Horrific Taboo: Female Circumcision on the Rise in U.S.
NBC News - When Marie was two years old, a woman
in her village in Africa cut off her gentials. Now 34 and
living thousands of miles away in New York, she is still suffering.
have so many problems, with my husband, with sex, with childbirth," she
told NBC News, withholding her real name to protect her identity. "The
consequences on my life are all negative, both physically and
The practice of Female
Genital Mutilation is common across much of Africa, where it is believed
to ensure sexual purity before marriage. But Marie says FGM is also
"very common" in some communities in America.
"The pressure to get daughters cut is great," she said.
According to the Centers for Disease
Control and Prevention, at least 150,000 to 200,000 girls in the U.S.
are at risk of being forced to undergo cutting. The CDC says "at risk"
because there are no actual records of the practice, only estimates –
and old estimates at that. Its latest data date to 1997, the year after
it was banned in the U.S.
But experts who work with victims and their communities say FGM is on the rise.
is hard to believe this is the real number because of how much
[FGM-practicing] communities are growing, especially in the last two or
three years," said Mariama Diallo, African community specialist at Sanctuary for Families,
a New York-based non-profit dedicated to helping domestic violence and
trafficking victims. Her organization could only extrapolate using
census data when it issued a report on the growing problem last year.
Immigration to the U.S. from countries in Africa quadrupled between 1990 and 2011 from 360,000 to 1.6 million according to a recent report released by New York City's planning department.
"The numbers need to be updated – but this needs funding and no one is interested," said Dr. Nawal Nour, founder of the African Women's Health Practice at Boston's Brigham and Women's Hospital.
Lack of Prosecutions
are different degrees of FGM, the most severe form being the narrowing
of the vaginal opening by repositioning the labia and stitching up the
opening, sometimes leaving a hole the size of a matchstick for the
passing of urine and menstrual flow.
cutting is often carried out without anesthetic on girls between
infancy and the age of eight. Victims can suffer numerous physical and
mental health problems: severe abdominal pain, vaginal and pelvic
infections, pain during sex, complications during childbirth.
In Phoenix, Arizona, a staggering 98 percent of Somali women being treated at the Refugee Women's Health Clinic have been circumcised, founder Dr. Crista Johnson said. She estimates the Somali community is at least 12,000-strong.
Johnson has supported
such victims all over the country – from Washington,D.C., to Michigan to
California – and says the spike in immigration from such communities
has been astonishing in recent years.
"The number has easily quadrupled because of migration patterns," she added.
So with such numbers, why has there only been one successful prosecution in the U.S.?
won't report against their families," Marie said. Since the mutilation
is usually organized by the child's mother or grandmother and supported
by the father, many cases go unreported, case workers say.
if there is protection from the government, it is difficult for a
victim to disclose it through fear of retaliation from their family, and
fear of losing their family," she said.
experts believe the law is a useful deterrent. Johnson says there is a
sense of resignation among the families that they must abide by U.S.
laws. Nour agreed, saying: "Parents are afraid to do anything that will
get them deported."
For Americans on the
outside of communities where it is practiced, FGM is such an unknown
that many medical workers, law enforcement and child protection officers
are not informed on how to proceed when confronted with it.
has been such a taboo topic, we [haven't been able to] take it out from
under the table. We need to make it something that can be discussed,"
said Shelby Quast, senior policy adviser of Equality Now, an international women's rights NGO.
has to be a huge shift so that we identify this as a form of violence
against girls – and not something that's protected as a cultural and
religious tradition," she said.
Support for victims is also
comparatively poor in the U.S., health workers say. Nour in Boston and
Johnson in Arizona run the only two clinics dedicated to supporting FGM
victims in the U.S.
the U.K. – with only a fifth of the population of the U.S. – has 15
specialist clinics. British midwife Comfort Momoh, who runs one such
operation, recently visited the U.S. to research American facilities.
Coming from Europe,
where campaigners are making strides in turning FGM into a mainstream
issue, Momoh was shocked to see "no proper coordination and hardly
anywhere for girls to go for support," she said. "The situation is well,
well behind the U.K."
say reaching out to practicing communities and educating them about the
risks and consequences is critical to ending FGM.
the police are called and told a child is at risk, what will the
policeman do if he does not know what FGM is? We need to tell them about
it, tell them it's a violation," Diallo said. "Every single
professional needs to know they have an obligation: doctors, nurses,
school teachers.... Everyone has to see it as their responsibility to
'Shame and a Prison Term'
France, which is also home to significant communities which
traditionally practice FGM, experts say enforcing the law and outreach
to practicing communities must go together.
stark comparison to the single American case, there have been over 100
successful prosecutions in France, with prison sentences for those found
guilty of cutting or of allowing their daughters to be cut.
There, FGM is prosecuted using existing child protection laws – there is no specific anti-FGM legislation.
was no need for a special law that would amount to pointing the finger
towards immigrants," said French lawyer Linda Weil-Curiel, who has spent
years bringing cases against suspected perpetrators to court.
had enough legal provisions in the penal code to prosecute and punish
the 'mutilation of minors,' and the penal code is applicable to everyone
on French soil, without discrimination."
believes these prosecutions helped reduce the practice. "The large
publicity in the media of the trials sent a clear message to the
families: This is what you are going to get – shame and a prison term –
if you do not respect the law."
There are no further prosecutions on the horizon in America – although there has been some progress.
was strengthened in January 2013 with a federal law making "vacation
cutting" illegal – when girls are taken during their school vacations to
countries where FGM is widely practiced to be cut there.
"They have passed the law. Now they need to enforce it," Diallo said.
But for Marie it's too
late. "My organs were removed for my whole life, I can't change it;
psychologically that is very difficult," she said. "But I don't want my
kids to undergo the same fate as me."
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