Sudan, Somalia, Sierra Leone.
Those African nations are notoriously associated with the gruesome ritual of female genital mutilation—but it also occurs in the U.S. where an alarming number of women and girls are subjected to such torture that Immigration and Customs Enforcement pledged to stop it, according to an announcement Monday.
It’s estimated more than 500,000 women and girls in the U.S. are either victims of female genital mutilation or are at risk of being subjected to it. ICE’s Homeland Security Investigations is teaming up with the FBI’s International Human Rights Unit and the Department of Justice’s Human Rights and Special Prosecutions Section to combat the crime, which is up threefold since 1990, according to the Centers for Disease Control.
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ICE and the other agencies are ramping up efforts to identify girls at risk and investigate those who perpetrate female genital mutilation, the agency said.
This year, ICE carried out Operation Limelight USA at John F. Kennedy Airport in New York. Agents in June and August alerted 460 individuals on flights to and from countries with a high prevalence rate of female genital mutilation of a tip line to report this practice and the federal laws prohibiting it. The agency also is working with the FBI to investigate crimes.
But mutilations aren’t easy to prosecute, ICE admits.
“Unfortunately, parents or other family members are often involved, although many female family members may be victims themselves,” ICE said.
It’s suspected the ritual of mutilating the genitals of young women and girls to control their sexuality happens at a high rate among large immigrant populations in states such as New York, Minnesota and California, advocates fighting to stop female genital mutilation, also known as FGM, say.
The practice also occurs in Washington, D.C., Georgia, Massachusetts and Virginia, which also have large immigrant populations, Jessica Neuwirth, director of women’s rights organization Donor Direct Action, told Newsweek.
The brutal ritual is often a cultural tradition passed down through generations, Neuwirth said.
“When someone emigrates [to the U.S.], sometimes they’re just clinging to cultural traditions as a way of keeping connected to their home country,” Neuwirth said.
Education about the physical dangers and laws against FGM usually is an effective way to stop the practice, said Neuwirth, whose organization raises money for educational campaigns in Africa.
To date, only one individual in the U.S. has been charged under a federal law criminalizing the practice.
Dr. Jumala Nagarwala, a 44-year-old emergency room physician in Michigan, was charged in April with mutilating the genitals of two 7-year-old girls from Minnesota.
According to a criminal complaint, Nagarwala is accused of cutting clitoral skin off the girls. Although the complaint identified several other children who may have been at risk, she is only facing charges related to the two girls.
In the criminal complaint against Nagarwala, the two girls said they were brought to Detroit for a “special girls’ trip” and were told they had to go to the doctor because “our tummies hurt.”
One girl said Nagarwala “pinched” her in the “place [where] she goes pee.” The other girl said she could barely walk after the bloody procedure and felt pain down her leg to her ankle. Both girls said they were told to keep the procedure a secret.
Nagarwala is part of the Dawoodi Bohra community, an Islamic sect originally from India that has a mosque in Farmington Hills, Michigan. In 2016, a man belonging to the Dawoodi Bohra community was the first person to be imprisoned over FGM in Australia.
If convicted, Nagarwala faces 10 years to life in prison.