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 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

Up until two years ago, the U.S. stood 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. But a more recent ruling struck down the federal ban as unconstitutional, leaving hundreds of thousands of girls in the U.S. at risk of female genital mutilation.

The first blow to the federal FGM prohibition came when the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan returned a decision in the matter United States v. Nagarwala. On November 20, 2018, 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

In early 2019, the Department of Justice and the Solicitor General filed a notice of appeal against this tragic decision but later chose not to pursue it. Since then, the House of Representatives has attempted to defend the constitutionality of the ban after the executive branch declined to do so.  Unfortunately, on September 13, 2019, the Sixth Circuit granted the federal government’s motion to voluntarily dismiss its own appeal of the District Court’s decision– a ruling 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.

TAKE ACTION

Now, we face the difficult situation of outlawing female genital mutilation on our own soil—again.  As the United States has done before, it must stand up, identify, and decry this form of gender-based violence. This practice 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 2020 and beyond can live free from violence.

10 times we came closer to ending gender violence in 2015

In 2015, we faced successes and challenges in our continued to work to end gender violence. Thank you for joining us.

1) Passing the Trafficking Victims Protection and Justice Act (TVPJA)

After nearly four years of advocacy, we finally saw TVPJA pass in New York State. This new law increases penalties for traffickers and improves protections for minor victims of sex trafficking. It took incredible hard work and collaboration on the part of organizers, legislators, survivors, friends and peers to make this happen.

2) Giving 146 women a new shot at economic stability through our Economic Empowerment Program (EEP)

In August, we held our second graduation of 2015 for participants who completed our Office Operations Workshop. Throughout the year, 146 women completed EEP programming, gaining interview skills, job search assistance, intensive IT training and MS Office certifications. On average, graduates from the program in 2015 had a starting salary of $12.90, over $4 more than New York State’s private sector minimum wage.

3) Increasing our impact by 50%

We served nearly 15,000 adults, women and children – an increase of 50% from our previous year’s service numbers. Additionally, we doubled the number of people reached through our outreach efforts, connecting with over 40,000 community members, law enforcement officials, teachers, faith leaders, and others who seek to make a difference for survivors of gender violence.

4) Getting survivors out of shelter and into housing

We run five shelters at Sanctuary, including New York’s largest transitional domestic violence shelter, Sarah Burke House. But with the housing crisis in New York City, the numbers of clients successfully transitioning from shelter to safe housing dwindled. Thanks to the city’s new LINC program and amazing advocacy by our staff and partners, 70% of our Sarah Burke House clients found safe housing – up from 32% the previous year.

5) Launching the Domestic Violence Intervention, Education and Prevention Program (DVIEP)

In March, Sanctuary launched DVIEP, placing case managers at nine Police Service Areas throughout NYC. These case managers conduct outreach and assist survivors of domestic violence living in NYC public housing – their work is critical for educating police and the community.

6) Celebrating 30 years of Sanctuary

In June, we celebrated our thirtieth year of serving survivors of gender violence in New York. While Sanctuary’s mission, scope and size have changed over time, we remain true to our orginal goal: helping adults and children live life free from abuse.

7) Raising $2.1 million and breaking records at Zero Tolerance

Our Zero Tolerance Benefit in June is a beloved Sanctuary tradition, and year after year serves as a game-changing fundraiser that keeps us going in this life-saving work. We were so excited when our supporters came through this year by helping us raise over $2.1 million at the event – breaking a record for the most ever raised at ZT!

8) Unveiling the new sanctuaryforfamilies.org

After seven years of serving us well, Sanctuary’s website was in desperate need of a face lift. In July we were so excited to launch a brand new website: the new site makes it easier to get help, learn about domestic violence, see Sanctuary’s impact, hear from our clients, and features our brand-new blog.

9) Reaching more families than ever at the holidays

With significant increases in our programming and the number of survivors we serve, we saw many high-needs families in need of joy, cheer and support this holiday season. Thankfully, our amazing donors “adopted” 139 families and fulfilled their holiday wishlists. Other supporters and volunteers made it possible for us to distribute 1,400 more gifts to additional clients in need!

10) Speaking out against hate, and envisioning a peaceful 2016

It was a remarkable year here at Sanctuary. This work is never easy, and for all the joys there were many challenges, including hateful political rhetoric that impacted many of our Muslim clients and staff. Take a moment to read Executive Director Judy H. Kluger’s New Year’s message, which speaks out against the prejudice we saw in 2015, and envisions a better year to come.

Thank you for all of your support.