Female genital mutilation is on the rise in the U.S., and a number of doctors here are ramping up their efforts to reverse the damage the practice causes with a relatively new restorative surgery.
Friday marks the U.N.’s International Day of Zero Toleration to Female Genital Mutilation, and a new report found that the risks for girls and women in the U.S. has more than doubled since 2000. But there is renewed hope for females who have been cut as more physicians are offering clitoroplasty, which restores clitoral function.
While reconstructive surgery has long been available, about 10 years ago, French physician Dr. Pierre Foldes pioneered a procedure, which rebuilds the damaged area and rejuvenates the nerve networks so that patients can regain sensitivity and in some cases, attain orgasm, according to the U.N.
"It can certainly improve women's pleasure and lessen their pain," Foldes said in a statement in 2012 after studying the results of 3,000 such surgeries. "It also allows mutilated women to recover their identity."
During the one-year follow-up, most patients reported experiencing less pain or at least no worsening pain, and 81 percent said their sex lives had improved, according to a study published in The Lancet.
While the surgery proved effective, Foldes also noted at the time that it was cost prohibitive and needed to become more readily available for the girls and women who are eager to get it.
More than 130 million girls and women worldwide have undergone FGM, which involves partial or total removal of the external female genitalia and has no medical benefit. The number of women and girls who are at risk in the U.S. has more than doubled to half a million over the past 15 years, according to a study released on Friday by the Population Reference Bureau.
The nonprofit attributes the concerning increase to a rise in immigration from African countries.
FGM poses a slew of health risks, including causing damage to adjacent organs, recurring urinary tract infections, birth complications, the formation of dermoid cysts and, in some cases, can lead to death.
Girls are typically cut before the onset of puberty, with the goal of making them remain virgins before marriage and faithful to their husbands once they wed, according to UNICEF.
In 2012, the United Nations General Assembly called on all countries to eliminate the practice. But in countries where it’s widely practiced, FGM shows no sign of slowing down.
In Egypt and Somalia, for example, more than 90 percent of the female population is affected by the tradition.
Realizing the overwhelming need of women who have undergone FGM, Dr. Marci Bowers, a renowned expert in transgender surgery, according to the BBC, now devotes a portion of her practice in California to performing clitoroplasty.
She trained with Foldes in France and did her first clitoral repair surgery in the U.S. in 2009. Since then, she's done about 100 such procedures, according to The Washington Post.
Bowers was the subject of a VICE News documentary, "The Cut That Heals," which was released on Friday.
Ayan, a 32-year-old nurse who was cut in Somalia when she was 6, is a patient of Bowers and was featured in the film. She fled for the United States in the '90s and had been too "ashamed" to see an OB-GYN before she met Bowers.
Before the surgery, she told VICE she felt "OK" about her body, barring the "particular issue she wants reversed."
Ayan said she is a virgin and plans on remaining so until she gets married. But she doesn’t need the pain and the scars from the FGM procedure to be "reminded to be pure."
Bowers performs the procedure, which takes less than an hour, for free. Patients just have to pay the operating room and anesthesia fees, according to her website.
But she says the surgery is about much more than just enabling women to feel sexual pleasure.
"The number one reason is restoration of identity," she told The Washington Post. "They want their body back and to feel more normal. It’s about not being different any more."
Six weeks after the surgery, Ayan wrote in an essay for VICE that her menstrual cramps had already eased up and that she’s "healing beautifully."
"I was immediately overcome by a feeling of completeness," she wrote. "It was an unfamiliar feeling."
Watch the VICE News documentary below:
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story misstated the number of girls and women who have undergone female genital mutilation. The error has been corrected.