By: Ayaan Hirsi Ali
Even though we have had Federal laws in place since 1996 against female genital mutilation (FGM), only now is the first prosecution taking place. Dr. Jumana Nagarwala, an emergency room clinic physician at the Henry Ford Hospital in Detroit, was arrested last month for allegedly performing the procedure on multiple young girls over the past 12 years. In the case against Dr. Nagarwala, a whistleblower called out the doctor back in 2013. Reading through the court documents we know that the FBI’s investigation to catch this person was long and in depth, and no doubt many more girls have been brutalized by this doctor in the interim.
The practice of FGM is happening underground in the United States. It is hushed up by those who are culturally misguided, and child abusers continue to carry it out on young girls here. The best estimates we have say that over 500,000 girls in the US are at risk of or have been subjected to genital mutilation.
At the AHA Foundation, we receive requests for help with counseling and referrals for surgical repair from FGM victims. These requests often come from older girls and women, as little girls who are subjected to FGM are brainwashed by their families into thinking it is a beneficial, or special experience. They are also typically too young to be able to ask for help; afterwards, they are told that it is a secret, and that they are not to tell anyone what happened.
The defendant Dr. Nagarwala claims she performed FGM on girls as part of her religious beliefs as a Muslim. Using religion or culture to justify these atrocities is unacceptable. Both Indian and Muslim groups have since come out condemning the practice, yet clearly American religious communities need to do more to end FGM.
The arrest and forthcoming trial of the doctor in Detroit is good news. It sends a strong message to families, practitioners, and communities who inflict genital mutilation on little girls that it is an intolerable form of child abuse and they will go to jail. This case is an important breakthrough bringing an otherwise secretive human rights abuse in our backyard to light.
The case comes at a very important time as summer break for students is quickly approaching. Even though it has been outlawed since 2013, many families send their daughters overseas or to neighboring states to undergo genital mutilation during the summer break in a process that is known as ‘vacation cutting’.
We need more than just the FBI working on prosecuting and preventing FGM. To date, half of the states in this country have not outlawed FGM. Prosecutors and child welfare workers often turn to state legislation and provisions first. We see the impact of state laws in the Detroit case where the two seven-year-old girls mutilated by the doctor in February were brought by their families to Michigan, a state with no specific FGM protections, from Minnesota where a prosecution can lead to life imprisonment. States with no law criminalizing FGM are a safe harbor of sorts for those who would cut their girls; relatively minimal legal consequences could lead, and perhaps have already led, to families traveling across state lines to avoid harsher penalties for continuing this painful practice. For the safety of these girls who would be brutalized by this procedure, it is of tremendous importance that this loophole is closed.
The other big challenge for protecting girls from FGM in the United States is training frontline service workers – police officers, teachers, child protection officials, social services and health care workers in the US – on how to detect and report the warning signs of FGM. Many of these professionals are worried about cultural insensitivity. They’re not sure how to talk about the genitals of little girls, but they need to understand why it is happening and how to respond. The AHA Foundation delivers free training to professionals on this and I encourage anyone interested in stopping this barbaric practice from happening in the United States to get in touch and get involved with our work.
Find out if your state has FGM state legislation
Number of Women and Girls At Risk: 25,000
Status: Existing Legislation Needs Strengthening
Improve by adding: Prosecuting parents/guardian, felony offense