On November 1, 2018, the Women & the Law Program hosted a discussion about the rising number of female genital mutilation (FGM) cases in the U.S. Adriana Buenaventura, Fellow at the Critical Thinking United Program of the AHA Foundation and Ideas Beyond Borders, moderated the presentation with Amanda Parker, Senior Director of the Ayaan Hirsi Ali Foundation (AHA), and Angela Peabody, Executive Director and Founder of Global Women Peace Foundation, on the panel. The World Health Organization defines FGM as all procedures involving partial or total removal of external female genitalia, or other injury to female genital organs for non-medical reasons. The causes of FGM vary but include a mixture of cultural, social, and religious reasons. Additionally, FGM does not provide any health benefits, but health issues and psychological issues often develop even in the least invasive methods of mutilation.

Ms. Parker highlighted the FGM impact worldwide on 200 million women and girls, with the highest instances of FGM occurring in Somalia (98%); Guinea (97%); Sierra Leone (90%); Mali (89%); and Egypt (87%). In the U.S., 513,000 women and girls are at risk and/or have undergone the procedure. In Europe, FGM has impacted 500,000 who have undergone the procedure and may affect 180,000 more who are at risk. Ms. Parker explained many women believe their daughters will benefit in society if they experience FGM. Ms. Parker also mentioned FGM federal statutes, which include the criminalization of knowingly performing FGM on girls under 18 years old, as well as of transporting a girl abroad to inflict FGM with a maximum sentence of 5 years, a fine, or both. The FGM federal statute requires U.S. immigration officials to inform travelers at U.S. ports of entry about the harm and legal repercussions of practicing FGM.  

Ms. Parker initiated the conversation about FGM in the United States, using pictures of Dr. Jumana Nagarwala and Dr. Fakhruddin Attar, co-defendants in an active FGM case in Michigan, to illustrate her points.  In U.S. v. Nagarwala, Dr. Jumana Nagarwala was one of eight doctors accused of violating federal statute for cutting the genitalia of dozens of prepubescent girls. Female Genital Mutilation, 18 U.S.C. § 116 (1996); U.S. v. Nagarwala, 2:18-mc-51358-BAF (E.D. Mich. filed Sept 24, 2018). Two co-defendants include Dr. Fakhruddin Attar, who is accused of aiding Dr. Nagarwala through usage of his clinic to perform the procedures, and Farida Attar, his wife, who assisted with restraining the girls. Most recently, on November 20th, U.S. District Judge Bernard Friedman held the 1996 federal statute was unconstitutional and the practice of FGM is within the state perview, which led to the dismissal of the case. U.S. v. Nagarwala, No. 17-CR-20274, 2018 BL 428470 (E.D. Mich. Nov. 20,
2018). Ms. Parker suggested this case defies the stereotype that FGM does not exist in the U.S. Simultaneously, this case decision shifts the importance of advocacy against FGM in the state level.

Ms. Parker highlighted the deficiencies in the legal framework for FGM by showing the impact of state FGM laws in the DMV area. While DC has 3,808 women and girls impacted by FGM, it does not have any criminal laws regarding FGM, including sentencing guidelines, age restrictions, or limitations on a defense for culture, ritual, or religion. Maryland’s 31,820 women and girls impacted by FGM can prosecute their practitioner or parent pursuant to criminal state laws that address imprisonment for up to 5 years and/or a fine up to a $5,000 and a limitation for a defense based on culture, ritual, or religion. Maryland’s law does not, however, criminalize the transportation of people for FGM purposes.Virginia, with its 30,830 women and girls impacted by FGM, addresses FGM as a Class 2 felony crime with imprisonment for 20 years up to life and a fine of up to $100,000. Its law is otherwise similar to Maryland’s, except that it swaps prevention of a cultural, religious, or ritual defense for criminalization of transportation.

Ms. Peabody introduced the Global Women Peace Foundation programming efforts that provide support for FGM survivors via psychological therapy, genital restorative surgery, physical therapy, and monthly support group. Their programming also supports FGM survivors with assistance in asylum status, finding employment, and relocation. Prevention is primarily enabled when awareness is spread, such as when a member of Ms. Peabody’s  church heard a young girl running down the street screaming “my father wants to cut off my private parts”. Luckily, the woman understood why the young girl was running away and protected the girl from her father, who was running down the street with a kitchen knife, until the local police showed up and charged the father with malicious wounding. The program also works on providing advocacy in state legislatures. Most recently, in Virginia, they successfully advocated for the change of FGM from a misdemeanor to a Class 2 felony. They are working on adding a consequence for doctors who conduct FGM to have their medical licenses revoked. Ms. Parker and Ms. Peabody concluded with encouraging attendees to get involved with organizations that advocate for and prevent FGM in the U.S.