Feb. 6 marks the International Day of Zero Tolerance for Female Genital Mutilation, a day in which the global community recognizes that more than 200 million girls and women alive today have undergone female genital mutilation, or cutting.
Female mutilation and cutting refers to cutting and other procedures that injure the female genital organs for non-medical reasons.
“Female genital mutilation/cutting (FGM/C) is a violation of the rights of women and girls that leaves lasting mental, emotional and physical scars,” said Chris Hacker, Deputy Assistant Director of the FBI’s Criminal Division. “The FBI’s work investigating human rights issues such as FGM/C is among the most important work we do, safeguarding children. We will continue to work with our partners at U. S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement to protect vulnerable members of our community, and bring to justice those who have harmed young girls."
The International Day of Zero Tolerance provides an opportunity to educate the world about the ongoing practice of female genital mutilation and renew a global commitment to the health of all girls and women by eliminating the internationally recognized human rights violation it presents.
As HSI supervisory special agent Andrew VanHorn explained, “We recognize that while enforcement is essential, outreach and prevention are also critical to ending female mutilation and cutting. That is why HSI is part of an interagency working group to prevent and respond to this crime, and works with numerous local and national groups to share knowledge and ideas.”
This heinous activity exists as a cultural practice that is carried out with disturbing regularity. The average age of victims ranges from less than five years to 18 years, but the practice may vary drastically among communities – from the severity of the cutting, to where the cutting is performed (in a home, medical office, or hut), to why it is performed (for marriageability, religion, or misconceptions about health).
The common thread among practicing communities is that it is cultural, passed down through the generations and part of the community identity. Unfortunately, parents or other family members are often involved, although many female family members may be victims themselves.
As a result, HSI National Security Investigations Division’s Human Rights Violators and War Crimes Unit, together with the ICE Office of the Principal Legal Advisor’s Human Rights Law Section, the FBI International Human Rights Unit, and the Department of Justice Human Rights and Special Prosecutions Section, have focused their attention on identifying girls at risk and investigating those who perpetrate female genital mutilation.
Their investigative focus centers on the federal law which criminalizes the practice, but challenges remain. Female mutilation is a powerful cultural practice that ensures social acceptance within communities and families, and as a result, survivors are often reluctant to come forward to provide information or much more, give testimony against their parents. Medical, educational and other professionals may be unaware of the how to determine that a girl has suffered female mutilation, or may be reticent to report the family.
Despite these challenges, on April 12, 2017, HSI, the FBI and the Department of Justice made international headlines for the first indictment under the federal law banning female genital mutilation.
In 2017, HSI launched Operation Limelight USA at John F. Kennedy Airport. The initiative is designed to bring awareness to female genital mutilation, and deter its practice through training, outreach and enforcement. Agents spoke with over 325 families and 675 individuals, focusing on flights traveling to and from countries with a high prevalence rate of female genital mutilation. Passengers were informed about the U.S. laws governing FGM/C and the potential criminal, immigration, and child protective consequences of transporting a child to another country for the purpose of FGM. Agents also provided them with the HSI Tipline should they have information that a girl is at risk.
Anyone with information about victims or perpetrators of female genital mutilation is encouraged to call the toll-free ICE tip line at (866) 347-2423 or complete the ICE online tip form or the FBI online tip form.