By Jodie Gummow
Female genital cutting (FGC), also known as female genital mutilation (FGM) and female circumcision, is an increasing international concern to human rights activists and feminists across the globe. An estimated 140 million girls have been subjected to the practice worldwide and it is still prevalent in at least 28 countries according to the World Health Organization Progress Report in 2011.
In Western culture, mere mention of FGM sends feminist activists up in arms, generating intense negative feelings and evoking discussion about sexism, brutality and gender-based violence. However, while FGM is mostly practiced in African and Middle Eastern countries and classified as an “off-shore problem,” many Americans are unaware of the cultural complexities embedded in the custom and the fact that it is happening right under our noses.
According to a report  by the non-profit group Sanctuary for Families, the practice of FGC is on the rise in the United States. The study claims that up to 200,000 American girls and women are at risk of FGM whether at home or through what is known as "vacation cutting," in which young women in the U.S. are sent abroad to undergo the ritual.
"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. Kids that were born in this country are taken back home every summer and undergo this procedure," a 23-year-old woman from Gambia stated in the report.
The document claims that traditional practitioners are often secretly brought in from overseas to carry out the ritual on U.S. soil, where an entire group of girls may be cut in an afternoon.
Such occurrences, according to Claudia De Palma of Sanctuary for Families, are the result of family pressure from the ancestral home as well as from community and regional leaders who wish to preserve the practice for generations that are now growing up in the United States.
“We started to see that once it became illegal to conduct FGM in the United States in 1996, more and more families started sending children back home over school vacation, and it would happen there. Sometimes it was the intention of the trip to meet with grandparents—a coming of age—and sometimes it was not intended that it was going to happen, but once the girl arrived, it became clear that this was what the larger community had in mind,” she told AlterNet.
It's difficult to estimate exactly how many girls have been exposed to the practice in the United States. The procedure is heavily under-reported and shrouded in secrecy by communities and family members who are aware of the legal ramifications of revealing that they have committed FGC. According to De Palma, anecdotal evidence suggests that the figures of those at risk of FGM in the United States are a lot higher than initially indicated.
“Every year we see thousands of women who have experienced FGM or who are fearing the practice come in to see us. Some of the women we receive are community survivors, others have immigrated here based in part that they were forced to undergo FGM, and others have daughters who are U.S. citizens and are terrified their daughters will be subject to vacation cutting,” she said.
The report provides a number of case studies of victim statements, such as a 17-year-old girl who was sent from the U.S. to Angola and told she was being prepared for circumcision in order to become a woman so her husband would respect her. The girl didn’t know what the procedure involved, and could only conclude from her family’s reassurance that this was the best thing for her.
A 25-year-old woman from Ivory Coast was threatened by her parents to be sent to Africa to undergo FGM. Having moved to the United States at 13, and knowing full well the effects of FGM, she did not want to comply. However, because she was an undocumented alien, she was afraid to report the threats and her counselor failed to intervene on her behalf, as he viewed the issue a cultural problem.
Human rights activists and feminists view such examples of FGC as mutilation, a barbaric practice that violates women’s fundamental human rights—a position that is backed by international treaties, medical documentation and United Nations resolution. However, at the other end of the spectrum are hundreds of thousands of women who see such objections to FGC as ethnocentric and racist and wish to honor the custom, which has been passed down through generations.
In many cultures, it is inconceivable to think that a woman has not undergone some sort of cutting, with many women not considered “fully female” and ostracized by their communities for failing to undergo the procedure. The practice is said to pre-date religion and is linked to femininity, honor, social status and marriageability.
Cultural relativism plays an important role, as those who disagree with the ideology that FGC constitutes a human rights violation advocate for the right to cultural self-determination. While cultural relativism has shifted over time as human rights arguments gain momentum, there are a number of groups that view the international response as one-sided and ignorant of the culture complexities that underlie the practice.
The term FGC has been chosen over FGM by a number of organizations, such as Sauti Yetu, a community center for African women and families in New York. They believe it better reflects the fact that over the last decade in communications with women in the community, “mutilation” is not always the intent of the practice and thus does not apply to all cases. Their website deemed it inappropriate to label all women as mutilated, when each woman should have the right to determine the terminology which best describes their own personal experience.
Dr. Crista Johnson-Agbakwu, director of the Refugee Women’s Health Clinic in Arizona, agrees. In her experience treating immigrant patients and providing medical care to women who have undergone FGC, she found that many women actually embraced their scars after being cut and in some cases requested recutting after the scar had been opened, viewing the scar as a representation of their womanhood.
“Some women are opposed to the practice, while others view it with pride and honor. There are women who consider it part of their beauty and want to protect the practice, and other opinions that fall in between,” she told AlterNet.
Johnson-Agbakwu explained that there is a public policy debate over what we label "genital modification" in the United States. While FGC among African communities is considered a human rights violation, vaginal rejuvenation among American adult woman is viewed as a personal cosmetic choice.
“How is it that a white woman in Beverly Hills is able to have her clitoris reduced for aesthetic reasons, yet an adult women who seeks to modify her genitals for cultural reasons is considered mutilated,” she said.
When it was pointed out that the majority of girls undergoing FGC procedures are 10 to 15 years old and thus not voluntary electing to have their genitals cut, Dr. Johnson-Agbakwu was quick to distinguish such a situation described above in which an adult woman makes an informed choice about her body, from the plight of an under-aged girl who is incapable of consenting and has the procedure forced upon her against her will.
“From a human rights perspective, subjecting minors to cutting should not be allowed for either girls and boys, period. I don’t distinguish between the sexes,” she said.
Fuambai Ahmadu, a post-doctoral fellow at the University of Chicago offered similar insight, although her own story is unique. After growing up in the United States, she returned home to Sierra Leone at the age of 21 to willingly undergo FGC in an initiation ceremony.
“My experience is rare," she told AlterNet. "My parents were African immigrants and interested in preserving our culture and traditions whilst providing me with an education in the United States. When I returned to Sierra Leone, I was greeted by a supportive, embracing feminist society of women in my community. The practice was celebrated and girls were pampered and spoiled prior to the cutting. It was an opportunity for me to join a larger movement and I wanted to go through this experience because of the notion of empowerment.“
When asked her opinion on the consent issue, Ahmadu said, "Why do African girls have to give consent, when males circumcised at birth do not? Why are we singling out and stigmatizing African girls? I have a problem with the fact that we are treating these girls differently in a negative way. As a result, these girls are internalizing this negativity and believing that they are inadequate whereas once before, this procedure marked their sexuality and empowered them sexually. The standard of consent should be applied equally across the board and not just to Africans."
Ahmadu’s perspective rarely rears its head in human rights discussions, as we generally only hear about girls who are subjected to FGC against their wishes or who suffer irreparable harm. Her story highlights the need for more empirical data specific to particular ethnic groups and regions in order to obtain a better understanding of the procedure and more accurate representation of the groups exposed to FGC.
Still, the severe physical pain some young girls experience while undergoing FGC, specifically when enduring Type III FGC, cannot be denied. This category, called infibulation, involves the removal of all the external female genitalia and the sealing or narrowing of the vaginal opening, with a small hole left for urination and menstruation. Often performed with glass or razor blades in extreme cases, many women experience acute physical, sexual and psychological complications as a result.
So how do we protect girls in the U.S. and abroad who may be at risk of a similar fate? In January 2013, President Obama introduced legislation criminalizing the transport of girls abroad to undergo FGM, which finally brought the United States in line with international standards to end the practice. However, U.S. policy has focused largely on prohibitive legislation rather than enforcement, with no prosecutions under federal laws and only one criminal case under state law.
Perhaps the answer lies in working with local community groups that have a clearer understanding of the cultural complexities and are better equipped to challenge questionable FGC practices by engaging with women affected by the practice. Such efforts would assist in working toward the protection of human rights for women and girls both in our own country and abroad.
(To read original commentary, visit this Alternet link )