By Stephanie Mulhern Ogorzalek
Two Williamsville South High School graduates. Three decades apart. One shared career path in Washington.
In July, Susan Masling (Class of 1975) and I (Class of 2007) traveled to Egypt to discuss with the government the issue of female genital mutilation. Both Williamsville South (and Mill Middle) alums, we met as part of a U.S. government working group and luckily discovered our Williamsville connection.
As the Department of State’s senior policy adviser on gender-based violence in the Secretary’s Office of Global Women’s Issues, I lead our policy work to end female genital mutilation globally. Susan, a senior trial attorney in the Department of Justice’s Human Rights and Special Prosecutions section, works on female genital mutilation in the United States.
Female genital mutilation refers to the partial or total removal of or injury to genitalia for non-medical reasons. According to UNICEF, 200 million women and girls in more than 30 countries (including the United States) are survivors of the practice. It is justified by certain communities where it is prevalent to ensure that girls are socially accepted and marriageable, and to uphold their status and honor.
Yet governments and international treaties and conventions widely recognize female genital mutilation as a human rights abuse. In the United States, a federal law prohibits both the practice and sending girls outside the country to be cut, and 35 states have passed laws criminalizing it. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that more than 500,000 women and girls in the U.S. have been cut or are at risk. New York State has 48,000 at-risk women and girls – the second largest population in the U.S.
In Egypt, nearly all girls are subjected to female genital mutilation. Egypt criminalized the practice in 2008 and strengthened legislation in 2016 to increase penalties. To date, however, few perpetrators have been held accountable and more women have been cut in Egypt than in any other country.
Egypt is taking new steps to address this issue. In June, the government established a national task force to improve coordination, both internally and with religious leaders to reinforce the message that neither Islam nor Christianity condones the practice.
As for our shared Williamsville South and Buffalo heritage, we were shocked to discover we first learned about politics and government in the same classrooms. We don’t know exactly what led us down a similar career path, but we share a strong interest in justice and equality, public service, and Anderson’s custard.
Stephanie Mulhern Ogorzalek is a senior policy adviser in the U.S. State Department’s Office of Global Women’s Issues.