should be no different, regardless of where we are from, the color of our skin, what we believe, if we were cut, how we were cut, why we were cut, what we call the practice, the impact it had on our lives…we all have to keep working together to support and protect those still at risk.
AHA Foundation: What would you tell legislators in other states lacking FGM laws?
Jenny: Until there is a law in every state, sadly no little girl is completely safe. Until some kind of deterrent is in place in each state, a message is being given to those that believe in this practice, that your state is a safe place to bring a little girl to for the purpose of being cut. You are giving the unspoken message that you believe removing a little girl’s genitals is not wrong. When there is no law, power is given to those that believe in the practice. Every state must stop viewing this issue as something that touches only certain groups of people, those counted in statistics or those shown in pictures related to this issue.
The truth is, the silence and shame that surrounds this practice, keeps hidden those that are really affected. Just like the pandemic we have all been fighting, FGM can happen to any little girl. Every state has a responsibility to protect every girl in this country.