By Lisa Anderson
NEW YORK (TrustLaw) - The ancient, brutal practice of female genital mutilation (FGM), once considered primarily a problem of the developing world, is a growing threat to girls and women in the United States, according to a new report.
The United States has longstanding laws against the practice of FGM on U.S. soil and in January, passed a federal law against sending young women outside the country for so-called "vacation cutting". However, girls living in America increasingly are at risk of the procedure both at home and abroad, according to research by Sanctuary for Families.
The New York City-based non-profit organisation, which specialises in gender-based violence, said up to 200,000 girls and women in the United States are at risk of FGM and that the number is growing.
"People in the United States think that FGM only happens to people outside of the United States, but in all actuality, people here all over the country have been through FGM," said Jaha, 23, formerly from Gambia and now a survivor and advocate against FGM.
"Kids that were born in this country are taken back home every summer and undergo this procedure," she was quoted as saying in the report.
The study cited analysis of data from the 2000 census that found between 1990 and 2000 the number of girls and women in the United States at risk of the procedure - which involves the partial or total removal of external female genitalia - increased by 35 percent.
Most prevalent in immigrant African and Middle Eastern communities, FGM generally originates in the belief by some cultures that it preserves a girl's virginity before marriage and discourages her from promiscuity after she is wed. In many communities, a girl is deemed unfit for marriage if she has not undergone FGM.
The report said FGM has been performed in the United States by health care providers who support FGM or do not want to question families' cultural practices.
Whether performed covertly on U.S. soil or in ceremonies held in ancestral homelands during school vacations, the procedure often is done by traditional practitioners using crude implements, such as razor blades and broken glass. They often operate in unsanitary conditions, far from medical facilities, without anaesthesia, antiseptics or antibiotics.
The physical and psychological effects can be devastating and even fatal. FGM can cause severe pain during sexual intercourse, haemorrhage, shock, complications in childbirth and fistula. It can also lead to depression and anxiety.
"FGM has affected me emotionally throughout my entire life. Those terrible moments stay with me and I just cannot forget them," a 53-year-old woman named Nafissatou, originally from Guinea, told researchers.
"When I went to the hospital to give birth to my children, my experience with FGM was what I remembered most. Every time I shower, I think about it. There is a sadness and emptiness I fell every day because of what FGM took from me," she said.
LACK OF PROSECUTIONS
The United Nations last December called for a global ban on FGM, but, as with laws in the United States, implementation is extremely difficult and, to date, prosecutions have been rare.
The United States has had a law against FGM since 1996 and 20 states have passed their own statutes. But, according to the report, as of 2012, there have been no prosecutions under federal law, and only one criminal case has been brought forward under a state statute.
One problem is that families in the United States, even those who oppose FGM for their daughters, often find themselves under severe pressure from their extended families to subject girls to the procedure.
Another obstacle is a lack of reporting of FGM either by victims, girls at risk or their families. Part of the reason may be due to ignorance of the law, the report found.
"However, reasons for underreporting likely also include reluctance on the part of the girl or her family to come forward, precisely because they know and fear the legal penalties for doing so," it said.
"Many girls fear that innocent family members, especially their mothers, will be considered complicit in their family’s efforts to force them to undergo FGM, or worry that if they report their relatives, they will be arrested, prosecuted, and possibly deported," it added.
The report makes a number of recommendations on ways to prevent FGM in the United States.
Key among them:
--Outreach and education to immigrant communities about the legal, physical and psychological consequences of FGM.
--Encouraging community and religious leaders to educate their communities about the harm and illegality of FGM
--Guidelines and training to assist front-line professions, such as law enforcement agents, teachers and health care workers to identify and protect girls at risk.
--Robust enforcement of laws prohibiting FGM, not only on U.S. soil but in the case of girls sent abroad for the procedure.
Related story: FACTBOX: Female genital mutilation in the United States