Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

How Women From The U.S. Could Be At Risk Of Genital Mutilation


Federal law enforcement has launched an awareness campaign to try to stop what's known as vacation cutting. That's when girls are sent abroad for female genital mutilation, a dangerous ritual long-practiced in certain parts of Africa and Asia. Increasingly, young women from the United States are also at risk. A warning now - this story contains graphic references. Matt Katz of member station WNYC reports.

MATT KATZ, BYLINE: Investigators from Immigration and Customs Enforcement at John F. Kennedy International Airport got an unusual tip last year that a girl was traveling unaccompanied to a country that practices female genital mutilation, known as FGM. Special Agent Michelle Panella with ICE's Homeland Security Investigations took the case.

MICHELLE PANELLA: Luckily, we were able to get there while her mother was dropping her off. And we got her to sort of see that it might not be the best idea and that her daughter could be in danger or at risk of FGM. And essentially, she decided to take her daughter off the flight.

KATZ: It was a small victory that exposed a larger problem. FGM, a brutal custom in more than two dozen nations - despite local laws against it - is now seen as a public health issue in America. And so ICE launched a pilot program at JFK Airport.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: International airport...

KATZ: ICE recently invited me along for what they're calling, Operation Limelight USA, modeled after a similar program in Britain. On select flights to and from African and Asian countries, ICE agents look for families traveling with young women or girls.


PANELLA: Ma'am, ma'am - right over here.

KATZ: Agent Panella has a dual mission - get intel on the practice of genital cutting - what it's called in various languages, at what ages girls are most vulnerable. And she also warns travelers of the risks - complications with childbirth and even death.

PANELLA: We're just going to ask you a couple questions, if you don't mind. Where are you guys coming from?




PANELLA: Oh, great. How long were you there for?

KATZ: This family spent the summer visiting relatives. That's a red flag for agents. So-called vacation cutting is often performed during school breaks so that girls have enough time to heal before returning to the United States when classes resume.

PANELLA: We're out here today. We're spreading awareness about something called female genital mutilation.


PANELLA: You've heard of it?

KATZ: The family matriarch said she understood it was an ancient custom banned in Egypt and that's all she knew. Panella gave her a flyer with a tip line in case she hears of other girls in danger. Around the world, an estimated 200 million girls have undergone this purity ritual, which involves removing or cutting parts of the genitalia. The Centers for Disease Control says a half million women in America are at risk because they were born in or their parents come from a country where it's a tradition.

PANELLA: We're trying to deter it from happening to anybody because it's just so horrific. And once it's done to a girl, you can never undo it. It's forever.

KATZ: With increased immigration from countries where FGM is prevalent, the United States banned the procedure and made it a crime to travel abroad to have it done. Earlier this year, a Michigan doctor was charged with performing FGM on two 7-year-old girls. Deborah Ottenheimer is a gynecologist who has treated victims. She is working with ICE to strengthen the outreach program.

DEBORAH OTTENHEIMER: I think the hard part is - how does law enforcement get the confidence of the immigrant community, especially right now? And that is a big, big challenge.

KATZ: Though FGM is often associated with Islam, Ottenheimer says it actually predates the religion and is common in certain Christian communities. Panella says sometimes mothers can't be the ones to protect their daughters because they're afraid to go against their culture and their families. In those cases, Panella's ready to be the bad cop.

PANELLA: If she can use us as the excuse, then, you know, we still see it as a win. She can put it on us. It can be our fault. We're okay with that.

KATZ: ICE plans to be back at JFK before winter break, talking to girls and their families. By next year, Operation Limelight could expand to airports nationwide.

For NPR News, I'm Matt Katz. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Matt Katz