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Women and girls from around the world who have survived female genital mutilation/cutting (FGM/C) now have a better chance of receiving the protection that they’re entitled to by law as a result of determined advocacy by Tahirih Justice Center.

“We were alarmed to find that many women and girls were being placed in harm’s way because of misunderstanding of the practice of FGM/C and its implications for women and girls,” said Archi Pyati, Tahirih’s Director of Policy and Programs.

“Last year, we brought the issue to the attention of the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), and officials agreed, more needed to be done for survivors and potential victims. This heartening shift in understanding will save lives,” she said.

FGM/C is a term used to describe the complete or partial removal of the external female genitalia. The procedure is illegal in the United States. It has no health benefits for women and girls, and the United Nations and the World Health Organization recognize it as a human rights violation. FGM/C can cause death or severe health complications, including damage to organs and problems during urination, menstruation, and childbirth.

Legal protection has been offered to women and girls who fear FGM/C since 1996, when Fauziya Kassindja, a teenager from Togo, was granted asylum in a landmark case.

Tahirih Founder and Executive Director Layli Miller-Muro helped bring the case to the highest immigration court in the nation, and Fauziya’s victory revolutionized asylum law, establishing gender-based persecution as grounds for asylum. Tahirih has long advocated that the pathway to protection for those who have already suffered FGM/C needed to be crystallized, as well.

In 2011, Tahirih celebrated a milestone legal victory, Matter of A-T-, for such FGM/C survivors. The decision to grant asylum to a woman from Mali who endured FGM/C as a child and feared a life-threatening forced marriage to her cousin later in life clearly established that FGM/C is a form of persecution with long-lasting effects and a close connection with other threats to women’s lives and freedoms.

Throughout 2015, Tahirih collaborated with USCIS officials to ensure that FGM/C survivors were not unjustly denied protection. In early 2016, USCIS announced that new guidance and training procedures for asylum officers had been implemented to better recognize that in communities where a gender-related cultural tradition such as FGM/C occurs, other forms of persecution may await a girl or woman if she were to return to her home country.

“We are hopeful that this new guidance will reverse the troubling trend of asylum denial for courageous survivors,” Pyati said.

An estimated 200 million women and girls alive today have been subjected to FGM/C, and in 2015 the Population Reference Bureau estimated that more than half a million girls living in the U.S. are currently at risk. Learn more about what survivors of FGM/C face here.

Tahirih’s Director of Policy and Programs Archi Pyati is now available for interviews on this topic. Please contact marlenah@tahirih.org to arrange an interview.

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