Women & Girls in the U.S. Are At Risk of Female Genital Mutilation

FGM is happening in our own backyard, threatening the health and lives of more than half a million Americans.

Every year, on February 6, Sanctuary joins thousands of advocates across the world to observe the International Day of Zero Tolerance for Female Genital Mutilation (FGM)—A form of gender-based violence endured by more than 200 million women and girls worldwide that involves the partial or complete removal of the external female genitalia or other injury to the female genital organs for non-medical reasons.

What is FGM?

Female genital mutilation is internationally recognized as a violation of human rights. It is a universal practice, not prescribed by any religious teachings, typically performed on girls from infancy through puberty. Victims of FGM often suffer from severe, long-lasting physical and psychological harm, and many have lost their lives to this form of violence.

Immediate complications and health risks associated with this practice can include severe pain, excessive bleeding, swelling of genital tissue, fever, infection, urinary problems, injury to surrounding genital tissue, shock, and death. Long-term consequences can include urinary, vaginal, and menstrual issues, painful genital scarring and keloids, decreased sexual pleasure, reduced sexual functioning, and increased risk of complications during childbirth, as well as depression, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress disorder (“PTSD”), among other psychological problems.

Prevalence of FGM in the United States

Due to the secretive nature of FGM and the lack of resources allocated to the research of this practice, it is impossible to say for sure how many girls in the U.S. are at risk of female genital mutilation. Nonetheless, we know from experience that FGM is taking place in our own backyard, at alarming rates.

According to the Center for Disease Control (CDC), more than 513,000 women and girls in the U.S. have experienced or are currently at risk of undergoing this practice. This is more than three times higher than an earlier estimate based on 1990 data. Based on survivors’ testimony and research conducted by Sanctuary and other anti-FGM advocates, we believe that the incidence of FGM for women and girls in the United States may be even higher. Our data shows that FGM is being practiced in New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Texas, Colorado, Washington, California, Georgia, Michigan, Minnesota, Kentucky, Kansas, and Washington, D.C. It also suggests an even greater number of girls from the U.S. are taken abroad to be subjected to this violence, a practice known as “vacation cutting.” Today, however, there is no federal prohibition on this rampant violation of women’s rights in the United States.

FGM Legislation in the United States

The U.S. stands with Australia, the United Kingdom, Canada, New Zealand and thirteen other countries in Western Europe in banning female genital mutilation. The practice was first banned by Congress in 1996 with the adoption of the Prohibition of Female Genital Mutilation Act (18 U.S.C. § 116). Because this federal ban fell short in addressing the issue of vacation cutting, Sanctuary and fellow advocates fought to protect American girls abroad and succeeded. In 2013, the act was amended to outlaw the transport of women and girls out of the U.S. for the purpose of FGM.

The first blow to the federal FGM prohibition came in 2018, when the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan returned a decision in the matter United States v. Nagarwala. In November of that year, Judge Friedman dropped most of the charges against the defendants, two doctors and four parents accused of mutilating the genitals of nine young girls. Five of the nine girls had been transported across state lines from Minnesota and Illinois (where state FGM prohibitions existed) to Michigan (where no state-level prohibition existed at the time). Prosecutors also estimated that Dr. Nagarwala and her accomplices may have cut as many as 100 girls.  Judge Friedman, however, declared in his ruling that the 1996 federal ban was unconstitutional:

“FGM is a ‘local criminal activity’ which, in keeping with longstanding tradition and our federal system of government, is for the states to regulate, not Congress.” – Judge Bernard Friedman

The District Court’s decision was driven in part by the misguided belief that FGM cannot be a commercial activity and that the “market” for FGM was limited to the parents of the nine girls in this case. Fortunately, the STOP FGM Act of 2020, introduced by Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Texas) and signed by President Trump in January 2021, closed this loophole by amending the FGM statute to clarify the commercial nature of the practice. The new law also increased criminal penalties for performing FGM and expanded the scope of punishable offenses.

TAKE ACTION

Like other forms of gender-based violence, female genital mutilation is pervasive and cannot be eradicated based solely on state criminal laws. In addition to enacting new laws to deter U.S. families from practicing female genital mutilation, both at home and abroad, we must fight the misconceptions fueled by the profound lack of public awareness and research on the topic of FGM. Survivors from varying backgrounds—Christian, Muslim, American, West African, Indian, Pakistani, Egyptian—have courageously come forward to share their stories and advocate against the practice.  It is time we listen to them.

Special thanks to our partners at Cleary Gottlieb Steen & Hamilton LLP for supporting our research and anti-FGM advocacy efforts. 

Donate today and declare zero tolerance for FGM so that girls in 2022 and beyond can live free from violence.

Take Action This Domestic Violence Awareness Month

The tragic and sensationalized murder of Gabby Petito put a national spotlight on the issue of domestic violence last month — Take action to support survivors and keep the conversation going through October and beyond.

The tragic and sensationalized murder of Gabby Petito put a national spotlight on the issue of domestic violence last month — the racial disparities in resources and attention afforded to Black and brown missing persons, the limitations of our country’s domestic violence laws, and the role of the police officers who enforce them.
..
Yet as the weeks have passed and the search for Petito’s alleged murderer continues, what was becoming a fruitful conversation about abuse and femicide has unsurprisingly stalled just when it should be picking up.
.
..
October is Domestic Violence Awareness Month (DVAM). Join advocates and survivors here in New York and across the country in educating yourself and your communities about the dynamics of abuse, and raise awareness about resources available to victims. Here are a few ways you can get involved:
.

Attend a Virtual Event

Join Sanctuary, fellow service providers, advocates, and supporters during the month of October.

  • October 14,  Moving Through Trauma and Beyond @ 6:00 PM via Zoom – Hosted by Sanctuary’s Survivor Leadership Coalition, this survivor-led panel will explore the connection between mind and body, and how different modalities build pathways towards healing. RSVP here.
  • October 26, Above & Beyond Virtual Pro Bono Achievement Awards and Benefit @ 6:30 PM via Zoom – Join us as we honor members of the legal community who have gone “above and beyond” by providing outstanding pro bono representation and advocacy to survivors of gender violence. RSVP here.
  • October 26, Vicarious Trauma and Resilience: Creating Space to Care for Yourself and Your Clients @ 1:00 PM via PLI – Learn from current and former Sanctuary staff and advocates how to identify vicarious trauma and the steps you and your organizations can take to address it. Register here.

Request a Training

Our staff and survivor leaders are available to lead virtual trainings for community members and groups – including schools, hospitals, law enforcement, courts and judges, faith communities, and cultural groups – who are interested in learning how to identify and support survivors. Learn more.
 

Wear Purple and Speak Out on Social Media on Thursday, Oct. 21

On NYC Go Purple Day, wear purple as a way to spark conversation and awareness about domestic violence. You can participate by taking a photo of yourself wearing purple. Send your photo to Info@sffny.org and answer the prompt: Today, I wear purple [for/because/to] _________.

We’ll share your photos on Go Purple Day. You can also post on your own social media accounts and tag us on Instagram and Twitter @SFFNY or on Facebook and LinkedIn @sanctuaryforfamilies.
.

Donate to Sanctuary

Your support ensures our ability to deliver counseling services, legal representation, career-readiness training, and shelter to thousands of immigrant and low-income survivors and families every year.

    MAKE A GIFT   
.
Take action to keep the conversation about domestic violence going through Domestic Violence Awareness Month and beyond.

Take Action During Domestic Violence Awareness Month

The Coronavirus pandemic has put a spotlight on domestic violence, and led to a surge in reported cases across the country and around the world. With the possibility of a second wave of COVID-19 cases and shutdowns looming this winter, we must act now.

The Coronavirus pandemic has put a spotlight on domestic violence, and led to a surge in reported cases across the country and around the world. With the possibility of a second wave of COVID-19 cases and shutdowns looming this winter, we must act now.
.
.
October is Domestic Violence Awareness Month (DVAM), a time when we join fellow advocates to educate our communities about the dynamics of abusive relationships so that every New Yorker is equipped to identify abuse and access support or refer services to those in need — and the need right now is great:
.
.

Learn how you can support survivors during Domestic Violence Awareness Month:

Attend a Virtual Event

Join Sanctuary, fellow service providers, advocates, and supporters during the month of October.
.

Learn About Domestic Violence and How We’re Adapting under COVID-19

Browse our website and read our latest blog posts to better understand the various forms domestic violence takes and how Sanctuary is meeting this moment and addressing the urgent needs of survivors during this pandemic.
.

Request a Training

Our staff and survivor leaders are available to lead virtual trainings for community members and groups including schools, hospitals, law enforcement, courts and judges, faith communities, and cultural groups who are interested in learning how to identify and support survivors.
.

Wear Purple and Speak Out on Social Media

On NYC Go Purple Day (2020 date TBD), New Yorkers are encouraged to wear purple as a way to spark conversation and awareness about domestic violence. We won’t be able to gather in person so instead, we’re asking you to participate by taking a selfie wearing purple. Send your photo to info@sffny.org and answer the prompt: Today, I wear purple [for/because/to] _______. We’ll share your photos on Go Purple Day. You can also post on your own social media and tag us on Instagram and Twitter @sffny or on Facebook and LinkedIn @sanctuaryforfamilies.
.

Donate to Sanctuary

Our services have been a lifeline to survivors quarantining with abusive partners and families struggling with the economic challenges of the pandemic. During New York’s lockdown, our shelters remained open. Make a donation today in honor of the essential workers who ensure our shelters remain open and safe havens for those leaving abusive situations.

MAKE A GIFT

By taking action today, you’ll help us shine a light on domestic violence. We hope you will join us. 

ACTION ALERT: Stop the Trump Administration from Eliminating Asylum

Act now to make sure immigrant survivors can continue building lives free from violence in the United States.

Our sincere gratitude goes out to everyone who took action in defense of asylum and to Chapman and Cutler LLP for assisting Sanctuary in submitting a detailed comment to DHS & DOJ.


The Trump administration has just proposed regulations that would effectively eliminate gender-based asylum claims, prohibiting individuals fleeing domestic violence, human trafficking, forced marriage, female genital mutilation, anti-LGBTQ violence, and other forms of gender-based persecution from seeking safe haven in the United States. By codifying into federal law its numerous and sprawling anti-asylum policies, these rules represent the most consequential attempt by this administration to dismantle asylum protection for the most vulnerable survivors.

Relying on the decision in Matter of A-B- by Former Attorney General Jeff Sessions, the rules propose a change to the very definition of “refugee”— a crucial protection created under international law and enshrined in the Immigration and Nationality Act. The rules further eliminate any possibility of protection for survivors of domestic violence and anti-LGBTQ violence by framing such violence as “private criminal acts” or “interpersonal disputes.”

At Sanctuary, we work with gender violence survivors, 70% of whom are immigrants. Many are seeking asylum due to extreme intimate partner violence, female genital mutilation (FGM), and/or death threats they experienced in their home countries. 


Click here to learn more about our work or continue reading for instructions on how to push back on the Trump administration’s latest effort.


The proposed asylum rule represents an unconscionable attack on our clients and others seeking humanitarian protections to escape violence, protect themselves and their families, and work towards a new life. With assistance from Chapman and Cutler LLP, Sanctuary submitted a detailed comment urging the Department of Justice and the Department of Homeland Security to withdraw the proposed rules in their entirety.


HOW TO SUBMIT A COMMENT

Our friends at Immigration Equality have created an Individual action takers guide that includes sample comments asking DHS and DOJ to withdraw the proposed rule. All you need to do is personalize the sample comment and briefly explain, in your own voice, why the U.S. must preserve access to protection for all asylum seekers, including survivors of gender-based violence. Comments must be submitted by 11:59 PM ET on Wed. July 15. 

SUBMIT A COMMENT NOW 

Please, DO NOT copy and submit the sample comment as it is—The U.S. government is required by law to review and respond to unique comments only. We strongly encourage you to personalize your message so that it speaks to your own individual and/or professional experiences.  

You can also find visit the Interfaith Immigration Coalition’s asylum rule web-hub to find detailed templates specifically geared towards attorneys and legal service providers by the Tahirih Justice Center, National Immigrant Justice Center, Immigration Equality, and the Catholic Legal Immigration Network, Inc. (CLINIC), among others representing specific perspectives (e.g., templates from the Alliance for Immigrant Survivors for domestic violence/sexual assault advocates, from the Young Center for Immigrant Children’s Rights for children’s advocates, from Physicians for Human Rights for health professionals, and from the Coalition to End Violence Against Women taking a U.S. foreign policy angle).


SANCTUARY’S IMMIGRATION WORK

For over 30 years, Sanctuary for Families has served and advocated for survivors of gender violence regardless of immigration status, offering the highest quality of legal representation to clients in order to protect their right to due process.

In the face of Matter of A-B– and other anti-immigrant policies, Sanctuary’s Immigration Intervention Project has led the field in fighting for our clients and other survivors of gender-based violence, advancing—and winning—asylum claims on their behalf based on theories of feminist political opinion. Take, for example, our client Ms. O-T-, a Honduran woman who testified before a judge at the New York Immigration Court in the fall of 2019.

Ms. O-T-‘s Story

As a young woman from a rural village in Guatemala who was removed from school at the age of 9 and who spoke little Spanish and no English, Ms. O-T’s pro se I-589 application demonstrated little to no understanding of the legal framework underlying her valid claim for asylum, let alone the type of evidence supportive of her claim.  With the help of Sanctuary counsel, Ms. O-T- was able to testify to the court not just about the severity of the harm she experienced at the hands of her husband, but also about the many ways her individual actions expressing independence from both her husband and the patriarchal community to which she belonged prompted increased violence and threats to her body and her life.

For the first time since entering the United States and asking for asylum protection, Ms. O-T- felt liberated to tell her story simply and directly. Her testimony—sincere and succinct, and punctuated by moments of emotional release—served to assist the judge in ascertaining not just the factual elements underlying her claim for asylum but also her credibility as a witness. Even the government’s cross-examination of her testimony served to solidify her claim as she further clarified some of the more complicated aspects of her experience as a survivor.  The court’s ultimate finding—that this young woman was persecuted by her partner because of her feminist political opinion—would have been impossible under the Proposed Regulation since it allows for the pretermission of an asylum application that does not, on its face, present a legally cognizable claim for asylum.

Taking Action for Our Clients

Sanctuary’s immigration team has consistently, and with success, argued before the immigration courts and the asylum office about the importance of country conditions evidence in framing our client’s claim for asylum within a specific cultural and political context. The Proposed Rules would bar consideration of such evidence, ignoring the reality that persecution of an individual cannot be considered in a vacuum and must be looked within the context of wider societal realities remains.

Now more than ever, we stand committed to pushing back against the incremental erosion of the rights of immigrant survivors seeking protection in this country. Please join us by taking action today.

SUBMIT COMMENT NOW


Learn more about our recent immigration advocacy efforts here.