In April 2019, the Department of Justice dropped its effort to restore the federal ban on Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) after a federal judge ruled the existing legislation was unconstitutional in late 2018. As a survivor of FGM who later became the State Department’s lead policy adviser on this issue, DOJ’s decision to drop the appeal was both a personal and professional blow. It sent a message to counterparts around the world that the United States had abdicated leadership on a human rights abuse affecting 200 million women and girls globally, including an estimated half a million who had either undergone, or are at risk of being subjected to, FGM within the United States. Meanwhile, last summer, the State Department celebrated Sudan finally criminalizing FGM. This foreign policy position highlighted the stark gap in U.S. domestic policy and the rhetoric it uses for foreign audiences.
After advocates pushed for a new statute, Congress restored the federal ban on FGM earlier this year by strengthening language on the commerce clause. Yet, the United States is still recovering from the damage to its reputational credibility both at home and abroad. The disconnect on domestic and global FGM policy is emblematic of a broader dynamic: a pattern where the United States defends human rights abroad, yet fails to live up to some of these same standards within its own borders. During last summer’s reckoning on race, this was painfully acute when protests erupted outside U.S. embassies around the world condemning anti-Black racism and police brutality even as U.S. foreign policy continued to call for freedom, democracy, and human rights globally.
With the Biden administration saying it will lead by the power of example and that it’s committed to bridging this disconnect between domestic and foreign policy, the United States has a once-in-a-generation opportunity to get this right.
Here are three ways it can better harmonize domestic and global human rights policy when it comes to violence against women, but also more generally:
1) Create bureaucratic structures that foster interagency collaboration:
The more interagency collaboration — bridging the domestic and global — the better. When I served in the secretary’s Office of Global Women’s Issues at the Department of State, we did this well. In 2016, I co-led an interagency task force on FGM with a counterpart in the Department of Justice. It included a mix of domestic and foreign affairs agencies. We met regularly and, given the transnational nature of the issue, where girls are often sent abroad to be cut, we were able to come up with unified, interagency language reframing FGM as a human rights issue and form of child abuse.
Similar interagency task forces could be created on other transnational human rights issues where there are demonstrated overlaps in domestic and foreign policy, but also gaps in our domestic and global policy records. For example, given the rise in white supremacy within the United States’ borders and globally, a task force that transcends agencies could promote information-sharing, coordination, the development of a common language, and a more unified policy voice on the issue. The more diverse agency voices at the table, the less prone to groupthink and more multidimensional policies can become. Building more structures that incentivize interagency collaboration can only strengthen U.S. advancement of human rights and collective security.
2) Encourage greater data transparency and independent audits:
As the United States advocates for more inclusive data collection in multilateral settings, it should do the same domestically. By investing in data and research, the United States can better estimate the costs to our security and prosperity. In the context of FGM, for example, the World Health Organization estimates the cost of treating the health impacts of FGM to be $1.4 billion annually. The latest Centers for Disease Control estimate of 513,000 women and girls having undergone FGM in the United States or being at risk of being subjected to the practice dates back to 2016. The last study before that was from 1997.
If the U.S. government is to lead global conversations to end FGM or effectively address any other human rights issue, it should invest in regularized data collection and audits that are transparent and publicly available so that it can better understand the scope of the problem and study interventions that work.
3) Reframe domestic human rights policy as a national security issue:
When the United States fails to “walk the walk” on domestic human rights issues, it loses reputational capital and moral authority. In the context of FGM, when the U.S. had no federal statute, it was unable to make a compelling case to other countries to enact legislative bans of their own.
The U.S. failure to address domestic human rights issues can also put national security at risk. Since the Cold War, the Russians have exploited the U.S. record on racial injustice — from the brutality of Jim Crow segregation in the 1960s to last summer’s wave of protests sparked by the killings of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, and Breonna Taylor. In the 2016 election, there was also saw evidence of foreign actors using racial injustice to drive a wedge between, and further polarize, domestic audiences.
When the United States meaningfully addresses domestic human rights issues, it is also much easier for U.S. diplomats, particularly those stationed overseas, to make a more credible case for why a world order made up of democracies — where everyone can equitably participate and have their basic rights and freedoms safeguarded — is a shared interest.
Against the backdrop of a once-in-a-century global crisis — a pandemic that has exposed deep-rooted systemic injustices at home and abroad — there is no better time to merge U.S. domestic and global human rights policies into a unified voice. The current administration’s high-level commitments to lead by the power of our example, coupled with structural interventions that can help break down agency silos and foster collaboration, signal that the country is moving toward a more coherent human rights policy that more effectively advances the nation’s security interests.
The views expressed were written in the author’s personal capacity and do not necessarily represent the U.S. Department of State or any of the author’s other institutional affiliations.
Image: This photo taken in March 2019 shows the author with a group of activists from the Dawoodi Bohra community at a retreat in New York organized by Sahiyo, a transnational advocacy group fighting to end violence against women and girls in the United States and South Asia. Photo: Sahiyo U.S.