Female genital mutilation/cutting (FGM/C) is most prevalent in Sub-Saharan Africa and is not commonly associated with the United States. However, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the Population Reference Bureau (PRB), more than half a million females are at serious risk or have already undergone FGM/C in the U.S.

In 1997, the United Nations described FGM/C as “all procedures involving partial or total removal of the external female genitalia or other injury to the female genital organs whether for cultural, religious, or other non-therapeutic reasons.” The World Health Organization (WHO) adds that FGM/C is recognized internationally as a human rights violation, torture, and an extreme form of violence and discrimination against women and girls.

In 1996, the United States outlawed genital cutting. In 2013, it criminalized the transport of girls under the age of eighteen out of the country for the purpose of genital removal—a practice known as “vacation cutting”— because it is frequently undertaken during summer breaks or school holidays.

According to a study from the CDC, the exact number of women and girls in the U.S. who have undergone FGM/C is unknown due to unreliable data. The current study used data from 2012—the most recent year for which it was available—and concluded that 513,000 women and girls were at risk in that year. This estimate is approximately three times greater than the 168,000 at-risk the last time the CDC counted in 1990. The majority of at-risk women and girls are concentrated in eight states: California, Maryland, Minnesota, New Jersey, New York, Texas, Virginia, and Washington. According to PRB, the increase of at-risk women and girls reflects an increase of U.S. population originating from countries where FGM/C practices are more common and not from increases in FGM/C prevalence in those countries. While U.S. mutilations are less common, the very troubling fact remains that more than 125 million girls and women alive today have been cut in the 29 countries in Africa and Middle East where FGM is frequent.

In 2014, news articles brought to light cases of American girls from FGM/C-prevalent countries undergoing FGM/C either when they were on vacation in their parents’ countries of origin or when circumcisers came into the U.S. to cut girls. It seems very likely that second-generation women and girls are the most at risk for FGM/C or its consequences (i.e., women and girls born to parents already living in the U.S.). The PRB report shows that women and girls originating from Egypt, Ethiopia, and Somalia have the highest risk for FGM/C.

The government’s duty to take action against FGM/C is founded in the provisions of international human rights treaties, such as Article 2(1) of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which requires states “to respect and to ensure” rights guaranteed therein such as the right to life and the right to be free from torture or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment “without distinction of any kind, such as race, color, sex, language, religion….” Furthermore, the right to health is defined in Article 25(1) of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which states that “[e]veryone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of [herself] and of [her] family . . . .”

On Zero Tolerance Day, February 6, 2016, President Obama issued a statement speaking out against the practice. “Today, we stand with communities here and around the globe working to prevent FGM/C,” he said. “Some people say that FGM/C is a rite of passage—something families do to help prepare girls for adulthood or marriage.” However, although it is true that tradition and culture are important aspects of any society, some traditions and cultural beliefs and practices like FGM/C are harmful and must be abolished. “It’s time to put an end to this harmful practice, and to allow communities everywhere to meet their full potential by enabling women and girls to meet theirs.” The challenge, however, is that the U.S. cannot end FGM/C while a majority of the public remains unaware that the practice persists within its borders.

While enacting and enforcing laws that prohibit FGM/C is key, it is critically important to involve communities and organizations in the fight against these crimes. It is generally established that, to be effective, approaches to ending FGM/C must be holistic and include education components as well as measures for legal protection. The more educated, informed, and socially active a woman is, the more she is able to understand the dangers of FGM/C and refuse to subject her daughters to such an operation.