U.S. Immigrants Aren’t Safe From Female Genital Mutilation

5058762536_2f6a4d31fcLike most Americans, I never spent too much time thinking about female genital mutilation, or FGM, a centuries-old practice. But that changed in 2007 when I came to work at Sanctuary for Families, a New York-based nonprofit that serves victims of domestic violence and trafficking. In my job as an immigration lawyer I began interviewing girls and women who had experienced FGM, or who were terrified to go through it.

Since then, I have met with hundreds of girls and women affected in some way by FGM. I’ve heard about babies, toddlers, teenagers and even grown women pinned down and cut with dull instruments, left bleeding and crying. I’ve heard girls talk about watching their sisters and cousins hemorrhage to death right next to them, and the pain, guilt and nightmares that plague them. I’ve listened to countless complaints of infections, pain and urinary problems, untreated here because of my clients’ fears of being examined by American doctors and nurses who have never before seen a woman who has been cut. They have shared with me the deep sorrow they feel because they will never experience sexual pleasure, and their trepidation at being with a sexual partner.

I tried to help each woman however I could, but I felt there was nothing I could do about a practice happening so far away. My conscience was comforted by the fact that others, from UN agencies to local NGOs, were fighting female genital mutilation in the countries where it was happening. That seemed like enough.

But then I heard about a young girl I’ll call Aida, who lived in New York and attended a local high school. Aida’s parents were planning to send her on vacation to the village from which they had fled, to force her to undergo FGM–a practice known as “vacation cutting”. When Aida refused to go, her family said she was dishonoring them and began to treat her poorly, sometimes even beating her. Aida’s guidance counselor–the only person in whom she confided these details–did nothing but wring his hands.

Why didn’t he do what the law mandated: call child protective services to prevent the beatings and the threat of other serious harm? He said later that he thought FGM was a cultural matter best left to her family.

I am a child of immigrants, so I understand that families struggle to maintain their culture and values once they come to a new country. But there are so many other cultural practices that our society has rejected because they harm girls and women, like female infanticide, acid throwing, honor killing, forced marriage, domestic violence and wife-burning. We cannot justify turning a blind eye to a discriminatory and potentially dangerous practice in the name of culture.

It turns out that, according to CDC estimates, thousands of girls in the U.S. are at risk of going through FGM. Since 1996, FGM has been a federal crime in the U.S. The law was a huge step forward, but did not cover “vacation cutting.” Thankfully, President Obama signed a law on January 7, 2013, repairing this loophole and making vacation cutting illegal.

On February 6, International Day of Zero Tolerance to Female Genital Mutilation, let’s celebrate the December 2012 UN resolution calling for a global ban on FGM, and the new U.S. law. Let’s celebrate the activists in this country and around the world who are standing up for the safety and dignity of girls and women everywhere. They are fighting–against all odds and sometimes at great risk to their own safety–to end this practice.

You might have thought, as I once did: “This is not my problem since I’m not from a country affected by FGM.” Except that you are. And you don’t have to believe me: Teenagers and young women around the country are organizing, starting to tell their own stories about their experiences with vacation cutting and how it has impacted their identities and their communities. Just like their sisters overseas, they want to see this stop, and we must give them our support.

Photo courtesy of Blatant World via Creative Commons 2.0.

Comments

  1. Charney L. Gonnerman says:

    I was aware of FGM when I worked with refugee resettlement in a mid-western state in the early 1990′s. Young girls were driven to southern states for the procedure. The issue was never discussed by case managers, therefore, no action was taken. I commend President Obama and others who recognize this hideous procedure and are taking action to stop it.

  2. Thank you, Archi Pyati, for speaking to the heart of the matter in clear language. Since you commend the recent UN General Assembly Ban FGM Worldwide resolution, I’d be happy to send you a copy of a great memoir that offers some background to how that came about: Khady with Marie-Thérèse Cuny. _Blood Stains. A Child of Africa Reclaims Her Human Rights_ (which I translated from the French and published with UnCUT/VOICES Press). You would also want to read a confirmation of your point of view — about young women seeking wholeness via reconstructive surgery with pioneer Dr. Pierre Foldes — in Hubert Prolongeau. _Undoing FGM. PIerre Foldes, the Surgeon Who Restores the Clitoris_. (Trans. Tobe Levin. UnCUT/VOICES Press). Since you blog about the issue, I’d be happy to send you the books as readers’ copies. tobe.levin@uncutvoices.com

  3. Barbara Harwood says:

    I was college age in the late sixties and we fought hard to see the ERA passed. When it did, we thought we had accomplished something, that now, at least, women in our country were free. We did it for our children and our grandchildren. Little did we know, it was only a fleeting victory. It is not just that girls can be sent back to their native countries to be mutilated. All across this country we have been moving backwards in pretty much all legislation that gives women freedom over their lives and their bodies. Rather than moving away from this middle-Eastern thinking, there are parts of our nation moving closer and closer to it. I forget where it is (because it doesn’t really matter; that it is happening at all condemns us as a nation) but there is a state wanting to make it a law that women who abort a child conceived in rape be charged with tampering with evidence. Can anyone say “Taliban”? How is this any different from any of the myriad other abuses that the Taliban does every day–or, for that matter, that the US, in the guise of “moral” or religious beliefs, do to its citizens? This is only a free country for the white, wealthy American male. The rest of us are fools if we believe we are free or we keep buying the brain washing concept, “This is the greatest nation in the world.” It is nowhere close.

  4. Such an IMPORTANT issue. Archi Pyati, please contact me. I would like to support your work in what ways I can. Bless you for doing this work.

  5. NightSong says:

    Thank you, Archi Pyati, for shining a light on this practice in the USA (I’ve been active against it worldwide but did not know about this). And thank you, Tobe Levin, for your part in making this issue more visible and to both of you for doing what you do to put a stop to it. So grateful, so grateful. My heart breaks for these girls/women/families. Posted on my FB page. More work to do….And so we will.

  6. Therese LePage says:

    This is a despicable, misogynistic, archaic practice that leaves young women maimed, bleeding, infected, outcast, broken psychologically, and often dead, and has no place in any country in the modern world. Authorities who are bound to protect our young women, but don’t, should be called to account under our laws. The rest of us can keep the pressure on. This could be classified as a hate crime, or a violation of civil rights, to deter abusers.

  7. Katina Lennie says:

    Why are we letting this barbaric practice still happen. God wouldn’t want anyone’s genetalia hacked off or mutilated in his name.
    Who started this crackpot ritual and why. Does anyone know anymore. And why do people that have had this done to them do it to others, while torturing that child don’t they realise that it’s damaging them also, for life, or is now at, if it happened to them they feel it’s right, so it just keeps on happening. I say stop this craziness, what is the need for it.
    Think beyond the square people, I say stop this craziness.

  8. It is one thing to end this cultural practice around the world. It is quite another thing to end the blatant ignorance of the counsellor in the US and other western countries, that pretend sexism doesn’t exist, and continue to call violence against women and girls ‘culture’, no matter which country you live in.

  9. Mary Colangelo says:

    Be honest. Political correctness has taken the place of common sense and actually championing women and advancing us to true political and economic independence. The reason the counselor and many so called social workers and social activists do not make a big deal out of this is that these girls are from Islamic immigrant families.

    • Female mutilation is the epitome of child abuse. Child abuse is against the law in the U.S. Any new immigration law which does not make deportation of the parents a result of such barbaric practices should not be approved. Doctors, social workers, teachers who know about these practices and do not report them should be subject to losing their licenses. Why are there not a billion women rising up about THIS issue?

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