Female genital mutilation persists in many countries. While efforts to curb the rite are progressing worldwide, the practice has gained ground in the U.S.
By Ben Barber
The ancient rite of cutting the genital organs of young girls is declining worldwide as international efforts to curb the practice, widespread in parts of Africa, the Middle East and Indonesia, take hold.
But over the past three decades, increasing numbers of girls and women in the United States have faced the risk of female genital mutilation (FGM) because of an influx of immigrants from countries where the practice is commonplace.
Now, a U.S. judge has thrown out a federal law that since 1996 had banned the practice, and members of some communities where FGM is still practiced are pushing back against efforts to curb a rite that they say is harmless and an important social tradition.
FGM is defined as the partial or total removal of the external female genitalia, or other injury to the female genital organs for non-medical reasons.
The United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) estimates that at least 200 million girls and women in 30 countries have been subjected to FGM. FGM is practiced to varying degrees in a swathe of countries across the center of Africa, as well as in Yemen, Iraq and parts of Asia, especially Indonesia.
As immigrants from some of those countries move to the United States, more and more girls and women risk FGM in one of the world’s most developed nations.
According to a 2012 study by researchers at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, half a million women and girls in the United States were at risk for FGM or its consequences, more than three times higher than in 1990.
‘There is a trend toward reduction.’
Worldwide, the share of girls undergoing FGM has been declining over the past three decades. In 30 countries where FGM has traditionally been practiced, an estimated 37 percent of girls aged 15 to 19 had been cut in 2016, down from 51 percent in 1985, according to UNICEF.
“We are very hopeful,” said UNICEF official Nan Kali Maksud, senior adviser on harmful practices. “There is a trend toward reduction.”
But not all countries have made progress. Some countries — notably Burkina Faso, Egypt, Kenya, Liberia and Togo — have moved far faster than others. More than nine out of 10 women and girls between the ages of 15 and 49 have undergone some form of FGM in Djibouti, Guinea and Somalia, according to UNICEF.
What is more, growing populations in affected countries mean that the absolute number of girls and women undergoing FGM will rise significantly over the next decade, UNICEF said.
The practice is mostly carried out by traditional circumcisers, who often play central roles in communities, such as attending childbirths. In many settings, health care providers perform FGM due to the erroneous belief that the procedure is safer when medicalized. WHO strongly urges health professionals not to perform such procedures.
According to UNICEF’s Maksud, the challenge now is to get to “stubborn places were there is war and isolation,” such as Somalia.
Although FGM – also called female circumcision – is often associated with Islam, Maksud said that Muslim scholars had “misconceptions” that lead them to support the practice.
Laws do little to discourage FGM in the United States.
In the United States, a 1996 federal law outlawed female genital mutilation. But no one has ever been found guilty under that law, according to a senior official in the U.S. prosecutor’s office in Detroit, Michigan, who asked not to be identified.
Under the law, parents who bring their baby girls to be cut and the cutters face up to five years in prison or fines of up to $250,000, the official said.
Growing numbers of immigrants and refugees from countries where FGM is practiced have settled in the state of Michigan, which recently sent its first Somali-American representative, Democrat Ilhan Omar, to Congress.
Last November, a U.S. federal judge declared the 1996 law unconstitutional because the regulation of practices such as FGM is a state responsibility. He dropped some but not all charges against two doctors and several parents for allegedly cutting one or more babies.
The judge, Bernard Friedman, said states could prosecute FGM under sexual battery and abuse. “No state offers refuge to those who harm children,” the judge wrote in his opinion.
Gina Balaya, a spokesperson for the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Detroit, said that 27 states have anti-FGM laws. Michigan’s law is stiffer than the federal statute, with up to 15 years in prison for cutters and parents, she said.
But Justice Department officials said no one has been prosecuted under state laws.
Is FGM a protected religious and cultural right?
Not all immigrant groups are ready to abandon their ancestral practices. Some refugee and immigrant advocates say cutting girls is a protected religious and cultural right.
Some believe than if a woman is not cut as a child and she grows up and has her own baby, it will die if its head touches the mother’s clitoris.
“I work with communities, and there is a backlash,” said Mariya Taher, co-founder of the group SAHIYO — United Against Female Cutting. “Some say, ‘Leave us alone.'” She said some community members “say this is an ancient practice and the parents are not well educated to understand the issues and break with the past.”
One group opposed to harsh penalties for cutting girls, a nonprofit called Isuroon, has called for a less punitive approach focused on educating parents.
Five members of the Dawoodi Bohra community, a Shiite branch of Islam, wrote to the Detroit News in December defending their form of female circumcision, which they called “harmless, far less invasive than male circumcision, and much more akin to a body piercing.”
“None of us have ever experienced any long term negative effects — either physical or mental — from the practice,” they said in the letter.
(For other News-Decoder stories on FGM, click here.)
Ben Barber has reported since 1980 from the Middle East, Asia, Africa and Latin America. He has written for Foreign Affairs, Christian Science Monitor, USA TODAY, Baltimore Sun, Toronto Globe and Mail, American Legion Magazine, Huffington Post and others. He was State Department Bureau Chief for the Washington Times and editor of the newsletter of USAID for seven years.