When American cosmetic surgeon Ivona Percec encountered her first patient to have been subjected to female genital mutilation, a widely scorned but enduring cultural practice in parts of Africa, the Middle East and Asia that intentionally alters or excises the genital organs of girls and women for non-medical reasons, she was speechless with shock. Not because of the vicious scarring—as a surgeon specializing in genital reconstruction she had seen far worse—but because the woman had been suffering in silence for so long.
“It was a psychological shock that this woman had kept the burden to herself. She didn’t even let her husband see what had been done to her,” says Percec, who is associate director of Cosmetic Surgery at the University of Pennsylvania’s Perelman School of Medicine. “She had lived in this country for multiple years, and had never before tried to get help.”
FGM usually takes place before adolescence, and can result in severe pain, post-traumatic stress disorder, cysts, recurrent infections, difficulty in childbirth and even death. Surely, thought Percec, there would be plastic surgeons in the United States more experienced addressing the scarred results of a procedure that has been exacted on an estimated 200 million women and girls worldwide. She is one of a rising network of doctors in the U.S. and around the globe who are offering new solutions to these often-invisible victims.