DETROIT — In April, an emergency room physician in Detroit was charged with performing female genital mutilation (FGM) on multiple girls around the age of seven. Jumana Nargawala did not carry out the procedures at the hospital that employed her. Instead, she allegedly performed the procedures after hours in a clinic run by a fellow physician and his wife. The three individuals are the first to be charged for performing FGM in the U.S. under a federal law passed in 1996. The sentence carries a prison term of up to five years. Nargawala faces an additional charge for transporting girls with the intention of performing FGM, which may add another five-year sentence.
Although Nargawala, a U.S.-born citizen, is the first person to be charged under the 1996 law for performing FGM in the U.S., hers is not the first documented case. In 2006, an Ethiopian immigrant received a sentence of 10 years in prison for mutilating his two-year-old daughter with scissors. While FGM is commonly believed to be a practice that occurs primarily in African countries, the U.S. government estimates indicate that the number of girls at risk of or suffering from FGM in the U.S. has increased since the 1996 law’s passage.
When the law was passed, less than 200,000 females in the U.S. were believed to be at risk or had undergone FGM. In 2016, that estimate rose to slightly more than 500,000. The rise in FGM is due to increased immigration from countries like Egypt, Nigeria and Ethiopia, where FGM is commonly practiced. Estimates for at-risk girls in the U.S. also include girls sent back to their family’s origin country who then endure “vacation cutting.”
No religion endorses female genital mutilation, nor is it practiced exclusively by one. Rather, cultures with deep levels of gender inequality perform FGM. It is deeply entrenched in cultural traditions and generally performed by older women in a community. Gender inequality and poverty are strongly linked; most of the world’s poor are women. Promoting gender equality not only can end cultural acceptance of inhumane practices like FGM but also improve the quality of life for women and break cycles of poverty.
The rising awareness of cases of female genital mutilation in the U.S. highlights the importance of developing comprehensive strategies to address FGM and gender inequality both here and abroad. Congressman Joseph Crowley, a key figure in passing the 2012 Girls Protection Act which expanded on the 1996 law, has proposed that initiatives such as hotlines for girls and increased education and awareness campaigns in the U.S. are essential. Additionally, continued support of programs and agencies that focus on culturally sensitive foreign aid and development are increasingly important.
FGM affects more than 200 million women and girls around the globe and has a wide range of adverse psychological and physiological effects on girls. Investing in anti-FGM programs and supporting comprehensive foreign aid programs that promote gender equality and help raise women out of poverty are key initiatives moving forward.
– Nicole Toomey