The New York Coalition to End Female Genital Mutilation hosted the inaugural V-March on Saturday to call on city agencies to organize a coordinated response to end female genital mutilation (FGM).
The V-March, a celebration of women's "voices, victories and vitality," began at City Hall with opening remarks by Councilwoman Alicka Ampry-Samuels, sponsor of the march. A procession of 15-20 volunteers then trekked to Prospect Park, brandishing anti-FGM signs and chanting, "Liberate her!" The group assembled at Prospect Park's Concert Grove, where V-March co-organizer Kimberly Knox hosted a series of performances.
Although commonly considered non-prevalent in the US, half a million women and girls are at risk of experiencing FGM, 65,000 of whom reside in New York City, according to the coalition.
In NYC, most FGM adherents are from East-African, Sub-Saharan African or South Asian immigrant communities, where the practice is considered a rite of passage for girls entering womanhood. Others justify it as a religious tenet despite no supporting liturgy, said Natasha Johnson, the brains behind the V-March. Johnson is an attorney specializing in immigrant's rights and domestic abuse cases, and founder of the nonprofit Globalizing Gender, which advocates against gender-based violence.
"FGM can seem like a really exclusive issue," she said. "But the reality is that it's an issue of women's rights, mental health and public health."
Johnson has collaborated with city agencies such as the New York City Mayor's Office to End Domestic and Gender-Based Violence and the office of District Attorney Eric Gonzalez to educate doctors, first responders and even schoolteachers to establish a referral pipeline so victims can get counseling, medical care or legal representation.
"We're doing a lot of partnerships with schools because teachers are some of the people who see this firsthand," Johnson explained. "They might see that their student was super happy right before the school break and they return completely changed."
Known as "vacation cutting," US-born girls, often without any forewarning, are sent away during the winter or summer breaks to their home countries to be cut. In other cases, communities will pool money to fly in a professional cutter from overseas to cut several girls at one time.
In 2003, Johnson established the first legal services program for sub-Saharan Africans experiencing domestic violence under the nonprofit Sanctuary for Families.
"My clients shared their daughters were either being cut or threatened to be cut, mostly for working with me to get their domestic violence cases adjudicated," Johnson said, referencing cases where a violent husband would retaliate against his spouse for bringing domestic abuse charges against him by threatening to subject their daughters to FGM..
"Most of my clients didn't want their daughters to be cut, even if they had been cut," she added
The turnout at Prospect Park was small on that unseasonably frigid morning, but Johnson understands that gathering momentum takes time.
"There were lots of curious faces. I could see people Googling to figure out what FGM was, and that is a start," she said. "We had a police escort, so people paid attention, were reading our signs and cheering us on."
Through her production company UBIQUITA Worldwide, Knox is working with UK-based filmmaker Maleena Pone on a documentary about Johnson's activism and the issue of FGM worldwide.
"The movie is about Natasha since she's spearheading the first march of this kind here in NYC, which is a great opening point to explore the issue," she explained.
The FBI is investing leads on the illegal practice of female genital mutilation. Victims and community members with relevant information can submit tips anonymously by calling 1-800-CALL-FBI or online via www.fbi.gov/fgm.