Musings on Immigration

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Female Genital Mutilation – A Basis for Asylum


After I got my undergraduate degree from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill I had no idea what I was going to do with my life. I moved to San Diego, learned how to surf and worked with the San Diego Counsel on Literacy. While I was in San Diego I heard the executive director of the Tahirih Justice Center, Layli Miller-Muro, talk about applying for asylum based on female genital mutilation at the San Diego Baha’i Center.

Now, prior to this talk I had no idea what asylum or female genital mutilation was all about. But after Layli was done talking about it I could not believe what I was hearing was actually true and that it went on in certain parts of the world.

Female genital mutilation (FGM) is the removal of part, or all, of the female genitalia. FGM may refer to clitoridectomy (removal of the clitoris), excision (removal of the labia minora), or infibulation (removal of the clitoris, labia minora and majora, and stitching together). The procedure is usually performed in unsanitary conditions, using objects like broken glass, tin can lids, blunt knives, scissors, or razors. Victims are not given anesthesia or antibiotics and rarely have access to medical treatment. Infibulated women have their entire external genitalia cut, scraped, or burned out. The subsequent raw wound is stitched together with cat or lamb intestines or thorns, leaving a small opening for the passage of menstrual flow. The girl’s legs are bound together for up to two months, immobilizing her while the wound heals over.

FGM is done as a traditional ritual signifying the acceptance of a woman into society and establishes her eligibility for marriage. It is believed to inspire submissiveness in young women. Reasons given for FGM range from beliefs that touching the clitoris will kill a baby during childbirth, to hygenic reasons, to enhancing fertility and ensuring chastity. In many societies, an important reason given for FGM is the belief that it reduces a woman’s desire for sex, therefore reducing the chance of sex outside marriage. In FGM-practicing societies it is extremely difficult, if not impossible, for a woman to marry if she has not undergone mutilation. Marriage is often the only role available for women in FGM-practicing societies because they receive little education and are discouraged from pursuing a profession. In the case of infibulation, a woman is “sewn up” and “opened” only for her husband. Restricting women’s sexuality is vital because the honour of the whole family is seen to be dependent on it.

That seemed like the most awful thing I had ever heard. At that moment in time I was so grateful to have been born in a country that did not practice FGM and so proud that my country had an official policy to help women who were in this predicament. The United States is obligated under international law to prevent, investigate, and punish such violence against women. The UN Declaration on the Elimination of Violence Against Women recognizes that violence against women not only deprives them of their civil and political rights, but also their social and economic rights, saying that, “the underlying structural consequences of these forms of gender-based violence help to maintain women in their subordinate roles, contribute to their low level of participation and to their lower level of education, skills, and work opportunities.” The Declaration provides that states should not invoke any custom, tradition, or religious consideration to avoid their obligation to eliminate violence against women, and that they must exhibit due diligence in investigating and imposing penalties for violence, and establishing effective protective measures.

I had a young woman walk into my office today from a country that practices FGM. She came here as a student but has been told by her family that when she goes home she is to undergo this ritual as part of her marriage ceremony. After we talked about the horror of this procedure we just started laughing because of how awful and ridiculous this procedure seemed to us. It was either laughing or crying…and we preferred laughing. I told her that there was no way she was going home to face this. International and U.S. law would afford her the right to stay in this country. All we had to do was fill out the paperwork and send in all of the supporting documents to immigration.

There are days when I absolutely LOVE my job. I love what I do and I love the people that my profession allows me to help. Today is one of those days. And again, I find myself feeling grateful.

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