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.

Skadden Arps Team Secures Asylum Status for FGM Survivor and Helps her Build a New Life in the U.S.

At this year’s Above & Beyond Pro Bono Achievement Awards and Benefit, we’re honoring a team from Skadden Arps for their dedicated pro bono work on behalf of an asylum seeker from Guinea. Read to learn more.

Todd Schmid is Legal Counsel at HSBC Bank and member of Sanctuary’s PBC.

At this year’s Above & Beyond Pro Bono Achievement Awards and Benefit, Sanctuary for Families is honoring a team from Skadden Arps for their dedicated pro bono work on behalf of an asylum seeker from Guinea.  The Skadden team includes Mariam Adamashvili, Avelina Burbridge, Sarah D. Kalin, Ana Maria Pearce, Sarah R. Ridel, Victoria Smallwood, and Gabrielle E. Wolf.

Aimée

Picture this: a group of women huddled nervously but hopefully around a desk counter at a quiet government building on the fringes of New York City, awaiting a decision that would directly impact the life of one, and would ultimately affect the lives of every woman in the room.

When Aimée received the news that she had been granted asylum in the United States, she grew weak in the knees, falling back into the arms of her legal team. It was an emotional and powerful moment. It was the culmination of the hard work of a dedicated team of attorneys and legal staff at Skadden Arps and the consistent determination of their ever-brave and motivated client, Aimée (not her real name), a woman from Guinea, all with the incredible support of Sanctuary for Families over the course of two years.

Female Genital Muilation

Aimée, as a child, endured female genital mutilation or cutting (“FGM/C”), and other domestic abuse, in her home country, Guinea, where the practice has deep family and sociocultural roots and is often considered a rite of passage, despite the immediate complications and long-term physical, sexual and psychological consequences that so often result. “It is often viewed as a way to control a woman’s desire, as a way to inhibit her freedom,” noted Gabrielle Wolf, Director at Innisfree M&A Incorporated and a former Skadden attorney.

Guinea formally banned FGM/C in the 1960s but still has the second highest rate in the world, with virtually no enforcement or cases brought to trial. International political recognition of the problem is a key step forward, as the human rights issue rarely attracts the public attention it deserves, let alone political resolve.

The United Nations, the World Health Organization and many other international and national government organizations fully recognize this practice as a violation of the human rights of girls and women, reflecting deep inequality between the sexes, and an extreme form of discrimination against women. However, there are many ongoing challenges to building an effective on-the-ground public health and advocacy response, and the practice has far from disappeared in many countries, including Guinea.

Sanctuary Turns to Skadden Arps

When Aimée came to Sanctuary for Families, they quickly discovered that the original asylum application she had filed was patchy and did not adequately detail the abuse she had suffered as both a child and an adult.   Sanctuary turned  to Skadden Arps to prepare a more robust application on her behalf. The firm quickly assembled a team of attorneys and legal assistants, who began working to understand Aimée’s case and to fortify her application in an ever-evolving political and legal environment. Representing Aimée was not without its challenges. Skadden attorney Sarah Kalin explained:

“Asylum work is not our day job, so trying to remain abreast as laws, policies, even as the sentiments of these agencies were changing day to day quickly became more of a full-time job than we expected.”

The women who endure FGM/C often lack the political voice to share their stories. “But for Aimée, working with a talented group of dedicated women, who not only met with her on legal matters but often accompanied her to medical and other appointments, was empowering,” said Skadden attorney Avelina Burbridge.  In reflecting upon her team, Aimée shared:

“These wonderful and brave women lawyers have spared no effort to get me where I am today.”

Yet the women who had the chance to represent her felt that Aimée inspired them, too. Sarah Kalin shared:

“She is not unlike each of us: she’s about our age; she’s smart and educated, but she just happened to grow up in a different part of the world. To see how she made her way to the U.S., without speaking the language, without much in the way of support; to witness her story evolve and watch her integrate into American society, always with the support of Sanctuary, and to really build a life for herself is inspiring. She is a real asset to American society.”

Looking Toward the Future

The team still stays in touch with Aimée today, and with Sanctuary’s talented support, they have watched her confidence soar, as she improves her English skills and receives robust job training to further her aspirations to pursue a career in health services. Recently, she obtained a Home Health Aid Certificate and graduated from Sanctuary’s Economic Empowerment Program.

“I’ve regained the humanity, the self-confidence, and the appetite for life that I thought I’d lost forever. Today I have a good head on my shoulders and find fulfillment in the unconditional love of my son. If there exists an American dream, mine is my encounter with Sanctuary for Families.”

– Aimée

Join us at our Above & Beyond celebration on November 13, 2018, at the RUMI Event Space, 229 W 28th St, New York, NY as we honor Skadden Arps’ outstanding pro bono work.  You can buy tickets here

If you can’t join us, but would like to support Sanctuary for Family’s work, please consider making an Above & Beyond donation here.

Adama Lee Bah, 22, in the Financial District of Manhattan on June 26, 2017. Bah, originally from Guinea, was 7 when she was forced to undergo FGM and she now works to help end the practice. (Benjamin Chasteen/The Epoch Times

I’m a survivor of female genital mutilation and I’m changing the world because of it

As a survivor of FGM, I deem it fit to create awareness on this harmful cultural practice affecting women and girls.

Where I am from, a girl is recognized by the following: Who is her father? Who is her husband?  Where are her children? Society believes these are the only stages in a girl’s life. Men and women spend their whole lives teaching their girls how to eat, drink, walk and subject their girls to female genital mutilation (FGM) and early marriage in the name of religion and culture.

I am from The Gambia; the smallest country in mainland Africa. We have a population of about two million people, 60% of whom are young people under the age of 24. Almost half of the population lives in abject poverty. In my country, women bear the weight of these challenges and endure all the injustices society has to offer despite the fact that our government signed and ratified the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, and is also a signatory to the Beijing Declaration which has the singular purpose of promoting gender equality and empowerment of women around the world.

As a survivor of FGM, I believe it’s my duty to create awareness on this harmful cultural practice affecting women and girls. I would not have done all my activism both local and international without my father’s firm belief in girls’ empowerment through education. With all my experience and both formal and informal educational background, I decided to represent and speak for the voiceless.

Where I come from

I am the sixth child of my parents’ seven children, all of whom started school as early as 4 years old. I was the only one who started school at age 7 because my father was more interested in teaching me the Holy Quran first before enrolling me to school.  He wanted me to understand the fundamental principles of Islam and differentiate Islamic values from cultural values. My father made sure I was going to school and at the same time attending Arabic school.

At the age of 11, I memorized the Holy Quran and started studying Islamic Sharia law. I attended a Catholic middle school during the day, and in the evening I went for my Islamic studies. Going to a Catholic school made me an outcast in my society and during my Grade 9 exams, my Islamic teacher would keep me in the mosque until late hours before releasing me in order to prevent me from studying for my exams.  The only difference between other girls in my country at the time and me was that I had an advocate who went against all the odds to make sure I had the same opportunities boys had to reach their fullest potential.

Although my father was not able to protect me when my aunty kidnapped me and took me to the circumciser, he taught me the Holy Quran and made sure I attended school.  My father was called “Western” and was denied access to Muslim gatherings because he never asked me to wear hijab.  He was a disabled man and he relied on his wheelchair, but he worked very hard to empower my mother who took over his business after his stroke. Unlike many of my friends’ fathers, he believed a woman could be more than a housewife.

Finding my voice

In May 2011, I was appointed as the head girl of Nusrat Senior Secondary School. One of my many responsibilities was to work with the staff to improve girls’ academic performance. In my research, I discovered most of the girls in my school were betrothed to be married. Some faced domestic violence, and others were victims of teenage pregnancy. As a result, they were often expelled while the perpetrators continued to go to school.

With the help of my father and the school administration, I organized an All Girls Conference for 700 girls from different schools in the greater Banjul (the capital city) area. This event served as a platform for girls from different backgrounds to come together and discuss issues hindering their performance in school with mentors, counseling experts, and peer health educators. At the end of the meeting, the participants came up with a pledge. My school helped me send it to the Vice President, the Office of Women’s Affairs and the Ministry of Basic and Secondary Education and I was granted audience by the Minister of Basic Education and a representative from the Office of the Vice President for follow ups on the issues raised by the girls at the conference.

I also made a video about early marriage in the Gambia with the support of my father, Young People in the Media, and The Gambia Committee on Harmful Traditional Practices-Access Gambia (GAMCOTRA). Working with GAMCOTRA, I went to rural Gambia where I spoke with victims of early marriage and learned the challenges they face in their daily lives.

The All Girls Conference and my video helped me launch a gender sensitization curriculum for young people to address and prevent gender-based violence in all schools and communities together with the Ministry of Basic and Secondary Education.

Challenging my culture

After I graduated from high school in August 2013, I was elected President of Young People in the Media, an organization which aims to use media to create a greater understanding of the developmental issues facing children and young people and to give youth the opportunity to express their feelings and aspirations. I decided to start a radio talk show to address issues faced by young people, especially girls. On the show, I challenged religious leaders who were preaching that FGM is written in the Quran and that a woman’s place is in her husband’s house. I studied the Quran for twelve years, and there is no chapter where Allah says a woman needs to be mutilated or a woman should not speak up.

In June 2013, I was invited to Abuja, Nigeria by the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) to speak on the role of young people in media and information literacy. After this meeting, I organized a capacity building training titled “Media Literacy: Incorporating Child Rights in a Changing Information Age.” The goal was to promote freedom of expression, access to the information youth need in order to be educated about technology, and to show them how they can use it to their advantage.

In December 2013, UNESCO organized the first Global Alliance on Media Information Literacy and Gender in Bangkok, Thailand. The main purpose of this event was to promote gender equality in the media. I was invited to participate as the UNESCO youth representative in the Global Alliance for Media and Information Literacy. I advocated for the inclusion of media and information literacy in school curricula because our President, who came to power through coup d’état in 1994, did not support freedom of the press.

With the support of UNESCO and the American Embassy in Banjul, my organization was able to train journalists and social media activists on how to engage people on online platforms, create online videos, and write blogs. The outcome of this was clear in our 2016 presidential election during which online media platforms were flooded with content.

How I will change the world

When my father died in 2014, his younger brother stepped in. He wanted to inherit my mother and he threatened to mutilate me a second time and marry me off, but my mom refused.

I fled to the United States and upon my arrival, I connected with Pooja Asnani, a lawyer at Sanctuary for Families. Pooja told me about Special Immigrant Juvenile Status, an option for young people who have been abused, neglected, or abandoned. Pooja represented me in Family Court and helped me obtain the orders I needed to apply for legal permanent resident status. In the summer of 2015, I received my green card thanks to Pooja and Sanctuary’s help.

These days I am pretty busy. As a Youth Representative on the UN Communications Coordination Committee’s Board of Directors, I represent the voices of the young and bring the attention of the Council to issues affecting young people. I stay connected to Sanctuary through their FGM Coalition. As head of the Coalition’s Youth Advocacy Committee I work with members to raise awareness about the dangers of FGM in New York’s African communities.

I am also working with Nobel Peace Prize nominee, Dr. Masood Katamee. He is a clinical professor at the New York School of Medicine and the founder of a gynecology and fertility research foundation, and together we are organizing a conference on June 22nd at the UN Headquarters with the theme Eradicating Harmful Cultural Practices Impacting Women’s and Girl’s Health and Well-being.

I am additionally working with UNESCO Paris to develop an app that will enable students in Africa to access library resources on their smartphones so that they don’t have to travel long distances in order to go to their school library. I am building this app based on my experience and the experiences of many young people in developing countries.

This fall, I plan to attend college. I want to study Women’s and Gender Studies because I will be able to learn not only about gender issues, but about sexuality, social class, ethnicity, race, and nationality. Studying the consequences of inequality in this way can help us shape a better world.

In the future, I plan to work with UN organizations like UN Women to encourage men to advocate for women’s equality.

I know I can influence change. By sharing my experiences as an African girl with the world, I believe I can create a difference in the lives of young people everywhere.

Former Skadden Associate Michael Van Hulle Honored for His Work with Survivors of Gender Violence

At this year’s Above & Beyond Pro Bono Achievement Awards and Benefit, Sanctuary for Families is honoring former Skadden litigation associate Michael Van Hulle for his pro bono work on behalf of six Sanctuary clients, all survivors of gender violence, whose lives were put on hold as they waited for years for their asylum office interviews to be scheduled.

michael-van-hulleAt this year’s Above & Beyond Pro Bono Achievement Awards and Benefit, Sanctuary for Families is  honoring Michael Van Hulle, a former litigation associate at Skadden,  for his pro bono work on behalf of six Sanctuary clients, all survivors of gender violence, whose lives were put on hold as they waited for years for their asylum office
interviews to be scheduled. 

Fleeing gender violence, asylum seekers find themselves in limbo

In early 2015, Sanctuary for Families reached out to Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom LLP with a unique request –   a mandamus action against U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (“USCIS”).  Sanctuary had six asylum clients who had been waiting years for their asylum interviews.  The clients fled from various forms of gender violence abroad, from female genital mutilation (“FGM”) and forced marriage to domestic violence and trafficking, to seek protection from the U.S. government.

Although federal regulations require that USCIS grant interviews to asylum applicants no later than 45 days after the date their application is filed, backlogs at the asylum offices have led to an average wait time of two to three years for interviews in New York and New Jersey.

As a result of these significant delays, asylum seekers find themselves in limbo, remain separated from family members still at risk of violence overseas, and struggle to make ends meet due to ineligibility for public assistance, housing, and even Medicaid in certain states.

Dania Lopez Beltran (former Sanctuary attorney) and Sanctuary attorney Sayoni Maitra reached out to Skadden regarding the possibility of filing a mandamus complaint on behalf of Sanctuary’s clients. Dania and Sayoni had learned that Michael recently worked on a similar matter for Immigration Equality and therefore had the expertise needed for this particular lawsuit.  This was Michael’s first Sanctuary matter, and he was excited to get involved again on behalf of deserving asylum clients who needed legal representation.

Changing USCIS policy

Michael moved quickly.  He drafted and filed under seal a complaint seeking a writ of mandamus in the Southern District of New York against the New York and Newark Asylum Offices on behalf of Sanctuary’s clients.  The complaint alleged that USCIS was statutorily required to interview each asylum applicant within 45 days.

After the complaint was filed, Michael heard back from an Assistant United States Attorney in the Southern District of New York.  Up until early 2015, USCIS had been utilizing a “last in, first out” system of scheduling asylum interviews.  This meant that applicants who had submitted their applications most recently were scheduled interviews before those who filed years before.

However, just around the time Michael filed the mandamus complaint on behalf of Sanctuary’s clients, USCIS switched to a “first in, first out” policy, so that those cases dating back to around 2012 would now be scheduled interviews at the New York and Newark Asylum Offices. While a welcome change, the policy shift did not reduce the average wait times facing asylum applicants, and those who filed after 2012 continued to languish in purgatory while their interviews remained unscheduled.

USCIS’s new approach to scheduling asylum interviews benefited some of Sanctuary’s clients.  Two of Sanctuary’s clients, however, remained in limbo after the policy change and could not afford to wait another year or two for an interview.  They were in particular need of immediate assistance, and it was on their behalf that Michael’s advocacy and perseverance paid off.

Campaigning on his clients’ behalf

The first client, Ms. A, had daughters back in her home country who were at an age when most girls in their community have already been subjected to FGM.  In 2013, after Ms. A’s husband and children went into hiding, Ms. A fled to the United States to seek asylum, hoping that she could then apply for her husband and children to join her.  As time passed, however, Ms. A feared more and more that her daughters would be located by her family and forced to undergo FGM.  Scheduling her asylum interview therefore became critical.

The second client, Ms. B, had been repeatedly raped for years by her trafficker until she was finally able to escape from him.  As a result of the sexual abuse that she was subjected to, Ms. B experienced medical symptoms that worsened over the years and required immediate medical care by the time she was in the United States in 2013.  However, in New Jersey, where she was located, individuals with pending immigration applications are ineligible for Medicaid, and without Medicaid, Ms. B remained unable to obtain the treatment that she desperately needed.

Michael diligently and passionately advocated on behalf of Sanctuary’s clients, through letters and phone calls, explaining the urgency that was now facing each woman.  He told each woman’s story, of why USCIS’s utter failure to abide by the 45-day rule was creating an increasingly dire situation. 

Eventually, his campaign led to settlement negotiations with the Assistant U.S. Attorney, pursuant to which all six Sanctuary clients, including Ms. A and Ms. B, were finally able to get what they’ve been fighting for:  their interview dates.  Having been granted asylum, Ms. A has applied for her children to join her as asylee derivatives, and Ms. B was enrolled in Medicaid to receive the health care she needed for so long.

Heroes among us

Reflecting on the phenomenal outcome of his negotiations and efforts, Michael stated that he was proud to have been able to make a real difference in the clients’ lives.  When he initially took on the matter, he read through each woman’s asylum application.  He marveled at the strength demonstrated by each woman, and the adversity that they had to overcome to escape their circumstances.  He remarked,

“There aren’t heroic people doing heroic things anymore; but here, I would read these affidavits, and think, ‘Wow, that is actually heroic.’ [It was hard to read through these applications without], getting a little teary eyed.”

The emotions became even more poignant when the settlement with the U.S. Attorney’s Office was signed in late 2015.  He felt “good,” remarking, “It really was difficult to beat the raw emotional impact of getting to do this type of work.”  His hard work brought about a positive change to the lives of six women who had survived – with a heroic level of grace and courage – acts of incomprehensible cruelty and horror.  His advocacy also held the government accountable for their decisions not to abide by a clear statutory requirement, by pointing out the costs and consequences that were at risk.  It was a touching end to his time at Skadden.

Being able to see the matter to conclusion was also an emotional victory for Michael on a personal level.  Steve Kolleeny, former Special Counsel and the head of Skadden’s pro bono asylum program, had been the person who reached out to Michael and encouraged him to take on the government to seek justice on behalf of asylum seekers.  He had been a personal and professional mentor to Michael, and a source of inspiration in his dedication to providing unparalleled advocacy on behalf of asylum applicants.

Shortly before Michael began working on the mandamus complaint for Sanctuary’s clients, however, Steve passed away.  Michael was particularly proud and honored to have had the opportunity to follow in the large footsteps of his mentor in his fight on behalf of deserving asylum clients.

 

Join us at our Above & Beyond celebration on October 19, 2016 at the Highline Ballroom as we honor Michael’s outstanding pro bono work.  You can buy tickets here.  If you can’t join us, but would like to support Sanctuary for Family’s work, please consider making an Above & Beyond donation here.

Etienne Barg-Townsend is Senior Legal Counsel at KGS-Alpha Capital Markets, L.P., a New York-based institutional fixed income broker-dealer.  She was formerly a litigation associate at Shearman & Sterling LLP, Cahill Gordon & Reindel, LLP, and Cravath, Swaine & Moore LLP.  She has worked on several pro bono matters with Sanctuary, and is in the process of developing a pro bono program at KGS-Alpha.  She is a member of Sanctuary’s Pro Bono Council and is Co-Chair of this year’s Above & Beyond gala.