Female Circumcision Comes to America

Performed by new immigrants, veiled in deference to a cultural tradition of the developing world, female circumcision is becoming an American problem

IT is far easier to convince Americans of the horrors of FGM than it is to persuade them that it is enough of a problem here to warrant action. Proving just how widespread the practice is in the United States is a critical step. The legislation proposed in both the House and the Senate calls for the Department of Health and Human Services to gather data on the number of females living in the United States who have been subjected to FGM. However, the current lack of such data means that opponents can only point to anecdotal evidence to estimate the extent of FGM.

"I think some people leave some traditions behind, but some traditions are stronger than others," Mohamud says. "This is one that's very strong. The community here sees explicit sex on television, they hear a lot of alien things, and so it becomes more urgent for mothers to do this to their daughters so the girls don't fall into loose groups. They think if they don't follow the tradition, they don't know what will happen."

It is estimated that at least 7,000 women and girls immigrate to the United States each year from countries where at least a majority of females, if not all of them, are circumcised. Most of these new immigrants live in California, New York, and the Washington, D.C., area. It is difficult to determine the true circumcision rates in their home countries, because in most the practice is not discussed publicly. Nevertheless, rough estimates of what is common in each country suggest that almost half the women of Africa have been circumcised. The rate of FGM in Somalia is nearly 100 percent, in Ethiopia over 90 percent, in Egypt 50 percent. The list of places where it is traditionally practiced includes twenty-six countries in Africa and various areas of the Middle East, Asia, and South America. Even if only a small percentage of newly arrived families from these countries maintain the tradition of FGM, these figures suggest that hundreds of young girls either brought here or born here are in danger each year.

Mimi Ramsey spent part of the past year trying to track down circumcisers rumored to be living in this country. But not all families depend on finding a circumciser. Last September, Ramsey heard about a man in San Jose who had just circumcised his daughter over the objections of his wife. He had waited until his wife left the house and then locked his three-year-old in the bedroom with him and performed the FGM. "He said that she was too wild," Ramsey says. "She liked to play outside too much. She had friends who were boys. He said this will tame her."

If a native-born American father had mutilated his daughter, the action would incontrovertibly constitute child abuse. But this country is at best ambivalent about its role and responsibility in preventing and punishing FGM. In fact, other than in the three states previously mentioned, there is almost no legal protection against FGM for girls in the United States, both because it's difficult to uncover and because, absent a specific law against the practice, courts are unsure about how to punish it. One effort at prosecuting a woman in Georgia who cut off her niece's clitoris failed in part because of the legal confusion surrounding the problem.

"Legislating these issues is going to be really crucial," says Leah Sears, a justice on the Supreme Court of Georgia who has been doing research on FGM and legal questions pertaining to it. "Legal issues concerning FGMare complex. Can an adult woman do this to herself? We American women consent to have our breasts enlarged, which is another bizarre thing women do for the pleasure of men. Is that so different? I think we need comprehensive legislation in this area."

In England and Canada—places where people from FGM-practicing countries have immigrated—laws against FGM and against taking a child out of the country to circumcise her have been passed. France has also made FGM illegal, and in 1993 it sentenced a Gambian woman to five years in prison after she paid $70.00 to have her two daughters circumcised. The medical associations in most of the Canadian provinces have passed prohibitions with strict penalties against circumcision and reinfibulation (sewing the vagina nearly shut again after childbirth). They have also begun educational efforts in those communities where FGM is most likely, preferring to discourage the practice rather than punish a parent after a girl has been circumcised. Unlike the United States, these countries take it for granted that FGM is occurring. Even though most U.S. legal experts interpret child-abuse laws broadly to cover FGM, very few preventive measures, such as education and community outreach, have been implemented in this country.

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