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‘Vacation Cutting’: The Little Known Global Health Crisis Affecting Girls In The U.S.

Women from Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, Rwanda and Burundi participate in the world march of woman in Nairobi, Kenya Tuesday, Oct. 13, 2015. The women marched to protest against early marriage, sexual harassment, Female Genital Mutilation and all forms of violence and inequality against women. (AP Photo/Khalil Senosi) CREDIT: AP PHOTO/KHALIL SENOSI
Women from Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, Rwanda and Burundi participate in the world march of woman in Nairobi, Kenya Tuesday, Oct. 13, 2015. The women marched to protest against early marriage, sexual harassment, Female Genital Mutilation and all forms of violence and inequality against women. (AP Photo/Khalil Senosi) CREDIT: AP PHOTO/KHALIL SENOSI

For some girls living in the United States, summer vacation will not involve campsites and s’mores. They may instead be subjected to what’s known as “vacation cutting” — sent abroad to undergo a painful female genital mutilation (FGM) procedure.

As the school year comes to an end, Jaha Dukureh, a prominent advocate against FGM, is leading a campaign to caution parents in the United States about the procedure’s lifelong health consequences.

“This is the time [of year] that a lot of children are being sent back to their parents’ home country to undergo FGM,” Dukureh said in a phone interview from Atlanta, Georgia. “We are trying to reach as many girls and communities as possible.”

Dukureh herself is a FGM survivor, having undergone the most extreme version of the procedure as an infant in Gambia, during which her clitoris was removed and her labia was resewn so that only a small hole remained for menstruation and urination. She was forced into an arranged marriage at the age of 15. She later fled the marriage and remarried in Atlanta.

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The Shocking Rise Of Female Genital Mutilation In The United StatesWorld by CREDIT: AP Last month, Jaha Dukureh held the hand of a pregnant 17-year-old girl as she went through a…thinkprogress.orgMore than 200 million girls across 30 countries have been cut through the procedure, which provides no health benefits. In many communities, it’s seen as an tradition that can control sexuality and ensure virginity.

“A lot of people who practice FGM in their community have no clue that it’s illegal,” she said. “It’s part of their culture. They think that they’re doing the right thing for their children, for their daughters.”

Currently, about 513,000 U.S.-based women and girls are at risk for FGM because they were either born or have a parent born in a country that condones the practice. Although a 2014 Population Reference Bureau (PRB) report found there hasn’t been a recent increase in the practice in the United States, some U.S.-based parents — particularly those living in immigrant communities — are still sending their daughters to countries in Africa, the Middle East, and Asia to undergo FGM.

What these parents may not know is that the procedure has been illegal in the United States since 1996. The “vacation cutting” tactic of knowingly transporting a girl out of the U.S. to undergo the procedure wasn’t outlawed until 2013. But the operation still persists.

The fathers are normally very clueless as to how hurtful this is.

“A lot of times, the mothers would understand the health consequences, but the fathers are normally very clueless as to how hurtful this is,” Dukureh said. “What I’ve found doing this work is that once you educate them, once you reach them, then they understand and it’s no longer a tradition that they feel they need to hold on to.”

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In recent years, Dukureh has been using her foundation Safe Hands for Girls to advocate for greater awareness and harsher punishments around FGM, which the United Nations has declared to be a human rights violation. An online petition she launched in 2014 calling on President Obama to create an action plan to end FGM in America drew the attention of more than 221,000 people. Two congressional members also introduced legislation to bring an end to the practice.

This year, Time Magazine named Dukureh as one of the world’s most influential leaders for her work, which helped pressure Gambia to end the practice. Dukureh said she’s been left speechless by how both the Gambian government and the public have positively responded to her efforts.

“I don’t do what I do for the awards and recognition,” Dukureh said. “It’s more about me wanting to see FGM end within my lifetime and caring so much about the issue not only from a personal standpoint, but as a human being.”

Dukureh’s foundation is currently organizing training sessions for doctors to understand how to treat women who are FGM survivors and building a health center in The Gambia that would include an OB/GYN clinic to cater to women who may want reconstructive surgery.

Her life will be made into a movie soon, but that will not stop her fight to end the practice worldwide.

“I want people to understand that this isn’t just an African issue,” she said. “It’s a global health crisis that we need to care a little more about. We need to do more about so we know that we can end this in our lifetime so we’re not just talking.”