- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 22, 2016

More than a half-million women and girls in the U.S. are at risk of genital mutilation, according to a government report Thursday that says federal agencies could do more to prevent or report the practice among immigrant communities.

The Government Accountability Office said the Obama administration’s estimate of 513,000 is roughly a threefold increase from 1990, when the government counted 168,000 girls who were at-risk or already suffering from the practice, which provides no health advantages and can lead to severe pain, bleeding and other problems.

The Centers for Disease Control attributed the rise to a sharp increase in immigration from countries where the practice is prevalent.

Female genital mutilation, or FGM, consists of the total or partial removal of external female genitalia for nonmedical reasons — often motivated by cultural, religious or social beliefs about appropriate sexual behavior.

Since 1996 federal law has made genital mutilation of girls under age 18 a crime punishable by up to five years in prison. In 2013 Congress criminalized the transportation of girls away from the U.S. for the purpose of cutting.

Yet the GAO found few federal prosecutions or investigations of the practice, partly because of underreporting due to cultural norms or because school or other local officials aren’t sure how or whether to report the issue to law enforcement.

About 20 million women and girls are at risk of the practice worldwide, predominantly in northern Africa and pockets of the Middle East and other parts of Asia, according to GAO.

Thirty thousand women and girls from those countries obtained lawful immigration status or protection in the U.S. in fiscal years 2014 and 2015 alone, the report said.

“Many Americans haven’t even heard of FGM or they think it’s some faraway problem,” said Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, the Nevada Democrat who requested the report. “Although it’s illegal, it does happen here, and we shouldn’t stand for it. There are a number of actions our government can take right now to address FGM.”

The GAO said the State Department warns those seeking to come to the U.S. on a permanent basis of the legal consequences of genital mutilation, but it doesn’t hand a copy of its warning to tourists, foreign students, diplomats and temporary workers who apply for a temporary stay.

“Given the significant long-term effects that [genital mutilation] can have on women and girls, the potential benefit of providing the fact sheet to additional visa recipients — helping to prevent the further practice … outweighs the likely additional effort and costs of doing so,” the GAO said.

It said federal agencies — the State, Homeland Security, Education, Health and Human Services and Justice departments — should develop written plans for how it plans to reach out to immigrant communities.

“As the GAO reports shows, the United States is clearly not doing enough to protect women and girls from this brutal human rights violation,” Mr. Reid said. “Federal agencies must step up to provide concrete plans to bring this practice to an end.”

• Tom Howell Jr. can be reached at thowell@washingtontimes.com.

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