Changing traditions

America’s Underground Female Genital Mutilation Crisis

FGM is illegal in the U.S., yet activists estimate that hundreds of thousands of girls are at risk of being cut each year.

Robin Rayne Nelson/

As a one-week-old baby, Jaha Dukureh was circumcised—just as women in her family had been for generations in their home country of Gambia. Fifteen years later, when she was brought to the United States for an arranged marriage, she was taken to a New York City doctor who worked closely with African communities, in order to be “reopened” for her husband. “Now that I think back,” Dukureh says, addressing that physician, “that’s what pisses me off. The fact that I was 15—you saw how young I was, you didn’t say anything, you didn’t do anything.”

As students across the country prepare for summer vacation, female genital mutilation (FGM) activists like Dukureh are gearing up for what they call “cutting season”—the summer months when young girls can be sent to their ancestral lands to be circumcised.

Now 24 years old and living in Atlanta with her second husband, Dukureh has made it her life work to ensure that young girls won’t go through the same practice that hurt her and killed her half-sister. On Wednesday, she arrived in Washington D.C. to testify at a Congressional briefing, armed with thousands of signatures to demand the U.S. implement a nationwide program that trains authorities across all sectors—from education, to public health, to law enforcement—to watch for warning signs that girls might be pressured into the practice.

Across the 28 African and Middle Eastern countries where FGM is still practiced, three million girls are at risk of being cut each year. The procedure, seen as a rite of passage and believed to discourage premarital sexual activity, removes part or all of the genitalia on young girls. It can lead to a lifetime of painful medical conditions and even death, and for years has been decried as a human-rights abuse by the international community.

But it’s not just an issue for faraway lands: FGM is occurring on American soil and to American children. As immigrant communities proliferate in the United States, activists say the number of American girls has only been increasing since the last known study—done nearly 15 years ago—which estimated that nearly 230,000 young women annually were at risk for FGM in the U.S.

On Wednesday, Dukureh, along with Rep. Joe Crowley of New York and Rep. Sheila Jackson-Lee of Texas, will present a petition letter with nearly 200,000 signatures to 50 members of Congress, and will hold meetings with the Department of Health and Human Services and the Department of Education.

Dukureh has a simple question for U.S. authorities: How many girls in America are at risk of undergoing the same painful practice she went through? She and all those backing the petition are requesting that President Obama and these departments commission a report about the prevalence of FGM in the U.S. and implement a program to train authority figures across the country to detect and halt the practice through state laws, hotlines, and umbrella coalitions.

Before starting her now-viral petition in February, Dukureh, who founded Safe Hands for Girls, wasn’t aware of how widespread the practice is on U.S. soil. “We’ve had calls from girls saying this doesn’t only happen on vacation, we get cut right here in the USA; they have cut us in Minnesota, they have cut us in Claxton, Georgia.”

FGM has been illegal on U.S. soil since 1996, and last year President Obama passed legislation that made transporting girls out of the U.S. for FGM punishable by five years in jail. But activists say the procedure has just gone deeply underground and is still clandestinely carried out on girls across the country.

“Girls write to us that when they come back from Africa, they went back to school and they’re withdrawn but no one asks them, ‘What happened to you? What changed to make you this way?’” Dukureh says.

In the United States, the issue remains mostly outside of public consciousness. Without census numbers pointing to communities at risk, there’s no way to effectively strategize a response. Once these statistics come through, though, Dukureh says, activists will be able to begin targeted campaigns. “It’s going to be like a revolution, more girls will come out, but we first need to address the issue and let families know we are looking for this.”

“I didn’t have an understanding of how much it occurred in the U.S.,” says Shelby Quast, a senior policy advisor with Equality Now, a human-rights organization that began one of the first U.S. anti-FGM campaigns two decades ago. “The more the campaign is going on, the more people are speaking up. This has been a very quiet issue. What we’re finding out is it might have been a bigger problem than thought.” As these stories rolled in over the past few months, she remembers thinking, “Oh my goodness is it actually being performed in the U.S.?”

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Right now, all evidence of both vacation cutting and cutting in the U.S. is anecdotal, coming from social workers and health care providers working with immigrant populations. There hasn’t been federal data on FGM in the country since 1997, when the CDC determined that between 150,000 and 200,000 women were at risk. Three years later, the African Women’s Health Center at Brigham and Women’s Hospital estimated 227,887 women and girls were at risk that year. Since then, activists have had no official statistics to aid in their fight against the practice.

A study released by Sanctuary for Families last year reports that, “Typically, FGM in the U.S. is carried out by traditional practitioners who operate covertly and illegally. When U.S. health care providers carry out the procedure, they frequently come from countries where the practice is prevalent, and they operate on girls from their own communities at the request of a child’s parents.”

Engy Abdelkader, co-director of the organization’s Immigrant Intervention Project, says that they have heard there are women being brought into the U.S. to perform the ritual on children so young there’s no chance they’ll remember or relay what they have undergone to anyone else.

Abdelkader works on asylum cases involving vulnerable women who have undergone FGM already, or are at risk of undergoing FGM if they stay or are returned to their home country. She is currently fighting for asylum for a woman with two-year-old daughter who is being pressured by her family to bring her daughter back to their home country to undergo FGM. “FGM is such an entrenched cultural practice in many countries the women who survive don’t necessarily identify as having endured a human-rights violation,” she says.

Few cases are brought in by law enforcement, which Dukureh says is largely unaware how to handle FGM, considering it a cultural issue that is best left alone, and worrying they’ll be considered insensitive if they get involved. In 2006, an Ethiopian immigrant in Atlanta was sentenced to 10 years' imprisonment for having FGM performed on his two-year-old daughter. Otherwise, potential cases have gone unnoticed.

“When I go to the police and tell them my parents are about to cut me, I don’t need the police officer to be shocked about what I’m talking about. I want them—I need them—to know where to report me to and what to do,” Dukureh says. “These girls feel exactly how I feel: They feel no one understands them, and when they talk about FGM people normally treat them like a freak show.”

The response by health officials, meanwhile, has been mixed. In 2010, the American Academy of Pediatrics proposed doctors should be allowed to “nick” girls so their families wouldn’t perform full-blown circumcision. After a wave of criticism, the suggestion was withdrawn.

“The U.S. is so far behind when it comes to this issue,” Dukureh says, citing a successful recent campaign in the U.K., where FGM was banned as a criminal offense in the 1985. “Because everything in this country is about politics. They think this doesn’t affect the vote, this is not like abortion, it’s not like some of other women’s rights issues.”

For activists working to build trust in insular immigrant communities without scaring away the people they’re trying to help, to combating FGM involves walking a fine line. Communities practicing FGM often feel strongly about their right to maintain a tradition carried out for generations. After starting her petition, Dukureh was so fervently targeted by proponents of the procedure that she had to shut down her Facebook account after people began commenting on pictures of her four-year-old daughter, saying if they ever met her they would mutilate her themselves.

Dukureh says she’s “willing to do everything to make sure that at least if these families are not willing to listen, I’m going to make sure that we make an example of one family because I’m not afraid to report it to authorities. I’m not scared.”

But there isn’t a complete consensus on how to best eradicate the practice in the U.S. “When you say the word ‘illegal’, they just shut down, do what they do, and hide it,” says Safiatou Coulibaly, a 30-year-old Malian caseworker for an African women’s organization serving a mainly West African population in the east Bronx.

Before the summer months, she and other social workers go through a checklist with the young girls they counsel: What are you doing when you go back to Africa? they ask. Are you going to get married? Are you going to get cut?

One family with two girls, aged 11 and 12, was planning a six-month trip back to the Gambia, which immediately triggered alert for Coulibaly. “Since then I’ve been freaking out,” she says. A visit that long normally means the girls won’t be returning, she says, and could indicate plans for FGM and arranged marriages.

“If girls are OK with it, we’re not going to say, ‘You’re not going.’ We educate them about risk and how it’s going to affect their lives.”

Coulibaly isn’t cut, but her four sisters are. She remembers begging her aunt to let her undergo FGM because she didn’t want to be different. “And I’m so glad that I am [different] but it took me a lot of education to realize that.”

Sometimes the girls do oppose their parents’ plans for marriages or cutting. One case that Coulibaly’s organization worked on involved a girl who feared a trip back to her parents’ homeland. The organization contacted the embassy here and in her country, and gave the girl a cell phone and phone number to call for help. But she ended up going despite their efforts. “Most of the time when parents say, ‘we’re taking the child back’, there’s nothing we can do—it’s their children.”

Most activists agree that ultimately, the message against FGM has to come from within the community to truly take root. “If we are to come to total eradication, it has to come from the community, it cannot come from outside. Someone who doesn’t have the experience we do can’t come in and say, ‘You can’t do this’—our cultures are so different,” says Naima Abdullahi, an Atlanta-based case manager for an international organization, who does community outreach for Dukureh’s campaign. Abdullahi was circumcised when she was nine, two years before her family moved from Kenya to America.

“We’re not coming to this as victims, we’re coming to this as survivors,” Abdullahi says. “We want to lift people up and allow the community to stand up, not to shame them. As much as I want to bring light to this I don’t want the community to hide in the dark even further and do things in hiding.”