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Advocates warn genital cutting may increase during summer months

July 19, 2015 at 1:57 PM EDT
Female genital mutilation is widely thought of as something affecting women in countries halfway around the world. But advocates in the U.S. say many women who have immigrated here may have been subjected to the painful procedure or could still be at risk. That risk, advocates say, can go up during summer months, when girls often travel back to their home countries, particularly in Africa, to visit family. NewsHour's Megan Thompson has the story.
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MEGAN THOMPSON: When Aissata Camara was 13, she immigrated to Queens, New York, from the West African Country of Guinea. She fit in, went to high school and college in the city, and earned a master’s degree at New York University. But there was a part of her life she told no one about, something she thought people here would not understand. She was subjected to female genital mutilation.

AISSATA CAMARA: It was very lonely. Because who spoke to me about it? No one. So, you’re here, you’re carrying this big secret with you, and no one is there to help you.

MEGAN THOMPSON: According to the World Health Organization, between 100 and 140 million women have under-gone female genital mutilation, also known as “cutting.” The United Nations says it’s practiced mostly in 29 countries in Africa and the Middle East, even though it’s been outlawed in most of them. In Egypt, Somalia and Guinea, it’s estimated more than 90 percent of women have been cut.

The World Health Organization says the ancient practice ranges from removing part or all of a girl’s clitoris to, in the most severe cases, narrowing the vaginal opening by sewing it almost completely shut. The thinking behind it varies. In Guinea, Aissata says it’s believed to keep a girl from being promiscuous and more eligible for marriage. She was 11-years-old when her aunts came to take her. She hid under her bed.

AISSATA CAMARA: You go to the cutter’s house. And then, you all sit down. And it’s by age. And the one person goes in. You hear them scream. They’re coming out crying. Next person goes in. You hear them scream. They’re coming out crying. Your basic human instinct is to run away. You don’t want to be there.

MEGAN THOMPSON: Parts of Aissata’s clitoris and labia were removed by a cutter, who used no anesthesia. She says it happened to virtually every girl she knew, but no one talked about it. 16 years later, she still feels pain from the scarring, endures embarrassing conversations with doctors and boyfriends. And, she says, she will never forget the fear.

AISSATA CAMARA: Obviously, prior to me being cut, I knew my body. I knew who I was. And– and then, once you are cut, you become a different person. So, I think also for me, the fear — I feel — wanting to run away from something and then not being able to. I think that it does something to you. I think that it– it really touches you to the core of yourself.

MEGAN THOMPSON: No one knows how many women and girls living in the U.S. have been subjected to female genital mutilation, or “FGM.” There’s no system to track or report it. But in the last 15 years, the number of immigrants from Africa has doubled, to around 1.8 million. One research group — the Population Reference Bureau – estimates half a million African women and girls in the U.S. have been subjected to FGM or are at risk of it happening to them. It’s especially a concern here in New York, which has the largest population of African immigrants in the country.

MARIAMA DIALLO, SANCTUARY FOR FAMILIES: It’s horrible. It is a violation of the right of the woman. What they are taking will never come back.

MEGAN THOMPSON: Mariama Diallo is a social worker serving New York City’s large community of African immigrants. She has seen a rising number of women grappling with the consequences of FGM, which can include trouble with menstruation and child birth. And, women can have trouble finding doctors sensitive to the issue. Diallo also sees girls threatened by FGM, and mothers facing social pressure to have it done on their daughters, even if they don’t want to.

MARIAMA DIALLO: Someone who didn’t go through FGM is completely excluded from the community. So, the fear of being excluded from the community makes people go through it. Or the family honor. And some families don’t want to have a woman in- inside the family that is not mutilated because it can affect the reputation of the family. And also, some people say it is because it’s the way to become a woman.

MEGAN THOMPSON: Diallo says it’s rare, but she’s seen young women sent back to Africa to have it done. It’s known as “vacation cutting” because it usually happens during summer vacation from school.

MARIAMA DIALLO: I have four cases like that. They are U.S. citizens, born in the United States, but went for vacation and it happened. But I hear a lot from my client, also. Like, someone in the community, their neighbors who sent their child to Africa for the purpose of FGM.

MEGAN THOMPSON: Diallo says doctors and educators could play an important role in identifying girls at risk, but many haven’t had the training. Diallo helped one client whose family planned to send her back to Africa to be cut. She’d tried to get help at school.

MARIAMA DIALLO: And she went to school, she spoke with the guidance counselor who did not know what she was talking about. And the guidance counselor sent her back home. And I think if it was another case where the child went to see a guidance counselor, told the guidance counselor something as simple as, ‘I don’t feel safe. I’m not going back home,’ they would call the Children’s Services. But with FGM, they see it as a cultural problem. So, they don’t want to get involved. And I think this is a serious problem because it is, you know, it is a child abuse.

JOE CROWLEY: No one knows about it.

MEGAN THOMPSON: Congressman Joseph Crowley represents parts of Queens and the Bronx, both home to large immigrant populations. FGM is outlawed in the U.S., and in 2013, Crowley helped pass a law also making it illegal to take girls out of the country to have it performed. But there have been no prosecutions so far, and Crowley admits it’s nearly impossible to know how often it actually happens.

JOE CROWLEY: I think it is a sensitive issue, but we need to talk about it. Right now there– there’s silence. It just happens. And I think that’s what really needs to be addressed.

MEGAN THOMPSON: Do we know that this is a widespread problem? Or is it just maybe a few isolated incidents?

JOE CROWLEY: We know that the potential is there. If it’s one girl, in my opinion, it’s one girl too many. And I think that’s what we need to focus on. We know it has happened, we know it can happen and probably will happen again. And we– our country, the United States, needs to do more.

MEGAN THOMPSON: Crowley and others point to Britain where, last month, Prime Minister David Cameron called for a crackdown on the practice. Already, the U.K. offers passport inserts for girls traveling to Africa explaining that FGM is illegal. Last week, the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists issued new guidelines for doctors to report cases they see, and how to better treat women subjected to it.

MEGAN THOMPSON: When we’re talking about something that is so hidden, it’s so secretive, it involves girls who may not even understand what’s happening to them or happened to them? How do you police that?

JOE CROWLEY: It’s very difficult. But I do think that we need an awareness campaign, to talk about the issue– to have posters at airports and have doctors and nurses and educators and law enforcement engage in understanding that it is against the law to do this and they should be on the outlook– lookout. I don’t think people want to willingly break the law. I think if they know that– that– that something has been made– illegal, that they will respect the law.

MEGAN THOMPSON: Last year, advocates gathered more than 220,000 signatures on a petition to demanding better data.

JAHA DUKUREH: In order to eradicate FGM here in the United States, we need updated statistics.

MEGAN THOMPSON: In response, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is now working on its own study of how many girls in the U.S. may be at risk. And the White House has asked federal agencies to find ways to address the issue. And next week, advocates are launching a new campaign to get more states to pass their own laws banning FMG – only about half of them currently do.

Aissata Camara agrees with criminalizing the genital cutting that happened to her. But she says people need to understand families often think the practice in their girls’ best interest, not realizing the long-term consequences.

AISSATA CAMARA: We need to stop looking at them as if they are barbarians coming from other places and we have to respect– people’s culture, no matter what it is. And then, from that respect is, ‘I respect your idea of thinking that you are protecting your child. But here are the reasons why you are not. And here are the reasons why you need to change this.’

MEGAN THOMPSON: Aissata is speaking out about what she went through. She’s launching her own group to fight FGM in the U.S. She says most people don’t realize a problem that seems so distant could be hitting so close to home.

AISSATA CAMARA: I look like you. I went to school here. I am as American as I think anyone is. But I went through it. So, let’s wake up. Let’s wake up. And let’s start thinking about the fact that there is someone around you that might be going through this.

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