A 44-year-old Detroit emergency room doctor accused of performing female genital mutilation on minors was jailed and denied bail Monday in a case the government says is the first of its kind in the U.S.
Federal prosecutors say that Dr. Jumana Nagarwala has been performing the illegal cutting practice on girls between 6 and 8 years old for more than a decade. She was arrested Thursday after the FBI received a tip, trying to board a flight to Nairobi, Kenya, where she planned to visit two of her children who are in a boarding school there, according to the Department of Justice.
U.S. Magistrate Judge Mona Majzoub labeled Nagarwala a flight risk in denying her bail.
The DOJ confirmed that Nagarwala is the first person to be charged under 18 U.S.C. 116, a federal law that criminalized female genital mutilation, or FGM, in 2012. Being convicted of performing FGM can result in up to five years in prison, but Nagarwala was also charged with transportation of an individual with intent to engage in criminal sexual activity and lying to a federal agent.
As a result, Nagarwala could face life in prison.
One of the two alleged 7-year-old victims in the case — their identities are being kept secret — was brought to Nagarwala’s clinic after her parents promised her a “special girls trip” from their home in Minnesota. According to court documents, when the girl arrived, her labia minora, the flaps on either side of the vaginal opening, was removed. Her clitoral hood was also damaged, according to the criminal complaint.
Nagarwala allegedly told the girls’ parents to deny that they had undergone the procedure.
Defense attorney Shannon M. Smith told Majzoub that her client did not perform female genital mutilation on the girls. She said Nagarwala merely removed mucous from the clitoris with gauze and gave it to parents for burial as part of a religious practice.
The Justice Department would not comment or say whether the girls’ parents would be charged. Calls to Smith were not returned.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimated that in 2012, at least 513,000 women and girls in the U.S. had undergone or were at risk of being subjected to FGM. That figure was more than three times higher than an earlier CDC estimate based on data from 1990. According to UNICEF, although FGM has been on an “uneven” decline worldwide for three decades, today more than 200 million women and girls have been subjected to it.
Nagarwala, who is a U.S. citizen of Indian descent born in Washington, D.C., was said by her lawyer to be a part of a mosque outside Detroit connected to the Dawoodi Bohra Islamic sect. It’s one of the last remaining Muslim sects in India where FGM is still known to be practiced.
Jaha Dukureh, the founder and executive director of Safe Hands for Girls, an organization working to end genital cutting, underwent FGM in her home country of Gambia. Now living in Atlanta, she says that while U.S. laws prohibiting FGM are robust, the federal government has been slow to provide funding for research and education to raise awareness of the practice.
“We can’t wait to end FGM — it needs to happen now, but it can’t be done without the money,” Dukureh said. “We need to take this into our schools and educate people that this is a practice that is affecting young girls in our country.”
Shelby Quast, an international lawyer and Policy Director for Equality Now, a nonprofit that works to end violence and discrimination against women and girls, says she fears FGM could become partially normalized if medical professionals perform it. More than 18 percent of all women and girls who have been subjected to FGM worldwide had the procedure performed by a health-care provider; in some countries, the rate is as high as 74 percent, according to a 2010 World Health Organization study of existing data.
In March, Khalid Adem, an Ethiopian immigrant who in 2006 was the first person convicted of performing FGM in the U.S., was deported to Ethiopia after spending a decade in federal prison. Adem, who cut off his 2-year-old daughter’s clitoris with a pair of scissors, was prosecuted under a different statute than Nagarwala.
Nagarwala’s trial starts April 27.