The XX Factor

Parents Are Sending Their American Daughters Abroad for “Vacation Cutting”

Anti-circumcision protest in Nairobi.

Photo by Marco Longari/AFP/Getty Images

Female circumcision, a practice most common in Africa and the Middle East in which part or all of a girl’s external female genitalia are removed, has been banned in the United States since 1996. But, according to Julie Turkewitz of the New York Times, some families who have immigrated here from countries that still practice circumcision are intent on bringing their American-born teenage girls in line with customs back home. They are accomplishing this by sending their daughters on vacations that are about helping “them connect with their families and traditions,” which just happen to include undergoing female circumcision, sometimes forced.

Since it’s such a private matter, estimating how often this happens is difficult to do. “About 228,000 women and girls in the United States have been cut or are at risk of it, according to an analysis that uses 14-year-old census data,” Turkewitz writes. However, there’s enough concern about it that federal law was updated just last year in order to ban the practice of “vacation cutting”—sending someone abroad for female circumcision. As most people aren’t going to announce their intentions in the airport, enforcing the law is hard to do. According to the Guardian, “since the first federal law was passed [in 1996], the African migrant population in the US has more than doubled,” but there has only been one conviction.  

Now Democratic Rep. Joseph Crowley and Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee are trying to step up protections. They sent a letter to Congress and various government agencies highlighting ways they believe more circumcisions could be prevented. Turkewitz reports:

They suggest emulating efforts in Britain, which has established a help line for potential victims, created passport inserts that explain the law regarding female cutting, and delivered repeated warnings to school staff members about the dangers of the practice.

While these efforts are commendable, it often seems like the conversation around female circumcision exists in a vacuum, without any discussion of why someone would want their daughter to undergo the procedure. But understanding motivations might be the key to prevention. Because of the way female circumcision deliberately injures sexual response and can cause long-term health problems, it’s all too tempting to treat it as categorically different than the far less invasive (and far more familiar) custom of male circumcision. However, in doing so, it’s easy to forget that people circumcise girls for basically the same reason they circumcise boys: Because that’s how it’s always been done, and because, in many cultures, uncut genitals look weird to most neighbors.

“Those working to end cutting say that they seek to do so in a culturally sensitive way, recognizing the practice’s long history, and gently educating families about its consequences: immediate and long-term physical pain, complications during birth, loss of sexual feeling and mental health issues,” Turkewitz writes. Being culturally sensitive is about more than just being “politically correct,” however. Trying to strong arm people into compliance with threats of criminal prosecution can backfire and make them feel that their cultural practices are under attack. Harsher laws may actually stop people from speaking out, just as Turkewitz found when interviewing a social worker who tried to talk to a 12-year-old girl she feared would be circumcised in Mali:

“I’m like, ‘You know you’re going to get married, do you know what that means? Do you know what circumcision is?’ ” said the counselor, who asked that her name not be used so she could protect her client’s privacy. “And she’s like, ‘Yeah, they did it to everybody.’ I ask, ‘Do you think that’s what’s going to happen in Mali?’ And then she shut off. She’s like, ‘My mom told me not talk about that.’ ”

The issue of female circumcision is a complicated mess of family, culture, and sexuality. There is no easy, clear cut solution to this problem. But as this woman’s story shows, silence is what allows the practice to continue. Bringing this issue out in the open is a necessary part of finding the way to stop it.