Mirabai Starr, a world renowned figure in intra-faith spirituality, recently asked me to guest lecture for one of her classes at the University of New Mexico.  The students ranged in age from barely out of high school to well past middle age.  The topic was modern ethics.

I began by asking their opinions about female genital mutilation.  The responses were unanimous:  it’s an archaic practice that should be banned immediately.  My next question was, “What would you tell a woman who can’t have a husband without having a clitorectomy?”  Their answers were more diverse, but centered around the theme that women don’t need men; they can be independent, happy and content in life without being married; women these days can even have a child without a husband.

I moved on to “What if a woman without a husband isn’t allowed to have a bank account, a driver’s license, or own a plot of land to grow food?”  They were irate, back to a unified response of, “That’s not fair!”  

Fair or not, it’s the way it is for many women in rural KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa.  They willing submit themselves and their daughters to this painful practice because it is their best choice; the promise, one not always kept, of having any privileges in life.

This creates a crisis of conscience for me:  not interfering in a foreign culture vs. honoring human dignity.  I don’t know what the right answer is, but I’ve decided to error on the side of a woman’s dignity.

I agree that the practice of female genital mutilation should be banished from the face of the earth.  The sooner the better.  But after witnessing these women’s lives first hand, I understand it to be a very complicated issue.  This practice has far-reaching implications into the lives of these women.  I still think it should stop.  I also believe that the only way it will end, is when women have a better choice.

Neither I nor the students in Mirabai’s class – despite our intense conversation – came up with a fail-proof solution.  But there are organizations on the ground in South Africa (other regions of the world as well) that are devoted to empowering women with better choices.

One of these organizations is the Rural Women’s Movement of South Africa.  I am proud and honored to be their American Ambassador, assigned the task of raising consciousness here in the United States about the plight of these women who work hard to improve the conditions of their lives – within their indigenous culture.

What can you do to help?  Sending money is always good.  But even offering your kind words of support means a lot to them.  They appreciate knowing that women here in the US – the country that epitomizes freedom for women – are behind their efforts.  We know that we have a long way to go to achieve gender equality in our country, but we are eons ahead of them.  Please consider visiting their FaceBook page to tell them you care.