The Society for Social Work and Research

2014 Annual Conference

January 15-19, 2014 I Grand Hyatt San Antonio I San Antonio, TX

“Do You Think This Tradition Is Good for Girls?”: Understanding the Experiences of Women Fleeing Female Circumcision and Seeking Asylum in the United States

Saturday, January 18, 2014: 3:30 PM
HBG Convention Center, Room 001A River Level (San Antonio, TX)
* noted as presenting author
Sara Kahn, PhD, Consultant, Artemis Collaborative, New York, NY
Purpose:It is estimated that more than 135 million girls and women alive today have undergone Female Circumcision (FC), primarily in Africa and the Middle East (Amnesty International, 2012). The exact number of women living in the U.S. who have undergone the practice is unknown, but increased migration from countries embracing FC suggests the number may be growing (Center for Reproductive Rights, 2008).   Practitioners serving female migrants from Africa and the Middle East may be confronted with a range of cultural, gender, and sexual issues with which they may be unfamiliar.  Empirical research with circumcised women in exile is scarce, and extant studies highlight the sense of victimization and shame in adult women subjected to FC in childhood (e.g. Khaja, Lay, and Boys, 2010; Berggren, Bergstrom, and Edberg (2006).  No studies to date explore the experience of FC and its aftermath for circumcised women who disagree with the practice and have fled to the United States to protect their daughters.  The author presents data from an in-depth exploratory study to discover the emotional, physical, social, spiritual, and cultural challenges for women who resist FC and have gained asylum in the United States.

Methodology: Women subjected to FC in childhood, and gaining asylum in the U.S were recruited from immigration attorneys and social services organizations across the U.S.  Two in-depth semi-structured interviews each were conducted with seven female adults from the African continent who were now living in the U.S. after winning asylum.  The transcriptions of these interviews were analyzed by two coders according to Grounded Theory methods including line-by-line or open coding, axial or conceptual coding, and development of themes (Charmaz, 2006).

Findings: Findings suggest that, for some circumcised women, seeking asylum in the West may be a tool of resistance, enabling them to protect their daughters from the practice.  While the psychosocial and sexual impacts of childhood FC persist into adulthood, and the consequences of resistance to FC are profound, women gaining asylum to protect their daughters viewed themselves as strong and courageous.  Indeed, the women risked their lives and suffered banishment from families and communities.  Specifically, the women’s taboo-breaking, public declaration of resistance to female circumcision in immigration court, when met with empathetic validation from social workers, attorneys, physicians, and adjudicators, subsequently led them to a sense of empowerment that was sustained post-asylum. 

Implications: This study offers fresh insights for social workers serving a rapidly growing number of female migrants from countries where FC is practiced. The findings contribute to cultural awareness and sensitivity for practitioners, highlighting the facilitators to empowerment for those women who disagree with FC and have sacrificed their homes and, in some cases, their families and communities in order to ensure their daughters are spared from the practice.  The study provides considerations for program supervisors in developing programs for circumcised migrant women seeking asylum in the U.S., suggesting that women may benefit from validation from Western practitioners, and from the sense of mastery and autonomy gained through the United States asylum process.