NEW YORK—It is known that some migrants in America send their young daughters back to their home country during the summer vacation to undergo female genital mutilation (FGM). Since 2013, this “vacation cutting” has been outlawed in the United States, but that hasn’t stopped it from happening.
FGM is a cultural practice that involves the mutilation or cutting of the female genitalia for nonmedical purposes. It is usually carried out with razors or knives in unsterilized conditions by women who have not been medically trained.
More than 200 million women and girls in at least 30 countries have been subjected to FGM, according to the World Health Organization (WHO). Almost one-quarter of the survivors are girls under 15 and more than half live in Indonesia, Egypt, and Ethiopia.
The practice is most common in Somalia and Guinea, where over 97 percent of all women and girls are subjected to FGM. It is also common in other African countries, the Middle East, and Indonesia.
The reasons for why FGM is performed differ depending on the region, but the practice is often associated with cultural traditions around female sexuality and coming of age. Often, FGM is performed to ensure premarital virginity and marital fidelity, according to WHO.
FGM is classified into four major types, ranging from pricking or removing the clitoris, to cutting off part or all of the labia, to stitching closed the remaining labia skin. The last procedure leaves a small hole for urination and menstruation. A woman is often then cut open on her marriage night and again before giving birth.
Homeland Security Investigations Program
Brett Dreyer, assistant special agent in charge of Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) in New York, launched a pilot program this summer to help prevent vacation cutting.
He based the program on a successful initiative at London’s Heathrow airport, identifying three main goals: to raise awareness, to identify potential victims, and to arrest and prosecute any violators.
The Epoch Times went to New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport on the evening of June 30 to observe the initiative in action for a flight bound for Cairo, Egypt. In 2015, a study showed that 90 percent of women in Egypt had undergone FGM, despite it being illegal.
HSI agents worked in pairs on the jetway (the walkway between the gate and the airplane) to stop a random selection of passengers before they boarded.
Red flags arose when one team stopped a 14-year-old girl who was traveling to Cairo alone with a passport issued that same day. The girl, an American citizen, said she was going to visit her aunt and grandmother, both of whom she had never met. She was unsure how long she was staying in Egypt. The HSI agents explained to her all of the risks and complications associated with FGM. The girl replied, “Oh well, if it happens to me, I’ll just become an activist.”
The agents called the girl’s mother—who was in the neighboring terminal getting a ticket home to Florida after dropping off her daughter—and asked her to meet them by the AirTrain.
The flight to Cairo had already been delayed an hour due to an unrelated issue, and now flight staff members were eager to get everyone boarded for take off. Every minute on the tarmac means extra costs for the airline. The pressure was on Dreyer to make a decision about whether to pull the girl off the flight.
The agents interviewed the mother for about 10 minutes about FGM and her intentions for her daughter’s trip. The mother said she didn’t want her daughter to get cut, but the agents were concerned she couldn’t protect her daughter from here. The agent said the mother indicated that she herself was a victim of FGM, as was the aunt in Egypt.
She gave her consent for her daughter to undergo a medical exam upon her return to America.
It was a tough call, but Dreyer made the decision to let the girl board the flight, with the knowledge that the team will follow up with her upon her return. The team had delayed the flight by 30 minutes.
“In the prior two days, we have encountered potential victims—people that we are really concerned about, people that we will be doing follow-up investigations with,” Dreyer said.
“We have nothing but the best of intentions of protecting young girls from this illegal act. It’s child abuse.”
The agents will often never know if their actions have stopped a FGM from taking place, but there is anecdotal evidence that the HSI presence is a good deterrent.
One of the agents got a tip last year about a Somali girl who would be traveling to Kenya during the upcoming summer vacation. The agent went to the family’s house and talked to them about FGM and the law. The girl’s cousins in Maine had been overseas a couple of years prior and had undergone FGM.
The girl went ahead and traveled to Kenya, but she didn’t get cut. Homeland Security counts that as a win.
Myths and Facts About FGM
Myth: FGM is a religious practice.
Fact: FGM is a cultural tradition that is not found in any religious texts.
Myth: FGM is no different to male circumcision.
Fact: The purpose of male circumcision is not about the control of men’s bodies and their sexuality.
Myth: FGM is OK to perform on babies because it won’t hurt them as much.
Fact: Babies are just as traumatized and develop just as many complications from FGM as older girls.
Myth: FGM is OK if it is carried out in a medical setting.
Fact: FGM in a sterile setting is still child abuse. In fact, the medicalization of FGM can legitimize and perpetuate it.
Myth: A simple nicking or pricking of the clitoris is a fair alternative.
Fact: It doesn’t solve the ethical problem that FGM is really about the control of women’s bodies. No matter how far the procedure is stepped back, that philosophy is still behind it.
SOURCES: WHO, Dr. Deborah Ottenheimer