Two Michigan Doctors are on trial for Female Genital Mutilation, but what is it and why is it illegal? | ROUND + SQUARE

In the first U.S. federal case involving Female Genital Mutilation (FGM), a Michigan doctor was arrested and charged in April 2017 with illegally cutting the genitals of two 7-year-old girls from Minnesota as a “right of passage” within their religious community. 

Dr. Jumana Nagarwala , a U.S. citizen born in Washington, is now accused of performing at least four FGM operations on children between 2015 and 2017. The doctor has pleaded not guilty, although prosecutors have alleged that she may have subjected up to 100 girls to the procedure during the past 12 years.

The case involves eight defendants— including Dr. Nagarwala, another doctor and his wife, and four mothers — who are accused of participating in varying degrees to young girls being illegal cut. The doctor was recently released from jail on a $4.5 million bond; the trial is now expected to take place in mid-2018.

What is FGM and why is it illegal?

FGM involves the partial or complete removal of external female genitalia for non-medical reasons, thereby interfering with the natural functions of girls’ and women's bodies.

It has zero health benefits and can have serious lifelong consequences including: chronic infections; cysts; severe pain during urination, menstruation and sexual intercourse; psychological trauma; and increased risk of infertility, labour complications and new-born death. The procedure itself can also be fatal.

There are various types of FGM. It includes clitoridectomy, which is the partial or total removal of the clitoris, and excision, which is the removal of the entire clitoris and the cutting of the labia minor. The most extreme form, known as infibulation, involves the removal of all external genitalia and stitching together the two sides of the vulva to leave only a small hole. Other procedures involve pricking, nicking or in other ways damaging the female genitalia.

FGM is usually performed between infancy and 15-years-old, though adult women are occasionally subjected.

More than 200 million girls and women around the world today have undergone some form of the procedure. In Africa alone, it is thought that 3 million girls are at risk every year, and 30 million globally are in danger of being cut within the next ten years. No one knows how many die each year from the procedure.

The practice has traditionally been arranged by women in the family and carried out without anaesthetic by elder women using equipment such as a razor, knife or glass, which is often unsterilized and may be used on numerous people during a single ritual.

However, medicalization of FGM - during which it is carried out by a qualified medical professional - is on the increase in countries like the U.S.A. According to a 2010 World Health Organization study, more than 18% of all girls and women who have been subjected to FGM had the procedure performed on them by a health-care provider. According to WHO, Egypt has the highest rate of medicalised FGM globally at 74%.

FGM happens across geographic, financial, ethnic and religious lines. It is practiced in Christian and Muslim communities, as well as some indigenous religions. Although people may believe it is religious requirement, it is not mentioned in either the Bible or the Koran. 

In the Michigan FGM case, all the defendants are members of the Dawoodi Bohra, a small Muslim sect originating in India which believes ‘nicking’ the clitoris is a religious rite of passage for girls.

In many cultures which perform FGM, it is often a precursor to child marriage and rationalized as a rite of passage into womanhood. However, in reality it is a human rights violation and an extreme form of violence used to control female sexuality.  Many governments, including the US, recognize FGM as a form of child abuse.

The practise involves a mixture of cultural, social and religious practices associated with the notion that girls are “clean” and “beautiful” after removal of body parts that are considered “male” or “unclean.” It is closely linked to beliefs about what is considered ‘proper’ female sexual behaviour, and the notion that it reduces a woman's libido leaving her more able to remain faithful in marriage and resist engaging in "illicit" sexual acts.

While the procedure is more common in countries in Africa, the Middle East and Asia, FGM is a global issue.  It is happening in countries like the US and UK, with some girls being at risk of “vacation cutting,” in which they are taken to their families’ home country during school holidays to undergo the procedure.

Much work has been done to end this harmful practise, by governments, grassroots activists, local organisations working directly with communities, international human rights organisations like Equality Now, and coalitions such as The Girl Generation which brings campaigners together but much remains to be done. For the first time, the 192 member countries of United Nations have agreed on a target to eliminate FGM by 2030. 

FGM is illegal in the U.S. In the case relating to Dr. Nagarwala, prosecutors have argued that the federal genital mutilation law is clear: It prohibits "knowingly circumcis(ing), excis(ing) or infibulat(ing) the whole or any part of the labia majora or labia minora or clitoris of another person who has not attained the age of 18 years" for non-medical reasons.

This case demonstrates that the law is beginning to be implemented in the U.S. and there appears to be a greater priority placed at both the federal and state levels.

With improved global and local collaboration, sufficient funding, and the continued efforts of women’s rights groups, governments, and bold activists including many survivors, the end to FGM is achievable.

For more information about Equality Now’s ongoing work to end FGM please go Equalitynow.org or follow us on Twitter @equalitynow.

Notes to Editor:

For media enquiries and high resolution photographs please contact Tara Carey, Equality Now Media Relations Manager at tcarey@equalitynow.org; +44 (0)20 7304 6902; +44 (0)7971 556 340.

About Equality Now:

Equality Now is an international human rights organization that works to protect and promote the rights of women and girls around the world by combining grassroots activism with international, regional and national legal advocacy. Our international network of lawyers, activists, and supporters achieve legal and systemic change by holding governments responsible for enacting and enforcing laws and policies that end legal inequality, sex trafficking, sexual violence, and harmful practices such as female genital mutilation and child marriage. 

For more information about Equality Now’s ongoing work to end FGM please go www.equalitynow.org or follow us on Twitter @equalitynow