FGM in the US

Nina Strochlic at the Daily Beast reports that FGM numbers in the US have skyrocketed despite strong federal and state laws against it.

In 1997, the CDC estimated that 168,000 girls and women were at risk or had undergone FGM—at the time of the last national census in 1990. A few years later, in 2000, the African Women’s Center upped the number at 227,000.

But according to estimates released on Friday, there currently are around 507,000 girls living in the U.S. who are either at risk of being cut or who have already been cut. That’s more than triple the figure from the very first nationwide count.

These are estimates, not counts.

This fresh data comes from a new report issued Friday by the nonprofit Population Reference Bureau, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit. It was culled from the U.S. Census’ 2013 American Community Survey. The PRB then crunched the numbers from immigration communities and compared them with the prevalence of FGM in the countries where those people hail from. Working under the assumption that first- or second-generation Americans either have experienced FGM or will at the same rate as their homeland counterparts, the PRB narrowed the focus to teens from 15 to 19, presumably most at risk, and women up to 49, a percentage of whom already have undergone the procedure. New York City and Washington, D.C. have the highest concentration, with more than 50,000 girls at risk in each city. Minneapolis, with its large Somali population, is third.

So basically what the PRB is reporting is an increase in immigration from countries where FGM is prevalent, with a reasonable guess that many girls in those families will have had or are likely to have FGM. Maybe the guess is a little too pessimistic – maybe more immigrants than they think are dropping that particular home custom.

(Speaking of immigration…I was in a bargain grocery store a few days ago, in a suburb of Seattle with a high immigrant population. A girl of about 10, with I assume her father, asked me about a bottle of yellow liquid in her hand – “What’s this?” They looked perhaps Somali. I looked at it and said “It’s for cleaning” at the same time she added, “Is it for cooking?” Alarmed by her question, I gestured at the shelves and said “This whole area is for cleaning stuff, definitely don’t eat it.” She nodded and I bumbled off, then a minute later it dawned on me – yellow liquid – they’re looking for cooking oil. So I tried to find them again to show them where the food items were, but I couldn’t. It haunted me a bit. I’d be pretty at sea trying to find cooking oil in a store where all the labels were in Arabic or Bengali. Then again the daughter is there and there were lots of people around to ask.) (I hope she gets her reward, and is allowed to keep her junk intact.)

If this data seems ambiguous—“may have undergone” or “at risk of undergoing”—that’s because it is. Getting solid numbers on how frequently FGM is actually practiced in the U.S. has been virtually impossible. There is little information on what actually goes on in these insular immigrant communities, and with felony charges facing anyone who admits to orchestrating the cutting, it seems unlikely that many people would answer surveys truthfully.

Which of course is one reason some people oppose criminalization. It’s complicated.

The people most in the know—local teachers and healthcare providers—must be involved to paint an accurate picture of FGM in the United States. They’re also the ones with the best footing to stanch the practice.

Post fliers in those bargain grocery stores – and the nearby check-cashing places and quick loan shark places and the like.

Estimating according to country isn’t very accurate, because rates can vary hugely within countries.

This is why activists are pushing government agencies to create a bottom-up approach to information gathering, so that the federal level can better evaluate on-the-ground needs.

Sharing these numbers with residents of these immigrant communities also could be a first step to quashing the practice. The communities may not even be aware that the practice in many of their home countries actually is on the decline, says Feldman-Jacobs. From Benin to Iraq, from Liberia to the Central African Republic, the rate of FGM has dropped by as much as half among young girls in the past 20 years.

It’s actually a hopeful story, overall.

Part of the impetus behind the federal effort is a 25-year-old activist named Jaha Dukureh, who, along with advocacy group Equality Now, filed a petition last May asking the government to carry out a new study. Her story, as it was told to me at the time, and an examination of the underground FGM crisis in America, can be found here.

Good job, Daily Beast.


  1. Anne Fenwick says

    It is frustrating that neither society nor the statistics seem good at separating 1) women who arrive as immigrants having undergone FGM in their previous countries; 2) their daughters who may be considered at risk; 3) those daughters who actually undergo FGM in a western country or ‘on vacation’. I’m glad this article seemed to get the problem – though I do wonder about their choice of age range, I think we would use a different one in the UK.

    What seems to be important is that the arrival of a large number of women in category 1 is going to necessitate a response. In the first place, they’re going to have specific health care needs which the country isn’t used to meeting. I do wonder how that’s going to work out in the US (not that the UK has distinguished itself recently, or anything). It frustrates me when people complain about the necessity of dealing with this as though it was a terrible imposition. That strikes me as practically victim-blaming.

    Then there’s the information campaign to make sure the girls in category 2 don’t end up in category 3. That’s very important, because the next stage should be a last resort, after every effort has been expended here. And lastly, the criminal justice stage for people who do put girls into category 3. I just wish people would stop mentally jumping through the first two stages as though they didn’t exist.

  2. moarscienceplz says

    Speaking of cultural disconnects while shopping: I was in London for the first time and needed some Q-Tips. I found a “chemist’s” (I knew about that from lots of PBS) and, realizing that maybe Q-Tips wasn’t a brand there, I asked the lady behind the counter for some “Q-tips? Cotton swabs?” All I got was a blank look. Finally, I just wandered the aisles and fairly quickly found “cotton buds”. OK, she probably didn’t know “swabs” any better than I knew “buds”, but the brand was still Q-Tips. I could only conclude that either Q-Tips had failed to dominate the cotton bud market even though that was the only brand in the store, or else English people don’t care if they have water in their ears after a shower, so nobody buys them.

  3. Maureen Brian says

    On the news tonight – a woman was arrested to London Heathrow en route to Zimbabwe “on suspicion of conspiring to commit FGM” and the young girl with her taken into care while the investigation happens.


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