African women

U.S. to decide if female circumcision is grounds for political asylum

April 29, 1996
Web posted at: 11:52 p.m. EDT

From Correspondent John Holliman

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- For centuries, some cultures have allowed and even promoted circumcision of females. The procedure, considered a rite of passage in those cultures, involves removal of the clitoris -- not necessarily surgically.

The practice is at the center of a controversy over women who flee their home countries for the U.S. to escape the practice.

It is believed that female genital circumcision is performed thousands of times a day -- mostly on African women -- using unsterilized knives or razor blades or worse. While many women accept the practice as a part of their culture, a growing number consider it an obscene violation of their bodies and human rights.


"It is when you think about what it means, holding down a little girl or a baby, cutting her clitoris," says Surita Sandosham, executive director of Equality Now. "And if that's not torture, if that's not persecution, I don't know what is." (128K AIFF sound or 128K WAV sound)

But is it grounds for political asylum in the United States? That is the question before an Immigration and Naturalization Service board of appeals which is scheduled to meet Thursday.


Fausiya Kasinga was 17-years-old when she decided to escape an arranged marriage in Togo to a 45-year-old man with three other wives.

But the real reason she ran was to avoid forced circumcision -- removal of her clitoris and other genital tissue.

"It's done to deny women their independence and equality," Surita charges. "It's done to curb their sexuality."

When Kasinga got to the U.S. with a fake British passport, she asked for political asylum.

"I had family here, and I felt the U.S. was a place of justice," she says. (145K AIFF sound or 145K WAV sound)

But Kasinga was jailed in lieu of the protection she sought. The INS did not believe her story, and the judge in her case said that because all women in her tribe were circumcised, she was not being singled out.

York, PA facility

After 16 months in jail, and a mounting publicity campaign on Kasinga's behalf, the INS decided to release her to an American family.

"It's easy to condemn this as a matter of human rights ... " says INS General Counsel David Martin. "It's a little more difficult to fit it within the legal framework."

Particularly, Martin says, some believe that if female circumcision is considered grounds for political asylum, the U.S. will be flooded with applications.

If the INS decides in her favor, Kasinga's will be a landmark case for women seeking asylum in the U.S.

Human rights activists say the real solution to this problem is not more lenient immigration laws however, but a program of education that will eliminate forced female genital circumcision as an accepted practice anywhere on Earth.

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