More than 200 million girls and women alive today have undergone female genital mutilation, or cutting (FGM/C). FGM/C refers to cutting and other procedures that injure the female genital organs for non-medical reasons.
FGM/C exists as a cultural practice that is carried out with disturbing regularity. The average age of victims ranges from less than five years to 18 years, but the practice may vary drastically among communities – from the severity of the cutting, to where FGM/C is performed (in a home, medical office, or hut), to why it is performed (for marriageability, religion, or misconceptions about health). The common thread among practicing communities is that it is cultural, passed down through the generations and part of the community identity.
Unfortunately, parents or other family members are often involved, although many female family members may be victims themselves. In Michigan, six defendants are facing charges that they engaged in female genital mutilation involving young girls. Fatema Dahodwala, Dr. Jumana Nagarwala, Dr. Fakhruddin Attar, Farida Attar, Taherea Shafiq, and Farida Arif are facing charged in the Detroit metropolitan area. Attar and Nagarwala are believed to have cut at least 100 girls. Nagarwala and the Attars belong to a Muslim sect known as Dawoodi Bohra, which promotes the illegal practice. They are all alleged to have conspired to make false statements to law enforcement and other investigating agencies.
While primarily concentrated in north, west, and central Africa, as well as parts of the Middle East and Asia, FGM/C also occurs in the United States. The Centers for Disease Control estimates that approximately 500,000 women and girls in the United States are either victims of FGM/C, or are at risk of being subjected to it.
As a result, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) National Security Investigations Division’s Human Rights Violators and War Crimes Unit, together with the ICE Office of the Principal Legal Advisor’s Human Rights Law Section, the FBI, and the Department of Justice Human Rights and Special Prosecutions Section, have focused their attention on identifying girls at risk and investigating those who perpetrate FGM/C.
Their investigative focus centers around 18 U.S.C. § 116, the federal law which criminalizes FGM/C. Although the federal law was passed in 1996 (with a transportation clause added in 2013), locating victims and enforcing the statute presents significant challenges. FGM/C is a powerful cultural practice that ensures social acceptance within communities and families, and as a result, survivors are often reluctant to come forward to provide information or much more, give testimony against their parents. Medical, educational and other professionals may be unaware of the how to determine that a girl has suffered FGM/C or may be reticent to report the family.
Despite these challenges, on April 12, HSI, the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Department of Justice made international headlines for the first indictment under 18 U.S.C. § 116. Dr. Jumana Nagarwala, a U.S. citizen and Detroit-area doctor, was indicted in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan for performing FGM/C on at least two 7-year old girls, although prosecutors estimate that she may have performed FGM/C on more than a hundred girls. Seven additional defendants have been subsequently charged with related crimes. All defendants are awaiting trial.
According to a DHS release, HSI Section Chief Andrew VanHorn explained, “There is much to learn about the issue. We recognize that while enforcement is essential, outreach and prevention are also critical to ending FGM/C. That is why HSI is part of an interagency working group to prevent and respond to FGM/C and works with numerous local and national groups to share knowledge and ideas. For instance, in January 2017, HSI traveled to London to meet with the United Kingdom’s Metropolitan Police in order to better understand how the UK conducts its operations, particularly Operation Limelight, an FGM/C outreach campaign at London’s Heathrow Airport.”
In June and August 2017, HSI launched its own Operation Limelight USA at John F. Kennedy Airport. The agents focused on flights traveling to and from countries with a high prevalence rate of FGM/C and spoke with over 230 families and 460 individuals, notifying them that it is unlawful to send a girl abroad for FGM/C and providing them with the ICE Tipline should they have information that a girl is at risk.
“We continue to partner with governmental and non-governmental organizations across the country, and the world, in order to educate ourselves and better identify potential victims and FGM/C practitioners,” explained HSI Human Rights Violators and War Crimes Unit Chief Mark Shaffer. “If HSI can help prevent FGM/C from happening, it is a win for everyone.”