New Report Exposes Surprising Prevalence of Femicide, Child Marriage, and Female Genital Mutilation in the U.S.

April Is National Sexual Assault Awareness and Prevention Month, But Slow Progress on State Laws, and Pending SCOTUS Decision on People Under Domestic Violence Restraining Orders Owning Guns, Indicate U.S. Gender-Based Harms Go Underrecognized

Today, the Population Institute, a nonprofit which advocates for gender equality and sexual and reproductive health, released a report on widespread harmful gender-based practices in the U.S., including female genital mutilation/cutting (FGM/C), child marriage, and femicide.

While few Americans realize these practices exist here, through meticulous research and analysis, the report, entitled “Behind Closed Doors: Exposing and Addressing Harmful Gender-Based Practices in the United States,” sheds light on their hidden prevalence and deep roots in American culture. They aren’t “foreign” problems; harmful, abusive gender practices are tragically embedded in American life, the report shows. They occur “behind closed doors,” but on a surprisingly large scale, and demand recognition and redress. For example:

  • The U.S. positions itself as a leader in combatting FGM/C abroad, yet more than 500,000 women and girls in the U.S. are at risk or have already undergone FGM/C.
  • An estimated 300,000 minors in the U.S. were married between 2000 and 2018, the vast majority underage girls.
  • The U.S. has one of the highest rates of femicide among high-income countries, 2.2 per 100,000 women. Women in the U.S. are 28 times more likely to be intentionally murdered by guns than women in peer countries.

The report is designed to help bring these issues out of the shadows and give U.S. policymakers and communities tools to address them. It comes at a time when a national conversation about them is getting underway. April is national Sexual Assault Awareness and Prevention Month. But courts and lawmakers are only just beginning to grapple with them, often ineffectively.

The Washington state and Virginia state legislatures just passed laws setting the minimum marriage age, though it’s unclear whether Governor Youngkin will sign Virginia’s new law. They were only the 11th and 12th states to pass such laws, an indicator of how embedded the practice of child marriage is in the U.S.

A decision is pending from the U.S. Supreme Court in United States v. Rahimi, a landmark gun law case that stands to greatly exacerbate the already high risk of femicide by loosening a loophole that would allow people under domestic violence restraining orders to obtain guns, on the theory that depriving them of gun rights violates the Second Amendment. That the Court would even consider such a question indicates how embedded femicide and the attitudes behind it are in the U.S.

Nine states and Washington D.C. still do not have any laws against FGM/C, according to the report, and of those that do, many lack provisions that fully protect those who are vulnerable and fail to inform communities about the harms of the practice. No states have laws against virginity testing, yet there have been reports of U.S. physicians receiving requests for virginity tests, including before a forced marriage.

Studies show gender-based harms disproportionately impact the LGBTQI+ community. The report highlights that at least 510 anti-LGBTQI+ bills were introduced across the United States in 2023, which stand to make the problem even worse, and indicate how far U.S. policy has to go to redress it.

Gender-based harms are an urgent social problem in the U.S, the report finds. Their lasting physical, emotional, social, and economic effects demand more community investment, advocacy work, and survivor-led initiatives. The report emphasizes the importance of a non-judgmental, non-stigmatizing attitude and calls for policymakers to approach gender-based harms with solidarity, humility, and empathy, both in international discussions, and in addressing them as urgent domestic issues in the U.S., seeking culturally competent solutions to build a society that respects the bodily autonomy, rights, and dignity of all individuals.

“By fostering global awareness, advocating for change, and building alliances across borders, rather than stereotyping gender-based harm as a ‘foreign’ problem, U.S. policymakers, practitioners, and communities can better contribute to dismantling oppressive structures and fostering a future where every individual is free from discrimination and gender-based harm,” the report states.

“To cast these gender-based harms as outside problems only is rooted in misguided American exceptionalism,” says report author Maniza Habib, research associate with the Population Institute. “This a major disservice to the countless individuals within our own communities who need support. ‘Behind Closed Doors’ is a wake-up call, urging us to confront the uncomfortable truth that harmful gender-based practices are a problem that involves us and our communities.”