The new figures are based on the growth in the U.S. of communities from nations with high FGM prevalence rates. “Anyone who was born in one of those countries is counted as being at risk,” explained Mark Mather, associate vice president of U.S. Programs at the PRB.
Three countries — Egypt, Ethiopia, Somalia — accounted for 55 percent of all U.S. women deemed in the report to be at risk in 2013, the latest numbers available. Only 3 percent were from Asia (mainly Iraq and Yemen).
Checking estimates against the actual number of women in the U.S who have undergone the procedure is difficult.
But the new numbers have nonetheless put fresh focus on the need for legislation to protect vulnerable girls in the U.S.
“Having a better idea of the magnitude of FGM here through updated estimates … means that we will have a much stronger argument in terms of changing policy and allocating resources,” said Shelby Quast, policy director of Equality Now, an advocacy group that successfully pushed for an inter-agency group to address FGM in the U.S.
“This is an extreme form of violence against children and has to be dealt with urgently and comprehensively if we are to effectively protect the next generation of girls,” she said. “We need to know how big the issue is to be able to solve it — to change policies to ensure that girls at risk are protected, but also to ensure that FGM survivors are given support physically, emotionally and psychologically.”
Around 125 million women worldwide have undergone some form of FGM, according to UNICEF estimates. The procedure, which is often referred to as female circumcision or cutting, can range from a "clitoral nick," in which a woman’s clitoris is poked and allowed to bleed, to the partial or total removal of the clitoris or the more extreme form, called infibulation, which is the removal of all external genitalia. In nearly half of all countries where FGM in practices, girls are often under the age of five when the procedure is performed according to a 2013 UNICEF report.
Ifrah Elmoge, 24, was born in Somalia and came to the U.S. at the age of two. A journalism and political science student in Minneapolis, she said she was not subjected to the procedure but her mother went through the “prick” or “nick” that is considered more ceremonial.
“That’s what happened to most of my aunts,” Elmoge said.
She suggested that the new estimate for women in the U.S. at risk of FGM may be “inflated," explaining that when women are educated, most reject the tradition. And when they are not, most can’t afford the trip back home for the procedure.
“It’s really a minority of women who send their children to Somalia,” she said, adding: “For children born after the civil war, it’s not as big a problem.”
The Population Reference Bureau figures are based on a broad estimate that applies countries’ prevalence rates to the daughters of immigrants. The authors of the report noted that even after they’re in the U.S, some families cling to the belief that FGM may prevent extramarital sex and keep women pure. There have been reports of immigrant parents taking their daughters back to Africa to perform the procedure.
Elmoge’s mother runs a group, the Somali Women’s Association, that helps educate refugees and provide information, including options for reconstructive surgery for those who have undergone FGM.