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Top US Women Diplomats Speak Out on Sexual Harassment

Women from all sectors are coming out to speak against sexual harassment cases, this time U.S women diplomats lashed out against such incidents

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FILE - Gina Abercrombie-Winstanley, who served as the US Ambassador in Malta, addresses participants during a gay pride parade organized by the Malta Gay Rights Movement in Sliema, outside Valletta, June 30, 2012.
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As U.S. lawmakers grapple with allegations of sexual harassment in their ranks, some senior American diplomats are speaking out about their struggles over the years.

Gina Abercrombie-Winstanley, who was U.S. ambassador to Malta from 2012-2016, told her story about serving at the State Department and the White House.

“There was one occasion in the department when a boss touched me and I told him if he did it again, I’d knock the s— out of him. He did not repeat it, but he did try to get me to curtail from the position,” Abercrombie-Winstanley told the Foreign Service Journal, a publication by the American Foreign Service Association.

The former U.S. envoy recalled another incident in which she said she was harassed by a senior lawmaker while serving on the White House National Security Council.

“Initially, I parried the advance from a senior member of Congress, but when he continued to call me, I reported to the NSC’s executive secretary that it was happening, and told him that if I had to do violence to repel it, I would,” Abercombie-Winstanley said.

“I was letting him know beforehand, I said, because I did not expect to lose my job as a result,” she added. “After a moment of shocked silence, he said ‘Thanks for letting me know.’ And the member stopped calling me.”

She later told VOA these occasions are an “extremely small part of my professional journey” and declined to either comment further on details or identify the congressman.

‘Zero-tolerance’ policy

In a letter electronically distributed to all American diplomats around the world earlier this year, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said the department upholds a “zero-tolerance” policy regarding discriminatory and sexual harassment.

“Effective harassment prevention efforts must start with and involve the highest level possible,” Tillerson said in his policy statement.

For years, secretaries of state release their statements on diversity and harassment in the workplace at the beginning of their tenure and review annually thereafter. They usually highlight two anti-harassment policies: one prohibiting sexual harassment, the other banning discrimination.

U.S. Ambassador Laura Dogu. (U.S. Embassy in Nicaragua website)

Male-dominated circles

Still, female ambassadors said they must learn to adjust and handle the challenges involved in working in mainly male-dominated diplomatic circles.

“I am frequently the only woman in meetings outside the office with the host country, and when I have control over the guest list, I insist that we include at least 30 percent women, if not more,” U.S. Ambassador to Nicaragua Laura Dogu said in the Foreign Service Journal article.

Like Ambassador Dogu, former Ambassador to Mongolia Jennifer Zimdahl Galt said she has been the only woman or one of the only women in the room at virtually every meeting throughout her career. The key to working in such an environment, she said, is to be well-prepared and a good listener.

FILE – U.S. Ambassador to Mongolia Jennifer Zimdahl Galt and U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry past a traditional honor guard upon arrival at Chinggis Khaan International Airport in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia, June 5, 2016.

“So you can speak authoritatively and there is no question that you are on top of your brief. It’s also important to dress professionally, which in my book means wearing a suit at all times,” said Galt, who was appointed as principle deputy assistant secretary for educational and cultural affairs earlier this month.

She also said, “Being sure to listen carefully to what others have to say so that you’re not repeating, but rather amplifying and adding value with your remarks.”

Building minority leadership

In a speech to student programs and fellowship participants in August, Tillerson said he had directed relevant committees to develop “minority leadership” at the State Department.

“Every time we have an opening for an ambassador position, at least one of the candidates must be a minority candidate. Now they may not be ready, but we will know where the talent pool is,” Tillerson said.

Seen as part of these efforts, Irwin Steven Goldstein will begin his new position next week (December 4) as the first openly gay undersecretary of state for public diplomacy and public affairs.

In Senate testimony, Goldstein thanked his spouse for supporting his career of developing and executing communications strategies that connect diverse audiences. (VOA)

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US Immigration Agency Opens up on Female Mutilation

Female Mutilation should be stopped, opens up US Immigration Agency

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FILE - A man's T-shirt reads
FILE - A man's T-shirt reads "Stop the Cut," referring to female genital cutting or mutilation, during a social event advocating against the practice at the Imbirikani Girls High School in Imbirikani. VOA

On a few days over the last year, federal agents approached travellers at several U.S. airports — flights bound for or connecting to Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, Frankfurt, Germany, and Dakar, Senegal.

The officials — part of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement — weren’t searching for contraband, or guiding bag-sniffing dogs. They were part of a smaller office within the agency that doesn’t focus on detaining and deporting people. Instead, they were handing out printed materials. They wanted to talk about female genital cutting.

JFK. Newark. Washington-Dulles. They targeted some of the country’s biggest international airports. In May, they roamed the gates in Atlanta — in the state where an Ethiopian man deported last year was believed to be the first person criminally convicted in the United States for FGC, sometimes referred to as female genital mutilation or FGM.

ICE declined a request to speak with the agents for details about how the initiative is carried out. There are brochures involved and, according to photos attached to the agency’s news releases, male and female agents chat with women about to board flights abroad.

FGC is a federal crime, the agency says it tells travellers. It can have consequences on child custody, and in immigration cases, too, even if the procedure is performed outside the U.S.

FILE - A badge reads "The power of labor aginst FGM" is seen on a volunteer during a conference on International Day of Zero Tolerance for Female Genital Mutilation in Cairo, Egypt. VOA
FILE – A badge reads “The power of labor aginst FGM” is seen on a volunteer during a conference on International Day of Zero Tolerance for Female Genital Mutilation in Cairo, Egypt. VOA

An agency spokeswoman told VOA via email that “people were happy to hear that’s why [Homeland Security Investigations, an arm of the Department of Homeland Security] was out there with materials. Some folks have never heard of it; many have but don’t understand it, the extent of the problem and how harmful the procedure and associated complications are. And some women had been subjected themselves to FGM.”

The project is modelled after one in the United Kingdom, an “awareness” campaign designed to talk about the risks of FGC and publicize the criminality of the procedure.

Removing part of the female genitals for nonmedical reasons is a practice concentrated in a few dozen countries, but performed on a smaller scale in many more, including the United States, where cases have been documented dating to as early as the 19th century. Last year, ICE investigators unravelled the Michigan case of a medical doctor performing FGC on young girls.

Reasons given

The justifications can include religious, cultural or pseudomedical rationales, like when U.S. doctors used the procedure to treat “hysteria.” Hundreds of thousands of women and girls in the U.S. are FGC survivors, or are vulnerable to it, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Mariya Taher, head of Sahiyo — a U.S. nongovernmental organization that advocates for an end to FGC — has spoken publicly about her experience surviving the procedure. Now, her organization is spearheading its own effort to publicize the stories of other survivors in the U.S., with a video project due out this month.

FILE - A counselor talks to a group of women to try to convince them that they should not have subject their daughters to female genital mutilation, in Minia, Egypt. VOA
FILE – A counselor talks to a group of women to try to convince them that they should not have subject their daughters to female genital mutilation, in Minia, Egypt. VOA

Does Taher think ICE agents handing out pamphlets and talking to families headed to visit relatives abroad, who are maybe considering having the procedure done on their daughters, or planning to have it done on that summer vacation, is an effective method?

“A large part of prevention is educating that it IS illegal … many people don’t recognize that it IS,” said Taher. She wants to know more about what information is being shared and how the conversations with travellers are happening before passing judgment on the project.

Unintentional effect?

“Any effort about the health, legal consequences, support services, I think is really helpful and beneficial,” Taher said. On the other hand, she noted, “I feel conflict. We’re trying to show that FGC happens across the board, regardless of ethnicity, religion, socioeconomic status. … I’m a little afraid, if we’re just targeting certain countries, that we’re unintentionally misrepresenting whom FGC happens to.”

Also Read: “The Restorers” : Kenyan Girls Use Technology to Combat Female Genital Mutilation

Dozens of U.S. states have passed laws, in addition to the federal legislation, criminalizing FGC. In the Michigan case, doctors who performed the procedure on girls were charged, as well as four mothers who agreed to the medically unnecessary surgeries. (VOA)