Crimes, by their very nature, often occur in the shadows, beneath detection of regular people. For certain crimes, they are even more secretive – rarely reported, rarely prosecuted, and often with stigma attached to its victims. Rape, sexual assault are some examples; however, one crime that is rarely recognized in the United States is that of female genital mutilation, or FGM. FGM involves a procedure which removes either some or all of the external female genital organs. This practice is fairly widespread in Africa, but is also found in the Middle East, Asia, and in immigrant countries around the world – even in spite of the fact that it is either outlawed or restricted in the majority of countries.
In the United States, the rates of FGM is uncertain, although a recent report showed that as of 2016, around 513,000 women and girls were either affected or at risk of undergoing FGM, and only eight states appear to have a high concentration of FGM cases: California, Minnesota, Maryland, New Jersey, New York, Texas, Virginia and Washington. Interestingly, FGM was covered by Blue Cross health insurance until 1977, and for many decades was considered a legitimate medical procedure to cure hysteria, lesbianism and excess sexual desire in women and girls in the United States. However, in 1997, the Federal Prohibition of Female Genital Mutilation Act made FGM on anyone under 18 illegal in the United states, and as of 2015, 24 states have laws that specifically prohibit FGM. Other states use general child abuse statutes to prosecute the act. The Federal law went further in 2013, which made it illegal to remove a girl from the United States for the purpose of undergoing FGM.
The reason FGM is outlawed, aside from the severe pain and mental anguish inflicted upon young girls, is that it can result in other, life-long complications. First, when the child is healing, it can lead to fever, infections, swelling and injuries to the surrounding tissue. It can also lead to chronic infections to the genitals and reproductive organs, as well as frequent urinary tract infections which can move to the kidneys, and eventually cause septicemia and death. Women experience painful urination, menstrual problems, and of course, extreme obstetric complications for when women go into labor. There are higher rates of neonatal death and stillbirths for women who have experienced FGM.
It wasn’t until 2006 that the first prosecution – and conviction – occurred in the U.S. for FGM. An Ethiopian American named Khalid Adem removed his two-year old daughter’s clitoris with a pair of scissors. This occurred in Georgia, which did not have an FGM statute on the books at the time. The state relied on aggravated battery and cruelty to children statutes to convict him. He was sentenced to two terms of 15 years to run concurrent, with at least 10 years to be served in prison. He was fined $5,000.00. In Ethiopia, despite being formally discouraged by the government and illegal by the Penal Code, the World Health Organization estimates that FGM still occurs at the rate of about 75%. In March 2017, Adem was deported back to Ethiopia after having served 10 years in prison.
FGM has affected U.S. law in other ways, particularly with immigration and granting asylum. In 1996, a 19-year old was granted asylum when left an arranged marriage to avoid undergoing FGM. This was the first time in U.S. history that FGM was an acceptable form of prosecution to grant asylum. Additionally, in April 2017, a doctor in Detroit has been charged for allegedly performing FGM on two young girls, although she has denied the charge. This is the first time the federal government has prosecuted FGM in the U.S. This case has brought new light to the issue of FGM, and reminds people in positions of duties to report, such as teachers, doctors and other caretakers, that they have an obligation to report FGM if they see evidence or suspect it occurring. Ultimately, FGM is a child abuse issue, and the case law and current statutory scheme should be the guide for both victims and child advocates until a more comprehensive and cohesive system for FGM is in place.