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Evidence Shows That Illegal Female Genital Cutting Is a Growing Phenomenon in US

Up to 200,000 American girls and women are at risk, many of them sent abroad to undergo the procedure.

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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.

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