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Texas Woman Charged With Taking Girl Abroad for FGM in Landmark US Case

Jan 14 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - A Texas woman has been charged with taking a girl abroad to undergo female genital mutilation (FGM) in the first such case in the United States, the justice department said.

News of the indictment came a week after President Donald Trump signed a law toughening the country’s ban on the ancient ritual and doubling the maximum jail sentence from five to 10 years.

“This indictment ... demonstrates that we will not rest in pursuing and holding to account those who engage in this cruelty,” David P. Burns, head of the justice department’s criminal division, said in a statement.

The “brutal practice” of FGM not only causes immediate trauma, he said, but often condemns victims to lifelong physical and psychological harm.

The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates more than half a million girls and women in the United States have undergone or are at risk of FGM, which involves the partial or complete removal of the external female genitalia.

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Globally, more than 200 million girls and women have been cut, often in the name of religion or tradition, according to United Nations’ data.

The Department of Justice said a 39-year-old Houston woman, who is originally from Britain, had been charged “with knowingly transporting a minor from the United States ... for the purpose of FGM” between July 10 and Oct. 14, 2016.

It did not say to which country the girl was taken.

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FGM experts told the Thomson Reuters Foundation the woman’s name suggested she was from the Dawoodi Bohra community, a Shia Muslim sect originating from South Asia thought to have about 2 million members worldwide.

The Bohra traditionally cut the clitoral hood of girls at about age 7 in a ritual known as khatna or khafd, which they consider a religious obligation.

Globally, FGM is more commonly linked to African countries, where cutters sometimes remove all external genitalia.

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The United States banned FGM in 1996, updating the legislation in 2013 to make it an offense to take someone to another country to be cut.

However, the law was overhauled after attempts to prosecute a doctor accused of cutting Bohra girls in Detroit collapsed in 2018 when a judge ruled the law was unconstitutional and that FGM was a state issue.

The “STOP FGM Act of 2020” closed the loophole, letting federal authorities prosecute FGM offences across the country.

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The FGM experts said the Houston woman had been charged under the old law, which remained effective for prosecuting cases where a girl is taken abroad.

In 2016, the practice of FGM among the Bohra made global headlines when a mother and midwife were sentenced to 15 months for cutting two girls following a high-profile trial in Australia.

Many Bohra communities around the world subsequently issued edicts against the practice.

(Reporting by Emma Batha @emmabatha; Editing by Helen Popper. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, which covers the lives of people around the world who struggle to live freely or fairly. Visit news.trust.org)