By Lisa Anderson
NEW YORK (TrustLaw) – Activists trying to end female genital mutilation hope a new U.S. federal law threatening imprisonment for anyone who sends girls abroad for the brutal procedure will deter those who previously did so with impunity.
Passed by the U.S. Congress on Dec. 21, 2012, the “Transport for Female Genital Mutilation” law, an amendment (1088) to the National Defense Authorization Act, imposes a fine and a prison sentence of up to five years on those found guilty of sending girls under the age of 18 out of the country for the purpose of FGM.
The new law, passed one day after adoption of a United Nations resolution calling for a global ban on FGM, adds weight to the international drive to end the practice. It has been illegal to perform FGM in the United States since 1996. The new law closes a legal loophole by criminalising “vacation cutting,” so called because girls are often sent to their ancestral homelands during school holidays to undergo FGM.
“It makes it illegal now not only to have FGM performed in the U.S., but to take someone outside the U.S. to do that. It empowers girls and parents to have this legal tool because often, when they go home (to ancestral lands), their parents (or extended family members) are pushing for the girls to have FGM,” Shelby Quast, senior policy advisor at Equality Now, told TrustLaw.
Referring to traditional and cultural pressure from grandparents and others in an extended family, Quast said the new law allows “parents and other people to say, ‘We can’t have this done or we’ll go to jail.’”
Although it is always difficult for girls to oppose family traditions, the law may also empower older teenagers at risk to cite the penalties if they undergo FGM or even to find the courage to come forward, said Manon De Felice, executive director of the U.S.-based AHA Foundation which works against the oppression of women through the use of religious or cultural arguments.
FGM has no roots in any religion. The partial or total removal of the external female genitalia, often done by women using crude implements, it is typically viewed as an effort to preserve the purity of a girl before marriage and to keep her faithful within marriage. In fact, the procedure can cause extensive psychological and physical damage that exposes a girl to life-threatening infections, robs a woman of sexual pleasure and can cause severe complications in childbirth.
More than 130 million women globally are estimated to have undergone FGM. No firm statistics exist on the number of girls who are sent abroad from the U.S. every year for this purpose.
“Anecdotally, we know there are hundreds of cases, but there is no concrete data collection,” De Felice told TrustLaw. However, there are indications that the number of cases is rising and is much larger than reported.
An analysis of data from the 2000 U.S. census by the African Women’s Health Center at Boston’s Brigham and Women’s Hospital estimated that about 228,000 women and girls in the U.S. had undergone or were at risk of undergoing FGM, 27 percent of them under the age of 18. The number rose about 35 percent between 1990 and 2000, likely reflecting the growth in immigration from countries, especially in Africa, where FGM is prevalent.
The study found that California, New York and Maryland have the greatest number of women and girls at risk of FGM.
In 2011 alone, the New York City-based Sanctuary for Families (SFF) served 11,000 clients, several hundred of whom were women and girls who had either undergone FGM or were at risk, Archana Pyati, deputy director of the immigration intervention program at SFF, told TrustLaw.
“We’re very excited about the new law,” she said, but cautioned that “the practical impact remains to be seen.”
To date, there have been no known successful prosecutions of those who performed FGM in the U.S. and the prospect of prosecutions under the new law is equally uncertain, according to Pyati and others working in this area.
The problem has been getting people, even healthcare providers, to come forward and report incidences of FGM being practised in the U.S. or on U.S. citizens abroad.
“Health providers already are empowered to report what they see as child abuse and FGM is seen as such. But we know that they don’t,” said Pyati, noting that many health workers, teachers and others have viewed FGM as a cultural practice and personal family decision.
With the new law, she and others hope that such people will feel emboldened to report incidences of FGM because it’s no longer “a question of culture or family choice but it’s actually a federal law.”
SFF plans to release a report on the current status of “vacation cutting” in the U.S. in February.
With the passage of the federal law, De Felice said a greater effort will be placed on promoting the passage or implementation of anti-FGM laws at the state level, where the potential for prosecution may be greater.
“Thirty states currently don’t have a law against FGM. Now, we’re focused on (ensuring that) every state has a law against FGM for the same sort of deterrent effect.”
In addition to educating immigrant families, training of law enforcement officials, educators and others who deal with girls at risk is essential, said De Felice. “Legislation alone is definitely not going to eradicate the practice.”