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FGM affects far more women in US than previously thought

New estimates suggest more than half a million women and girls in US have suffered procedure or are at risk

The number of women in the United States who have suffered female genital mutilation (FGM) or are still at risk of being subjected to the procedure is far greater that previous thought, new estimates suggest — prompting calls for greater protection against what activists describe as an “extreme" form of child abuse.

FGM, which can result in the entire removal of a woman’s external genitalia, is banned in the U.S. But more than half a million women and girls living in the U.S. may have already gone under the knife prior to moving to America or are at risk of illegal operations or being sent away for the procedure, according to a new report by the Population Reference Bureau in Washington, D.C.

The estimated number has tripled since 1990 and more than doubled since 2000 as the number of immigrants from African countries where FGM is commonly practiced has increased. The report, released Friday, coincides with the United Nations-sponsored International Day of Zero Tolerance for Female Genital Mutilation (FGM).

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.

The U.S. needs to continue to step up and take charge. This means implementing the law on FGM more effectively.

Shelby Quast

Director for Equality Now

The new estimates come amid a push for greater support for FGM victims and funding for education and outreach programs to prevent its continuation.

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services has had meetings with anti-FGM activists to discuss how to better reach out to immigrant communities. It is mirrored by efforts — both through education and through the courts — elsewhere.

“I’ve seen increased activity in the United States and certainly in the UK and European countries,” said Charlotte Feldman-Jacobs, co-author of the PRB report.

Because of immigration patterns, the number of women at risk varies widely across states. About three-fifths lived in eight states: California, Maryland, Minnesota, New Jersey, New York, Texas, Virginia and Washington, according to estimates

California, because of its sheer size as the most populous state, had the largest number at 57,000. Minnesota had a disproportionately high number at risk because of its large Somali immigrant population.

The campaign both in the U.S. and worldwide to stop the painful and harmful procedures has gained momentum in recent years.

The U.S. Congress passed a law in 1996, making it illegal to perform FGM in the U.S., and 23 states have laws banning the practice. Georgia passed a law after Khalid Adem, an Ethiopian immigrant, became the first person prosecuted and convicted in 2006 on charges that he had personally cut his 2-year-old daughter’s clitoris with a pair of scissors.

In 2012, the U.N.’s General Assembly passed a resolution urging countries to condemn all harmful practices that affect women and girls, especially FGM.

There has also been recent breakthroughs in prosecuting FGM practitioners. Last month in Egypt, a doctor and the father of a girl who died during the procedure were convicted. And in England, a doctor recently went on trial for performing FMG while stitching a woman after she gave birth at a north London hospital. He was cleared, but activists nonetheless hailed the prosecution as a landmark moment. The United Kingdom’s largest Muslim organization for the first time condemned FGM as “un-Islamic.”

“The U.S. needs to continue to step up and take charge,” Quast said. “This means implementing the law on FGM more effectively, but that also includes mandatory training for professionals who come in contact with girls at risk or survivors, including health care workers, teachers and social workers.”

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