30 January 2015

Not in your backyard?

Guest blog by Sarajane Rodgers.

FGM in the United States

When you think of female genital mutilation (FGM), where does one picture such a thing taking place? Is it in some far off land? The United States, a country based on principles of freedom of the mind, body, and spirit, would be immune to something like FGM, right? 

On the contrary, several studies have shown that up to 288,000 girls in the United States are at risk of being cut. In 1996, FGM was outlawed in the United States. It is interesting and quite discouraging that though several thousand girls are at risk and approximately 168,000 girls and women in the United States have already undergone FGM, there has only been one documented case where an individual in America was successfully prosecuted for performing FGM. This man was an immigrant from Ethiopia and he personally did the procedure on his daughter when she was two years old. Why is it that there has only been one successful prosecution of this practice thus far? Unfortunately, since the practice has been outlawed in the United States, it has since gone underground.

One way that supporters of FGM work around the anti-FGM law is “vacation cutting.” During the summer months when children are out of school, many parents take their families back to their home countries for the purpose of having their girls undergo FGM undetected. Oftentimes these girls return back to the United States in time for school. Because of the traumatic nature of the event, many girls do not speak of what happened. This is one way that FGM flies beneath the radar. Other times, the parents have no intention of having their daughters return back to the United States after the procedure. The girls are first cut and since they are then eligible for marriage, the daughters are married off, never to return to their life back in America. In many countries, the minimum age for marriage is much lower, so many of these girls are only 15 or 16 years old. In 2013, “vacation cutting” was outlawed. Those who ignore this law and transport girls out of the country for this purpose are at risk of punishment of up to five years in prison. However, because of the lack of awareness of officials who might detect such a situation possibly happening, “vacation cutting” is still a fairly common practice.

Another way that FGM goes undetected in the United States is by the parents performing the procedure on their children at younger ages. If a baby undergoes FGM, she will not remember the procedure, so there is no risk of her talking to others about it. Even if the child is very young but still old enough to remember the procedure, chances are that she will trust that her parents are doing the “normal” thing. A girl that young would not know that this practice is illegal in the country that she is living in and would thus not speak up about it.

With more education about FGM practices and consequences, many girls around the globe decide that they do not want to have this procedure done to them. Many girls whose communities require FGM decide to run away. However, if FGM is performed on a baby or small child, the child will not know enough nor have the means to run away. With less of a fuss on the part of the child, it is easier for adults to have these procedures performed on their children without the greater community knowing. This could account for another reason why 288,000 girls in the United States are at risk of being cut, yet most US citizens have no idea that FGM is an issue in present day America.  

What is currently being done to raise awareness and to track FGM in the United States? Jaha Dukureh, who is the founder of Safe Hands for Girls and who is now linked to The Girl Generation recently created a petition on Change.Org and met her targeted number of signatures. This petition asked President Obama and the Department of Health and Human Services to commission an updated report on FGM in the United States, as many of the current statistics and prevalence rates are based off of data from out-of-date studies. Hopefully as a consequence of this petition, studies and surveys will be carried out that allow us to see if rates of FGM remain the same or if recent laws, such as the one outlawing "vacation cutting," are indeed reducing rates of FGM in the United States.

So what can the average American do in the meantime? Congrats! By reading this post, you have completed the first step without even realizing it. As yogi B.K. S. Iyengar said, “Awareness must be like the rays of the sun: extending everywhere, illuminating all.” Gaining knowledge of the prevalence and risk factors in the United States is a key step to eradicating FGM in this country. After educating yourself, educate others! Perhaps you may not personally come into contact with someone who has undergone or is at risk of undergoing FGM. But your coworker with whom you might discuss these issues may. You never know what kind of influence you make when you educate others. By speaking up and spreading awareness, you educate your community which in turn may inspire to help an individual who is at risk of being affected by FGM. If you would like a more active role, there are plenty of opportunities to raise money (through organizing a running team, putting together a charity concert, etc.). In addition, you can become involved with an organization like 28 Too Many and have a more direct impact on the lives of those who could be affected by FGM. Whatever you choose to do, know that though there are many, many girls around the world who could be affected by FGM, there are 288,000 of your American sisters right next door to you that are at risk. It is in your backyard. What are you going to do about it?


You can also learn more about 28 Too Many's work to end FGM and how you can help at www.28toomany.org. You can donate to support our research and campaigns and follow us on Facebook for updates on the global movement to end FGM.

Sarajane Rodgers completed her undergraduate education at Bryn Mawr College, a women’s liberal arts college, where she became aware of many injustices that girls and women suffer from around the globe. Since then she received her MSc in Psychological Science from the University of Limerick.