An emergency-room doctor in the U.S. Midwest has been arrested and charged with performing female genital mutilation on girls between the ages of 6 and 8, in the first criminal case brought under a 1996 law that outlawed the practice.
Jumana Nagarwala, a 44-year-old doctor at a hospital in Detroit, Michigan, is accused of performing genital mutilation on young girls as far back as 2005, according to a criminal complaint released Thursday. The U.S. Department of Justice said she "performed horrifying acts of brutality on the most vulnerable victims."
Nagarwala had an initial court appearance before a U.S. magistrate Thursday in Detroit and was ordered detained until Monday, pending a further hearing on the felony charges she is facing, which specifically involve two 7-year-old girls she operated on in February.
Senior officials called the charges "disturbing" and "deplorable," and said U.S. law-enforcement agencies "are committed to doing whatever is necessary to bring an end to this barbaric practice, and to ensure no additional children fall victim to this procedure."
Physician denies charges
A preliminary criminal complaint released by the U.S. Department of Justice said Nagarwala told federal agents she knew that performing female genital mutilation is a crime in the United States and denied that she conducted the procedure on anyone.
Nagarwala, who received her medical degree from Johns Hopkins University in Maryland, has been licensed as a physician in Michigan since 2001; state records show no formal complaints or disciplinary action against her. Her lawyer, Shannon Smith, did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the case.
If convicted, Nagarwala faces a fine and up to five years in prison for performing female genital mutilation, also known as FGM. She would be the first person prosecuted under the 1996 law prohibiting FGM.
In the most recent case outlined in the complaint, the FBI, using court-ordered telephone records and video surveillance, tracked two Minnesota mothers and their 7-year-old daughters as they visited Nagarwala at a medical office near Detroit, and where the physician allegedly performed FGM procedures on the girls two months ago.
Examination confirms FGM
One of the children told an investigator this week that they were in Michigan to see a doctor because "our tummies hurt," and were examined by Nagarwala. The doctor reportedly told the girl she was going to perform a procedure to "get the germs out" of her body.
Doctors who examined the girls this week confirmed that their genital areas were "abnormal" and bore signs of mutilation.
The girls were interviewed by an FBI child forensic expert and identified Nagarwala as the doctor who operated on them. The parents of one of the victims later admitted to the FBI that they had taken their daughter to Nagarwala for a "cleansing" of extra skin.
The hospital that employed Nagarwala apparently was not involved in the case, and the physician was not listed as having any links to the office in Livonia, outside Detroit, where she examined the girls.
Agents of the FBI and the Department of Homeland Security, who worked together on the case, said they have identified multiple other incidents where young girls have been victims of FGM allegedly performed by Nagarwala between 2005 and 2007, according to the criminal complaint.
"Female genital mutilation constitutes a particularly brutal form of violence against women and girls," acting U.S. Attorney Daniel Lemisch of the Eastern District of Michigan said in a statement. "The practice has no place in modern society and those who perform FGM on minors will be held accountable under federal law."
Female genital mutilation, sometimes called female circumcision, is the ritual removal of some or all of the external female genitalia. The practice is found in Africa, Asia and the Middle East, and last year UNICEF estimated that 200 million women alive today in 30 countries — 27 African nations, Indonesia, Iraqi Kurdistan and Yemen — have undergone the procedure.
Many U.S. women at risk
Although it is illegal, female genital mutilation is practiced in some African diaspora communities in the United States. According to a 2012 study by the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service, more than 500,000 women and girls were at risk of female genital mutilation or its consequences in the United States, more than three times higher than an earlier estimate based on 1990 census data. The study said the increase was due to rapid growth in the number of immigrants from countries where the procedure is commonly practiced.
In 2012, Congress passed a law making it illegal to transport a girl outside the United States for the purpose of performing FGM.
The practice is rooted in attempts to control women's sexuality and ideas about purity, modesty and beauty that persist in some communities. It is usually initiated and carried out by women, some of whom see it as an honorable practice, or who fear that failing to have their daughters and granddaughters cut will expose the girls to social exclusion.
There are no known health benefits from female circumcision, but a wide range of complications can result: recurrent infections, difficulty urinating and passing menstrual flow, chronic pain, the development of cysts, an inability to get pregnant, complications during childbirth and even fatal bleeding.
A survivor's story
"When we think of female genital mutilation, we usually think of African cultures and non-Christian religions," said Renee Bergstrom, an American survivor of genital cutting. "However, my FGM took place in white Midwest America."
Bergstrom and other women discussed the issue in a video produced by the U.S. State Department and posted online last month.
Until Nagarwala's arrest, the most high-profile case related to FGM in the United States was that of a father in the state of Georgia. Khalid Adem, an Ethiopian citizen, was deported last month after serving 10 years in prison for using scissors to cut the genitals of his 2-year-old daughter. He was charged with aggravated battery and cruelty to children, not under terms of the federal FGM law invoked in Nagarwala's case.
VOA's Victoria Macchi contributed to this story.