Liriel Higa, New York Times, May 22, 2015
The CDC hasn’t released a final estimate, but a draft obtained by The Guardian estimates 513,000 women and girls are living with or a risk of female genital mutilation, or “female circumcision,” as it is sometimes referred to euphemistically. Illegal to perform on minors in the United States since 1996, it has no health benefit and typically involves removing part or all of the genitals of babies or young girls, though in some cases it can be a nick. Under one extreme form, the vulva is sewn up afterward, leaving just a small opening for menstruation and urination. The result can lead to great pain and health complications, particularly in childbirth. Parents have their daughters undergo the procedure because they view it as a rite of passage that will improve marriage prospects; there is often an assumption that a girl with a clitoris is likely to be “wild.”
The Population Reference Bureau used methods similar to those the CDC employed, and in its own study concluded that 507,000 women are at risk and affected in the United States. The numbers are calculated based on the number of women coming from countries with high prevalence rates of female genital mutilation, or daughters with parents from those countries. In fact, says Mark Mather of the Population Reference Bureau, compared to the 1997 estimate, which included people with ancestry from an affected country, the latest figure is more conservative because it is limited to the first and second generation.
Yet the women who come to the United States aren’t necessarily representative of other countries’ population as a whole, and when it comes to a precise count of how many women have actually undergone the procedure, that’s much harder to calculate. The practice isn’t uniform within a country–it can vary by region, religion and wealth, for example, a level of nuance that is difficult to extrapolate when it comes to the U.S. population. In Benin, 72 percent of Peulh girls have undergone the procedure, while it is not practiced among the Adja and Fon ethnicities. In Gambia, 82 percent of girls and women who have been cut think the practice should continue, compared to only 5 percent of those who have not been cut. Low-income Liberian women are twice as likely to have been cut as wealthy ones.
Brendan Wynne of Equality Now, which has been lobbying for years to address female genital mutilation in England and the United States, says that it’s a mistake to assume that just because immigrants to the United States may be more affluent and educated, that means they are less likely to have been cut. “There’s no real connection in that sense, he says. “The last places for FGM to exist will be in the Western world. Diaspora communities tend to hold onto it.”
So how can the United States get more precise numbers? The United Kingdom–where some 137,000 women are said to be affected–offers one model. There, health professionals in the national health care system must make note in a patient’s health care record if she has been cut. The Department of Health also collects data every month from acute trusts, which manage hospitals, on how many patients have undergone the procedure.