A few days ago, a haunting post appeared on one of Reddit’s most popular forums for women. The title: “Dad is taking my family to Africa, I’m worried of FGM.”
The anonymous poster claimed to be a 16-year-old girl whose Muslim parents are planning a family trip to their home country of Somalia. She added that her mother has already undergone female genital mutilation (FGM)—a ritualistic practice primarily performed in Africa and the Middle East in which some or all of the female external genitalia is removed—leading her to suspect that the vacation might be a ruse to perform FGM on her.
“Help, Reddit!” she wrote. “I’m so scared and I don't know what to do.”
The story might seem like a paranoid nightmare but it could very well be authentic. (The Daily Beast reached out to the original poster but she did not respond.)
Situations like the one she described, however, are all too real. The practice of transporting a girl out of the United States in order to perform FGM—known colloquially as “vacation cutting”—has been illegal since 2013 when the Transport for Female Genital Mutilation Act amended an existing 1996 federal prohibition on FGM. To date, however, no cases of “vacation cutting” have been prosecuted under federal law and the practice continues underground.
In fact, there have only been a total of three convictions for FGM in the U.S. ever: one federal-level conviction in California in 2005 and two state-level convictions in Georgia and Illinois. Twenty-four states have laws against FGM. In the United Kingdom, FGM has been illegal since 1985 but the first prosecution did not come until 2014, largely because of the difficulty of securing testimony from a girl against her own parents.
I spoke with several federal agencies to try to determine what a girl or young woman in the anonymous Redditor’s alleged position could do to stay safe. Although legal prohibitions on FGM and “vacation cutting” are in place, enforcement is lagging, leading lawmakers to call for further coordination and action.
An important first step, however, is increasing public awareness of the practice.
Reports of “vacation cutting” in the United States are only now beginning to emerge in mainstream media. In June of last year, The New York Times discovered the stories of teenagers and young women who had fled from their homes when they learned about the true purpose of planned visits to Somalia. Jaha Dukureh, founder of the anti-FGM organization Safe Hands for Girls, drew attention to the practice in a July Guardian op-ed. And that same month, Mariama Diallo, a social worker who serves African immigrant communities in New York City, told PBS that she has encountered four cases of “vacation cutting” in her work.
“Vacation cutting” may even be on the rise. According to the Population Reference Bureau, up to 507,000 women and girls in the U.S. were at risk of FGM in 2013, an unprecedented high primarily driven by immigration from Egypt, Ethiopia, and Somalia—all countries where the majority of women and girls undergo FGM. In these countries and others, FGM is performed for a variety of cultural and religious reasons related to notions of female sexual purity, cultural identity, and coming-of-age traditions. Of the three countries responsible for the heightened domestic risk of FGM, only Egypt has made it illegal (but FGM is still widely practiced there with a prevalence of 91 percent for women and girls age 15 to 49).
A country like Somalia has an even higher prevalence with no legal protections. If the anonymous Redditor does get taken there for FGM, she will face a dire situation. In Somalia, FGM is performed on 98 percent of women between 15 and 49. Somalia has no U.S. Embassy and the State Department advises citizens to “avoid all travel” to the country. The country’s Ministry of Women Affairs and Human Rights did not announce a legislative plan to ban the practice until last week.
With these dangers in mind, concerned Redditors have given the poster a range of panicked suggestions. Some say that she should call the police Child Protective Services, others have advised her to seek help at the airport, and another told her to contact the Department of Justice (DOJ), the Department of State, and United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS). One thing is clear: No one knows exactly what she should do.
I followed through on these suggestions to discover which would be viable options for a girl at risk of FGM or “vacation cutting.”
The USCIS website hosts a detailed page on FGM which advises anyone at risk to call a helpline. But this helpline is not operated by USCIS or its overseeing organization the Department of Homeland Security. Rather, it is a general number for women’s health information operated by the Office on Women’s Health within the Department of Health and Human Services—not a helpline specifically for women and girls at risk of FGM.
The Office on Women’s Health did not immediately respond to request for comment. Women and girls at risk of FGM—or anyone with information—can call the helpline at 1-800-994-9662.
If the anonymous poster is unable to avoid being taken to the airport, she might be able to tip off a TSA agent but this should likely be a last resort. In the United Kingdom, women and girls at risk of forced marriage have been advised by advocates to hide spoons in their underwear before going to the airport, leading some Redditors to conclude that she should try a similar strategy to stall her family vacation.
TSA spokesman Mike England told The Daily Beast: “If during security screening procedures an officer becomes aware of a potentially illegal act, TSA refers the matter to law enforcement. Law enforcement officials will determine whether to initiate a criminal investigation.”
England did not comment on the spoon suggestion and did not speak specifically about FGM.
If a girl or young woman does not realize the purpose of a vacation until after she arrives in another country, the State Department—which is not a law enforcement agency—can only offer some forms of assistance and may be unable to stop FGM from taking place depending on the country.
A U.S. State Department official told The Daily Beast: “If it’s a U.S. citizen and they are overseas and feel that they are in trouble, they can reach out to the U.S. Embassy or Consulate. But if something is about to happen to them where they need the protection of local authorities, then they should call local law enforcement.”
The State Department can help to transport a citizen back to the U.S. but, in order to prevent criminal activity, they would have to pull from local law enforcement resources. In many of the countries where FGM is practiced, however, law enforcement is “extremely lax” or “even non-existent,” according to an online State Department resource.
The State Department official emphasized that U.S. citizens traveling overseas can still be prosecuted at home for crimes they commit abroad.
Of all the suggestions made on Reddit, contacting the U.S. Department of Justice is the most direct and actionable option. A spokesperson for the DOJ told The Daily Beast: “DOJ, in coordination with other U.S. government agencies, works to ensure that persons are aware of the FGM law. Our outreach includes meetings, presentations, and publications including the 2014 newsletter.”
The newsletter (PDF) provides clear guidance for women and girls at risk of FGM and/or those who are aware of such situations: Contact Kathleen O’Connor at Human Rights and Special Protections at 1-800-813-5863, or send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org. In a March DOJ Webinar for educators and counselors who have contact with at-risk girls, O’Connor emphasized that she can accept messages in any language and that tips can be made anonymously.
Although the DOJ is currently working with other federal agencies as part of the 2012 Strategy to Prevent and Respond to Gender-based Violence, some lawmakers feel that further action is needed to raise awareness and to increase enforcement, which has been virtually nonexistent so far.
New York Congressman Joseph Crowley, a Democrat who worked with other legislators and the human rights organization Equality Now to pass a ban on “vacation cutting”—is working Representative Sheila Jackson Lee, a Texas Democrat, to pass the Zero Tolerance for FGM Act of 2015, which calls for a federal-level “multi-agency strategy” to provide services to survivors of FGM and to prevent the practice from continuing.
A spokesperson for Crowley told The Daily Beast that the legal ban on “vacation cutting” was an important first step but that this new legislation would go further toward ending the practice and educating the public of the danger.
A press release from Crowley’s office notes that “[s]uch a strategy could include the establishment of an emergency hotline for girls seeking assistance; the provision of resources to help those on the frontlines, such as educators, healthcare workers, and law enforcement; implementation of a public awareness campaign; and appropriate funding to support these efforts.”
The goal, it seems, is to create an atmosphere in which a girl at risk of FGM can know what resources are available to her without having to turn to Reddit for help.