Trying to Rebuild Women's Bodies After Female 'Circumcision'

A small number of surgeons are performing clitoral reconstruction procedures in the United States for victims of female-genital mutilation, offering a chance at physical recovery.
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About 30 miles northwest from Syracuse, New York is a small town called Fulton. It averages about 15 feet of snow in the winter and stays pleasantly warm in the summer. Fulton is home to approximately 13,000 people, has six public schools, no hospitals, and one doctor that performs free female genital mutilation (FGM) reconstructive surgery.

Getting to this town is no easy task. From New York City, you can take a train or a bus to Syracuse and then catch one of six buses that runs on weekdays to Fulton. The entire trip comes in at about six hours of travel.

Fadima Ali—who asked that her name to be changed to avoid identification—is a 26-year-old woman from Brooklyn by way of Bamako, Mali. She is a single nursing student who works and studies six days a week. Last year, after nearly three years of back and forth, she decided it was finally time for her to make a trip to Fulton. Rather than deal with six hours of land travel, she flew to Syracuse and took a cab to Fulton. It was a bit expensive but she had been saving for this trip for a while.

Ali is a tall woman with a dark complexion. Her saucer-large eyes move around slowly, taking in the environment around her. Her already-soft voice often drops to a whisper. Though her demeanor is meek, her life hasn’t been. She left her parent’s conservative home and the sexually repressive environment of Mali 10 years ago. Where she comes from, women don’t see doctors for the reason that she is about to on this visit to Fulton.

It was a frigid morning in December 2013 when Ali landed in Syracuse. The weather had her on edge. A forecasted snowstorm threatened flight cancellations. After years of planning, the idea of weather ruining her trip was disheartening, she said. She was on a strict timeline and had to be back in Brooklyn before anyone noticed she was gone. “I have a friend coming because the hospital says I need someone there when they discharge me but I haven’t told her much about what I’m doing. Nobody else knows that I’m here,” she said. “Nobody can ever know,” she added, as an afterthought.

* * *

FGM, or female circumcision, is the practice of removing parts of a girl’s genitals. The procedure varies in extremity—from removing a thin slice of flesh to removing the entire labia minora and/or the labia majora. In these cases, the “cutter” leaves nothing but a pinhole sized opening surrounded with scar tissue. The most common type of FGM involves the removal of the clitoris. Girls subjected to this practice often grow up to face severe health complications with menstruation, sexual intercourse, pregnancy, and childbirth.

According to estimates from World Health Organization, between 100 and 140 million females worldwide live with the consequences of FGM. At least 30 million girls under the age of 15 are at risk. But what’s most surprising is that, according to The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, nearly a quarter of a million of those girls live in the United States. Brigham and Women’s Hospital puts the figure at 228,000 with 38,000 in California, 26,000 in New York, and 19,000 in New Jersey.

While independent organizations all over the world have been working to raise awareness about female genital mutilation and decrease the number of women at risk, those already subjected to the procedure tend to have no recourse. They simply have to live with the results of what was done to them. This is where Dr. Harold Henning, a doctor practicing out of his home in Fulton, comes in. And it is because of him that Ali has made the journey upstate.

* * *

Harold J. Henning, 58, was born and raised in Wichita, Kansas. He is a graduate of the University of Kansas and has been practicing gynecology and embryology for more than three decades. He practiced out of Manhattan, Kansas until 2002, when his younger brother, Jimmy, was killed in an airplane crash that claimed two other lives. He then changed course. “I had embryos in the incubator so I couldn’t go to where he crashed and help out. I decided to stop what I was doing and reassessed my life,” he said. Deciding he needed a change, Henning began applying to various hospital positions and eventually landed a job as a gynecologist in Fulton.

Henning is an active man. He runs marathons, swims, and plays tennis. There are 12 plaques and various medical degrees and awards on his wall. There is also a map of New York State on his desk along with framed photos of his children and grandchildren.

Henning is a practicing OB/GYN and dedicates one day a week to working with survivors of female genital mutilation. His venture into clitoral restoration found unlikely inspiration in a controversial religion known as Raëlism. Claude Vorilhon, a French man now known as Raël, founded the religion in 1973 after an alleged encounter with extraterrestrials. The Raëlian messages, which are on their website, dictate their doctrine. They state that aliens called Elohim (a Hebrew term for God) put humans on Earth and sent down 40 prophets to spread a message that has somehow gotten lost in translation.

“The fact is, I’m Raëlian,” the doctor confessed, toying with a silver medallion hanging around his neck that he wears as a symbol of his faith. The symbol on his medallion, the Star of David superimposed with a swastika, has drawn controversy. Some call Raëlism a cult, but for Henning it’s a way of life. He says the religion has provided him with truths he never found in Catholicism (his family religion). “I know it sounds crazy,” he admits, laughing “But I have no reason to deny anything the messages say.”

Raëlism first piqued Henning’s interested in 2003 because of its work on cloning. Clonaid, an organization founded in 1997 by Raëlians on the basis of their belief that humans can achieve immortality (another tenet of Raëlism), attracted controversy in 2001. Dr. Brigitte Boisselier, Clonaid's research director, claimed to have successfully cloned humans but this claim remains unsubstantiated since Boisselier has yet to reveal the results. “I had heard someone talking about how the founder of the religion had an encounter [with aliens] in 1973 and I kinda just pooh-poohed it,” he said. But after reading about Clonaid, he wanted to know more.

“I read everything I could find on [Clonaid] and got in my car drove the four hours to Valcourt, Canada where they were having a convention and ended up staying the entire week,” said Henning. “I learned a lot about myself. My background is really religious but nothing I learned seemed to be answering my questions about religion and I was looking for the truth.”

Henning became hooked after the conference and started attending events hosted by Raëlians all over the United States. It was at one of these events in Las Vegas that he learned about female genital mutilation.

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Saira Khan is a writer based in New York City.

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