More than 200,000 American girls are at risk of female genital mutilation (“FGM”) due to a lack of awareness in the United States about the procedure and its serious and sometimes life-threatening health risks. FGM has been illegal in the United States since 1996 and the practice of “vacation-cutting,” or taking girls out of the US to undergo forcible FGM abroad, has been illegal since 2013. However, cultural traditions and a failure to prosecute perpetrators have allowed this harmful practice to continue and, some fear, to become more prevalent. Parents not only send their children to have the procedure done in their country of origin, they will pay to have FGM practitioners flown to the US and will send money to their extended families so that relatives can afford FGM.
Shelby Quast with the NGO Equality Now stated, “One of our biggest concerns is that girls are being taken out of the country for vacation cutting during school vacations. We look at the various diaspora communities and as they grow, the number of girls at risk grows as well.” Most commonly, cutting occurs in remote areas outside the US with no anesthetic, no medication and no trained physicians. Not only does this cause great physical trauma and sometimes death, FGM can induce psychological scars and problems with pregnancy and sexual activity that are never properly addressed. Families who do not want to subject their daughters to FGM fear exclusion from their communities if they speak against the practice or refuse to have their daughters cut, and victims fear the same ostracism for talking about their own experience.
The United Kingdom has taken an aggressive approach to combatting FGM and vacation cutting, by setting up a help line for potential FGM victims, issuing passport inserts that stipulate UK laws against female cutting and educating school staff about the consequences of FGM. In May of 2014, law enforcement performed a week-long procedure at London’s Heathrow airport, designed to prevent families from sending girls abroad for FGM. Elected representatives in the US have called on Congress and US federal agencies to develop an agenda to tackle FGM in the US, similar the UK approach. Victims and campaign groups are also calling for increased awareness, resources for victims, and enforcement of existing legislation against FGM.
According to the UN, FGM is practiced in 29 countries with the highest rates found in Africa.
Compiled from: Turkewitz, Julie, A Fight as U.S. Girls Face Genital Cutting Abroad, The New York Times, (June 10, 2014); Topping, Alexandra, FGM survivors: ‘It happens on US soil, but it happens in secret’, The Guardian (May 13, 2014).