From Atlanta courtrooms to the Georgia Capitol, female genital cutting represents a wave of issues Georgians face as the state becomes home to a growing number of immigrants. The sensitive subject engenders cultural and religious debates involving female sexuality and the most intimate details about a woman’s body.
It’s an issue that Georgia officials, more used to debating school funding or road projects, don’t especially want to talk about. But it is one they likely will hear more of. No one knows how many sexually mutilated women and girls live in Atlanta and the United States. It is a hidden, private matter, often called “female circumcision,” although in some forms it is more akin to castration.
Worldwide, an estimated 2 million girls a year have their genitals cut, ranging from removal of the skin around the clitoris—the female organ corresponding to the penis—to the total cutting away of the clitoris and vaginal lips and the stitching together of the external genitalia in a procedure called infibulation.
Most of the affected girls are from Africa, where the practice remains widespread in 28 countries. But it is also found in some Middle Eastern countries, such as Israel, and in some Muslim groups in Indonesia, Pakistan and India.
Despite growing international opposition, immigrants are bringing the entrenched custom to Europe, Australia, Canada and the United States. In this country alone, an estimated 168,000 girls and women have undergone the procedure or are still at risk, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The number is growing as the number of immigrants from practicing countries grows.
For nearly 20 years, Dr. M. Dawud Jeffries of Southside OB-GYN Associates in Atlanta has been helping a growing number of young married Somali and West and North African women by cutting open their scarred vaginal tissue so they can engage in sex without pain.
The fear of immigrants importing the practice has led a number of Western countries to make it illegal, including the United States, which outlawed it in 1996. But critics say this country hasn’t done enough to protect immigrant women and girls. The U.S. Justice Department has yet to approve 4-year-old proposed regulations that would spell out when to grant asylum to women trying to escape gender-related violence, including mutilation.
“There’s a mix throughout the country in deciding these cases,” says Karen Musalo, director of the Center for Gender and Refugee Studies at the University of California Hastings College of Law. “There has been a lack of clarity.”
No one in the federal government tracks how many asylum requests are based on a woman’s fear of being genitally mutilated. But Musalo’s center has done its best to keep tabs on them, and in six years, there have been at least 372 requests involving female genital cutting. The center, however, knows only of cases that lawyers have brought to its attention.