I first noticed our reticence to tackle taboo topics in the church over 15 years ago, years before I became the head of the Wesleyan Church in North America. After being exposed to human trafficking during a visit to Svay Pak, Cambodia, I found this multi-billion dollar industry horrifying and left determined to join with other Christians to end this injustice. For years, I met a church hesitant to talk about, much less fight, this violation of human rights.

It was more than a lack of awareness, but a resistance to discuss difficult things like sexual exploitation within the church. Nevertheless, I joined the other Christian advocates who could not stop talking about the invaluable role the church had to play in the fight against trafficking. Little by little, we witnessed attitudes shift, and today we see the church has tremendous momentum in the global effort to end human trafficking.

I’m encouraged by this. I’m encouraged because it means we're closer to ending human trafficking. And I’m encouraged because it means there is hope that the church will have the courage to address other difficult issues like female genital mutilation, or FGM.

Female genital mutilation has received growing interest from policy makers and not-for-profit organizations. With this awareness, this practice may come to an end within a generation, a goal set forth by the United Nations.

Earlier this year, President Barack Obama addressed FGM for the first time, announcing that his administration will conduct new research to determine prevalence in the U.S. and next steps for addressing the problem. Yet for all the initiatives aimed at ending FGM worldwide, this issue—due to its unfamiliarity and graphic nature—is rarely spoken about in the Western church.

Also known as female circumcision, FGM is the total or partial removal of the external female genitalia. The procedure is performed on nearly 3 million girls in Africa every year, according to the World Health Organization. More than 125 million girls and women alive today have been cut in the 29 countries in Africa and the Middle East where FGM is most prevalent. The procedure has no health benefits, but is ingrained in cultural tradition and is considered a passage from childhood to adulthood.

Currently, FGM’s graphic nature presents the greatest hurdle to widespread Christian involvement with the cause. The very process of defining FGM makes many churchgoers, and their leaders, uncomfortable or even offended. Our prayer is that the offense of the injustice would far outweigh the offense of the practice.Victims of this barbaric practice include some of the most vulnerable, oppressed, and poor people on the planet. The church, whose mission is to stand for the vulnerable, the oppressed, and the poor, has an opportunity to join the humanitarians and politicians, or even to lead the fight against FGM.

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Rather than being offended by the graphic details of FGM—damaged sex organs, inhibited sexual pleasure, severe pain, and life-long complications for women’s physical and reproductive health—our prayer is that we would be offended by the subjugation of women and the irreparable damage it causes to their bodies. Our hope is that we would fight for these women’s God-given worth in the midst of a practice that marginalizes them and perpetuates their inferior status in society.

The topic of human trafficking was initially met with a similar uncomfortability, and we can learn from that process. In the Wesleyan Church, we found greater success when we introduced our message with safer topics. For example, while the most common form of human trafficking (79%) is sexual exploitation, we learned that our message was initally better received when we discussed the topic in terms of forced labor, the second most common form of human trafficking (18%). Likewise, with FGM we’re finding that discussing complications in childbirth and increased risk of newborn deaths as a pro-life issue is a more palatable entry point for the North American church.

The church also faces a propensity to gender-qualify issues like FGM, to deem it a women’s ministry cause since the victims are female. And, indeed, the early activists in the church’s efforts to end FGM are often women. But God does not call only women to stand up for the vulnerable and oppressed. He calls the entire church to have compassion.

The final hurdle the church will need to overcome is apathy. While we can wrap our minds around the existance of a demand for sex and for forced labor, our Western worldview in most cases has no framework for comprehending a foreign cultural practice like FGM. Where human trafficking is connected to crime and prostitution in our own backyard, FGM is largely connected to villages and families in distant corners of the world. Though FGM happens in North America with surprising frequency, getting people to care and giving them opportunity for their heart to break like God’s heart breaks for this injustice is a challenge.

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Despite these hurdles, ending FGM is well within our reach. The pressure is already there – from the UN, from the nonprofit community, from policy makers and even from church leaders in countries like Sierra Leone where the practice is most prevalent.

Witnessing the church’s shift in engagement with a difficult issue like human trafficking leaves me hopeful. I am hopeful because we are nearer to an end for trafficking, though I’m prepared for it to be an ongoing battle with many more victims.

But I am also hopeful because ending FGM is within sight. Imagine a global generation of girls who are physically whole! Their capacity to imagine a God who values human life and human dignity could change the world. The tide is already turning. how much more quickly could it turn if the church steps up to the fight. May we remember that we are called and empowered by God to overcome injustices in the world, even the difficult ones! And therein lays our greatest hope.

“She opens her hand to the poor and reaches out her hands to the needy.” – Proverbs 31:20

Jo Anne Lyon is the General Superintendent for The Wesleyan Church and the founder of World Hope International, an international Christian NGO working with vulnerable and exploited communities worldwide.

Andrea Summers is the director of women's ministries for The Wesleyan Church and oversees Good News for Girls, The Wesleyan Church's initiative to raise awareness and end FGM in Sierra Leone. The Wesleyan Church and World Hope International are partners in the effort to end FGM in Sierra Leone through country-wide prevention and education. They hope to expand preventative and educational efforts to other countries in the future.