(MintPress) – Female genital mutilation (FGM) has been recognized as a federal crime in the U.S. since 1996, and is punishable by up to five years in prison, but that hasn’t stopped many American girls from being forced to undergo the procedure.
The majority of women in the United States who have either survived the procedure or are at risk for having the surgery, live in New York’s metropolitan area. FGM is a crime in New York state law as well, but the sentencing provisions are quite weak. According to the AHA Foundation, a person convicted of FGM in New York may avoid a prison sentence and only receive a sentence of probation.
FGM procedures are illegal to perform in the United States, but until this year there wasn’t any law prohibiting families from sending girls back to their parents’ homelands to undergo “vacation cutting.” But on Jan. 7, 2013, President Obama signed a law closing the loophole in U.S. FGM law that made it possible for women to be sent to other countries and have the procedure.
Since FGM is a private procedure, it’s not known exactly how prevalent it is in the United States. In 2000, the African Women’s Health Center estimated that 227,887 women and girls had been at risk of being subjected to FGM in the U.S. that year, and authorities suspect that the actual numbers are far higher.
In a report released Friday by Sanctuary for Families, a nonprofit agency in New York State dedicated exclusively to serving domestic violence victims, sex trafficking victims and their children, the group documented dozens of women’s stories about their experience undergoing the procedure.
One New York City woman, who is now 27, shared with Sanctuary researchers that when she was a teenager, her father sent both her and her little sister to his hometown in Gambia for what she believed to be was a trip to visit her grandmother.
But when she arrived, her grandma had made plans for the girls to receive FGM procedures.
“She warned us that if we refused to undergo female genital mutilation, she would be disappointed in us, and that the entire village would find out and force [it] upon us against our will,” the woman said.
FGM is a centuries-old practice that is based on beliefs regarding premarital “cleanliness,” and is practiced in parts of West and North Africa and South Asia. Widely performed on infants and teens, there are four different types of FGM procedures, but all intend to severely reduce sexual pleasure and ensure a woman remains a virgin until marriage.
Since the surgery is extremely painful and is performed without anesthetic, many women suffer psychological trauma from the surgery. There are also lifelong physical effects from FGM which include: chronic infection, hemorrhage, bacterial infections, severe pain during urination, bladder and urinary tract infections, cysts, infertility, complications during intercourse and childbirth.
“Uncut” girls are largely shamed and are not thought of as marriage material, which economically hurts the girl and her family. Since the United States is thought of by some nations as being home to the girls-gone-wild culture, Somali FGM survivor and opponent Ayaan Hirsi Ali says that for families coming to the U.S., the procedure is seen as a way to keep their daughters from having premarital sex.
“Think of it as a genital burqa, designed to control female sexuality,” she said.
Even if the initial procedure is done abroad, some procedures are done in the United States to “reverse” the closure of the vagina.
Jaha Dukureh had her vagina almost entirely sewn up during an infant circumcision ceremony in her native Gambia, which she says is done to ensure a woman is a virgin until marriage. Dukureh says when she was 15 her father made her go to a doctor’s office in Manhattan to get her vagina cut back open so she would be ready for an arranged marriage to a 45-year-old man.
“I was awake,” said Dukureh, now 23. “I screamed the whole time when they were doing it.”
Concerning for Dukureh and other FGM survivors is that she didn’t even realize anything was different about her body until she had her vagina cut open, as she believes she was less than a week old when her labia and clitoris were cut off and her vagina sutured shut except for a small hole.
“You don’t know the difference. I didn’t even know what a normal woman would look like until I had my daughter,” she said.
Culture or torture?
Part of the battle in the United States regarding FGM is distinguishing between a cultural practice and a human rights violation.
Archi Pyati, a deputy director at Sanctuary for Families, wants teachers, social workers, doctors and even airport employees to be better prepared to help and not simply dismiss FGM as a cultural issue.
“The main problem is that people who hear about it don’t realize that this is something that they can report,” said Pyati. “I’m learning about more and more girls who are at risk.”
“People think that female genital mutilation is an African issue, but it is a U.S. issue,” Dukureh said. “You have it everywhere Africans migrate to. I felt like if someone knew what I was talking about, most of the things that happened to me, they wouldn’t have happened.”
A child of immigrants herself, Pyati recently wrote a piece for the Huffington Post explaining her concern about turning FGM into a cultural issue. Noting that she understood families’ struggles to maintain their culture and values after coming to a new country, she added that the U.S. has rejected many other cultural practices 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.”
Dukureh agrees and said she hopes to change how immigrant women themselves see the practice.
“I tell [other women] that if God didn’t want us to have those feelings, he would have never given us a clitoris in the first place,” Dukureh added. “They just look at me and think I am crazy.”
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