Mutilation Seen as Risk for the Girls of Immigrants

News  New York Times. Monday, 23 March 1998.

Barbara Crossette

Related Articles: Congress Bans Genital Rite (Oct. 12, 1996)

More than 160,000 girls and women in immigrant communities in the United States may have been victims of the traditional practice of genital mutilation or are at risk of being subjected to it, according to a report to be published Monday by a New York State congresswoman active in a campaign to prosecute practitioners.

The estimate – extrapolated from the 1990 census – does not distinguish between those on whom the operation has been performed and those who are deemed at risk.

Information is only beginning to be collected on the prevalence of the operation to remove all or part of the female genital area, a practice most common among immigrants from Africa. It has been illegal in the United States since 1997. Much evidence is anecdotal, but public health officials say there is enough to cause concern.

In January, Rep. Louise M. Slaughter, D-N.Y., asked the Health and Human Services Department to survey the situation. The department based its report on a statistical analysis by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta.

Officials say precise figures are difficult to collect because the only sure medical measurement of the practice is physical examination. But doctors and women's groups in immigrant communities are accumulating enough accounts to cause concern in Congress and the administration.

Donna Shalala, secretary of External link Health and Human Services, has been developing educational material for health professionals encountering the problem for the first time.

It's illegal, it's inhumane and we've got to be clear about that, Ms. Shalala said. At the same time, we have to be culturally sensitive in explaining to those immigrants who might put their girls at risk that the practice has harmful physical and psychological consequences.

The practice, which women's groups call female genital mutilation, affects about 100 million women worldwide, international health experts say. It may involve the removal of only the clitoris or all of the external genitalia.

The External link World Health Organization says the practice often includes infibulation, in which the vagina is sewn shut to prevent the woman from having sexual relations with anyone but her husband. Infections and perpetual leakage of urine are among the side effects. Many girls die of bleeding or shock.

David Smith, associate director of the office of international and refugee health at the Department of Health and Human Services, said: The issue is not simply new surgeries. There are lifelong medical consequences as a result of these surgeries that have to be attended to.

Ms. Slaughter said she was disturbed by arguments that this is an acceptable cultural practice.

I appreciate that a lot of people are very sensitive to the cultural notion that this is something done in other places, but we don't do it here any more than we would let a group put chastity belts on little girls over 11, she said in an interview.

At External link Equality Now, a women's human rights organization in New York that works extensively with immigrants, Jessica Neuwirth, the director, said that to avoid cultural clashes over the issue, there is a strong feeling that the movement against this must be led by African activists.

Experts say it is too early to determine whether the practice, now under attack in Africa, will die in the United States as immigrants move into mainstream society.

But Ms. Neuwirth, who receives letters from African women here asking for help in combating the rite here, says she has heard accounts of operations done by immigrants themselves or by foreign practitioners who perform the cutting either in the ancestral country or in the United States at the invitation of families seeking to evade the law.

A number of African countries have curtailed the practice or are advising against it. In a landmark ruling last year, Egypt's highest court not only banned the practice but also ruled against Muslims who advocate it by declaring in the decision that there is nothing in the Koran or Islamic law that prescribes or condones the operation.

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