On a few days over the last year, federal agents approached travelers at several U.S. airports — flights bound for or connecting to Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, Frankfurt, Germany, and Dakar, Senegal.
The officials — part of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement — weren't searching for contraband, or guiding bag-sniffing dogs. They were part of a smaller office within the agency that doesn't focus on detaining and deporting people. Instead, they were handing out printed materials. They wanted to talk about female genital cutting.
JFK. Newark. Washington-Dulles. They targeted some of the country's biggest international airports. In May, they roamed the gates in Atlanta — in the state where an Ethiopian man deported last year was believed to be the first person criminally convicted in the United States for FGC, sometimes referred to as female genital mutilation or FGM.
ICE declined a request to speak with the agents for details about how the initiative is carried out. There are brochures involved and, according to photos attached to the agency's news releases, male and female agents chat with women about to board flights abroad.
FGC is a federal crime, the agency says it tells travelers. It can have consequences on child custody, and in immigration cases, too, even if the procedure is performed outside the U.S.
An agency spokeswoman told VOA via email that "people were happy to hear that's why [Homeland Security Investigations, an arm of the Department of Homeland Security] was out there with materials. Some folks have never heard of it; many have but don't understand it, the extent of the problem and how harmful the procedure and associated complications are. And some women had been subjected themselves to FGM."
The project is modeled after one in the United Kingdom, an "awareness" campaign designed to talk about the risks of FGC, and publicize the criminality of the procedure.
Removing part of the female genitals for nonmedical reasons is a practice concentrated in a few dozen countries, but performed on a smaller scale in many more, including the United States, where cases have been documented dating to as early as the 19th century. Last year, ICE investigators unraveled the Michigan case of a medical doctor performing FGC on young girls.
The justifications can include religious, cultural or pseudomedical rationales, like when U.S. doctors used the procedure to treat "hysteria." Hundreds of thousands of women and girls in the U.S. are FGC survivors, or are vulnerable to it, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Mariya Taher, head of Sahiyo — a U.S. nongovernmental organization that advocates for an end to FGC — has spoken publicly about her experience surviving the procedure. Now, her organization is spearheading its own effort to publicize the stories of other survivors in the U.S., with a video project due out this month.
Does Taher think ICE agents handing out pamphlets and talking to families headed to visit relatives abroad, who are maybe considering having the procedure done on their daughters, or planning to have it done on that summer vacation, is an effective method?
"A large part of prevention is educating that it IS illegal … many people don't recognize that it IS," said Taher. She wants to know more about what information is being shared and how the conversations with travelers are happening before passing judgment on the project.
"Any effort about the health, legal consequences, support services, I think is really helpful and beneficial," Taher said. On the other hand, she noted, "I feel conflict. We're trying to show that FGC happens across the board, regardless of ethnicity, religion, socioeconomic status. ... I'm a little afraid, if we're just targeting certain countries, that we're unintentionally misrepresenting whom FGC happens to."
Dozens of U.S. states have passed laws, in addition to the federal legislation, criminalizing FGC. In the Michigan case, doctors who performed the procedure on girls were charged, as well as four mothers who agreed to the medically unnecessary surgeries.