UNDERGROUND: Risk of FGM Increasing for Women in the U.S., says CDC

The number of women and girls at risk of FGM is rising in the U.S.

— -- When “Sarah” first told her story, she did not want to show her face or give her real name. The American-born woman underwent female genital mutilation (FGM), also known as female genital cutting, when she was 7 years old.

In 2015, ABC News interviewed her, obscuring her face for privacy and giving her a pseudonym.

“I remember feeling pain,” she told ABC News. “I was crying, so I was scared during it because it hurt.”

In 2016 she decided to publicly reveal herself as Mariya Taher.

“It’s definitely scary to come out with my face on camera,” Taher, 33, told ABC News. “I don’t want to be judged for having undergone female genital cutting or viewed as a victim.”

There are four types of FGM, according to the World Health Organization. They range in severity from removing parts of a woman’s genitals to infibulation (sealing closed the vaginal opening). According to the WHO, FGM complications range from bleeding and infection to problems with childbirth and increased risk of death for newborns.

The origins of FGM are unclear. Although it’s often thought of as a religious ritual, experts say the ancient practice is not officially an element of any faith. It’s done for a variety of reasons, with supporters saying it carries on tradition, protects a woman’s honor and ensures a woman’s virginity until marriage. In some places a woman may not get married unless she has undergone the procedure.

Taher lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and she said she is “trying to work to stop the practice of female genital cutting from continuing.”

“I remember being taken to an old-looking building and going up a flight of stairs and going into the apartment building,” Taher said. “I remember being put on the ground, and my dress was pulled up, and I remember something sharp cut me.”

Officials from various organizations attribute the increase in the U.S. to a combination of factors, including an influx of female immigrants who were cut in their homelands, American-born women and girls sent abroad for vacation cutting and others who undergo the procedure in the U.S.

Performing FGM in the U.S. has been illegal since 1996. A 2013 federal law prohibits sending children overseas for the procedure.

Taher said her sister underwent FGM on U.S. soil.

“I remember her crying. I didn’t see her until after she got it done. At that point, I was still in the innocent area, like, ‘This is something that happens to all of us, and now it’s happened to my sister,’” she told ABC News in 2015.

She said child protection services and educators in the U.S. need to learn how to recognize when girls are at risk for FGM.

Taher started Sahiyo, an organization that works to empower communities to fight FGM through education, collaboration and community engagement. She is on the Massachusetts Female Genital Cutting Task Force, which is working on legislation at the state level to ban the practice.

“The importance of having a state law is that when something happens in the state and there’s a crime that happens here, the state has a better ability to deal with it, to prosecute its residents, to deal with the health, safety and welfare of its residents,” said Katie Cintolo, an attorney on the task force.

“I wish I hadn’t undergone it, but I think because I did undergo it, I have this passion for gender violence issues, that I’m able to be in a place where I can talk about it, I can do research on it ... I have an insider’s perspective,” Taher said.

ABC News’ Luis Yordan contributed to this report.

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