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Female genital mutilation in the United States

FGM is recognized internationally as a human rights violation, constituting torture and an extreme form of discrimination against women and girls. The reasons underlying its practice are numerous and varied and ultimately serve to control women and girls’ sexuality.

In the US, approximately 513,000 women and girls have undergone or are at risk of female genital mutilation (FGM). Women and girls who were born in the US may be subjected to FGM here or even during vacations to their families’ countries of origin — a practice known as “vacation cutting.”

To eliminate FGM in the US, we’re calling for a comprehensive strategy that unites government agencies, survivors, and local organizations; provides FGM prevention education as well as support services for survivors at federal, state, and local levels; and provides for continued funding. A growing number of states are outlawing FGM at the state level, but we’re advocating for more to follow suit.

What is the history of FGM in the United States?

Equality Now was founded in 1992 to address the lack of attention FGM received from international human rights organizations and in 1996 launched a campaign in the U.S. against the detention of 17-year-old Fauziya Kassindja, who had escaped from Togo fleeing FGM and a forced marriage in 1994. In a landmark decision, Fauziya was granted asylum in the U.S. and her case helped establish FGM as a form of gender-based persecution on the basis of which women could receive asylum in the U.S.

More recently, news articles have highlighted cases of girls born in the U.S. being subjected to FGM, sometimes while on vacation in their parents’ countries of origin, referred to as “vacation cutting.”

In a recent federal case, U.S. v. Nargarwala, a U.S.-licensed Doctor was charged with performing FGM on nine girls, aged 7-13, at a Detroit Clinic.  An Amicus Brief submitted by Equality Now in partnership with We Speak Out, Sahiyo and Safe Hands for Girls was accepted by the court. In November 2018, a federal judge in Detroit dismissed six of the eight charges on the grounds that the law was unconstitutional because Congress did not have the right to criminalize the practice.  The Stop FGM Act 2020 which came into effect on 5 January 2021 expressly notes that it is the sense of the US Congress that the District Court of Michigan erred in declaring the law unconstitutional, and an updated version of the federal law is now in force.  

How should we address FGM?

Ending FGM requires a multi-sectoral approach that brings together law enforcement, child protection professionals, educators, physicians, religious leaders, government agencies, advocates, and survivors. The approach must be holistic and always keep the best interest of the girl or woman who is either at risk of or a survivor of FGM at the center of its efforts.

In December 2016, Equality Now, Safe Hands for Girls, The United States Institute of Peace and the US Network to End FGM/C came together to host the first-ever End Violence Against Girls: Summit on FGM/C in the US, with generous support from the Human Dignity Foundation and the Wallace Global Fund. The event sought to encourage a multi-sectoral approach to ending female genital mutilation/cutting (FGM/C) by bringing together subject matter experts from across sectors and continents. The collaboration among these organizations working to promote peace, protect girls’ human rights and elevate survivor voices was natural and strong.

The Summit invigorated and deepened the dialogue around ending the practice by 2030 and spurred synergy and collaboration that will hopefully continue to expand and enhance collective efforts of FGM/C survivors, activists and policymakers. Equality Now is proud to sit on the inaugural Steering Committee of the US End FGM/C Network.

What laws protect girls from FGM in the U.S.?

Federal law 18 U.S. Code § 116 ‘Female Genital Mutilation’, as amended by the STOP FGM Act 2020 makes it illegal to perform FGM in the U.S. and was amended in 2013 to make it illegal to knowingly transport a girl out of the U.S. for the purpose of FGM.  The older version of the section 116 which was found unconstitutional by the Michigan District Court in 2018 has now been replaced by an updated version after the passage of the STOP FGM Act 2020.  The 2020 amendment has clarified the definition of FGM under the law. The law also requires the Attorney General to submit an annual report to Congress to report on actions taken by federal, state and local agencies to protect women and girls from FGM as well education and awareness measures taken by federal agencies.   

Additionally, only 41 states have laws against FGM.

The history of laws and policies against FGM in the United States

  • August 2021: On 6 August 2020, the Governor of Massachusetts signed Bill H4606 “An Act Relative to the Penalties for the crime of Female Genital Mutilation” into law.
  • January 2021: The Stop FGM Act is signed into law to reaffirm and strengthen federal protection for girls against FGM.
  • October 2019: The Stop FGM Act is introduced to clarify congressional authority and increase protections for girls. The bill is in the House Committee on the Judiciary waiting to be approved and sent to the full House of Representative for a vote. 
  • April 2019: U.S. House of Representatives moved to intervene in U.S. v. Nargarwala.
  • April 2019: U.S. Department of Justice decided not to pursue an appeal of Judge Friedman’s decision in U.S. v. Nargarwala
  • November 2018: The judge in the US v Nagarwala finds Congress did not have authority to pass the federal FGM law and dismisses the charges.2019: The DOJ does not appeal the case.
  • July 2018: New Hampshire adopts a law criminalizing FGM. This new law also contains a “vacation provision” which prohibits the practice of transporting girls outside of the state in order to undergo FGM.
  • 2018: Equality Now, WeSpeakOut, Sahiyo, and Safe Hands for Girls submit Amicus Brief in US v. Nargarwala.
  • April 2018: The US End FGM/C Network is launched.
  • 2017: The Department of Justice brings charges against Dr. Nargawala in the Eastern District of Michigan under 18 U.S. Code § 116 ‘Female Genital Mutilation’ 
  • April 2017: Final report and recommendations from the End Violence Against Girls: Summit on FGM/C are issued 
  • April 2017: U.S. doctor is arraigned on federal charges for performing FGM in Michigan
  • December 2016: Equality Now co-organizes with Safe Hands for Girls and the U.S. Institute of Peace the first-ever End Violence Against Girls: Summit on FGM/C bringing together experts from across sectors and continents to discuss a multi-sectoral approach to ending FGM
  • June 2016: The GAO issues a second report on domestic efforts and recommending that each federal agency document its domestic FGM awareness efforts
  • May 2016: The U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) issues a report on U.S. efforts to combat FGM abroad finding that although both the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) and USAID implement the Joint Program on FGM in 17 countries, funding is limited due to competing development priorities, including HIV/AIDS
  • March 2016: The Department of State and USAID launch the first Global Strategy to Empower Adolescent Girls, prominently highlighting the need to address FGM
  • 2016: HHS’ budget justifications for 2017 address FGM for the first time
  • February 2015: The Zero Tolerance for FGM Act is introduced by Congressman Crowley calling on the Administration to create and deliver a report to Congress on a national action plan to protect girls from FGM
  • July 2014: An inter-agency working group, including the U.S. Departments of Health and Human Services (HHS), Education, Justice, and Immigration hosts a consultation with civil society on FGM in the U.S.
  • 2014: The U.S. Department of State Human Rights country reports include, for the first time, a mandatory question on FGM.
  • 2013: The Provision is signed into law making it illegal to knowingly transport a girl out of the U.S. for the purpose of inflicting FGM on her
  • August 2012: the U.S. Strategy to Prevent and Respond to Gender-Based Violence Globallyis introduced by the U.S. Department of State and the U.S. Agency for International Development. It defines FGM as a form of violence against women and girls.
  • 2012: Congress passes an FGM travel provision, “Transport for Female Genital Mutilation,” as S. 1088 of the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2013 (H.R. 4310)
  • 2011: The Girls’ Protection Act is re-introduced by Representative Crowley in the House and Senator Harry Reid in the Senate, but again does not pass
  • 2010: The Girls’ Protection Act (H.R. 5137), a bipartisan legislation introduced by Congressman Crowley and supported by Equality Now, is introduced to address “vacation cutting.” It does not pass.
  • 1996: 18 U.S. Code § 116 ‘Female Genital Mutilation’ is enacted

Learn more about the laws against FGM by state in the US.

Additionally, in collaboration with civil society several government agencies have guidance on the law against FGM:

  • U.S. Department of Justice brochure and factsheet
  • U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s U.S. Citizen and Immigration Services (USCIS) brochure and a strategy in response to the GAO report recommendations
  • Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) statement

We are encouraged by these initiatives, but much more needs to be done. Other countries are far ahead of the U.S. in their data collection, prevention and training programs, health services to survivors and public awareness of women and girls affected by or at risk of FGM. Equality Now has worked closely with the U.S. government to inform policy on FGM and continues to advocate with FGM survivors in the U.S. for a comprehensive approach to effective implementation of U.S. laws and policies and greater public awareness of this human rights violation.