The World Health Organization (WHO) has determined that female genital mutilation (FGM), the procedure in which part or all of the external female genitalia is removed, is a human rights violation that has no health benefits but can cause health problems and unbelievable pain. Currently only 26 states in America specifically make FGM a crime — but some states’ legislators are working to change that to provide legal protection for at-risk girls.
In New Hampshire, Republican Representative Victoria Sullivan first introduced House Bill 1739 in November 2017 to criminalize FGM at the state level. It was passed unanimously by the House Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee in January 2018 and is currently awaiting action by the Senate.
FGM is performed in some parts of the world on young girls in an attempt to reduce their sexual libido and to ensure their virginity until marriage. HB 1739 would make it a felony to knowingly remove any part of a female’s genitalia or to give parental or guardian consent for such a procedure and would disallow using custom, ritual, or religious practices or parental or guardian consent as a defense for violation.
On Monday, March 20th, the New Hampshire Senate Judiciary Committee held a hearing on HB 1739, during which Rep. Sullivan explained the dangers of FGM:
According to the World Health Organization, there is no medical reason to have this procedure. It is considered a human rights violation. FGM is not a religious ritual as is commonly thought. In fact, it pre-dates most organized religion. This is a cultural practice that mutilates the genitals of young girls as a way to control their sexuality. This barbaric procedure often results in severe bleeding, lifelong problems urinating, infections, painful intercourse, cysts later in life, complications in childbirth, increased risk of newborn fatalities and death of the mother during delivery.
FGM survivor Kadi Doumbia was also present at the hearing and spoke about the physical pain and psychological issues she suffers. FGM is considered gender-based violence; though it is sometimes compared to male circumcision, FGM involves cutting the actual genitalia, not skin, and is known to cause a number of serious, potentially fatal, medical complications.
New Hampshire isn’t the only state currently considering legislation criminalizing FGM; Maine has two bills pending, LD 1819 (sponsored by Republican Representative Heather Sirocki) and LD 1822 (sponsored by Democrat Barbara Cardone).
On February 26, Maine lawmakers and FGM victims discussed the bills and the rationale behind criminalizing FGM; last year, a Republican attempt to criminalize FGM in Maine failed to pass because people were worried that the intentions behind the attempt were Islamophobic or anti-immigrant.
FGM has been a crime under federal law since the Female Genital Mutilation Act passed in 1996. Unfortunately, the number of girls under 18 at risk of FGM in the United States has been rising; the AHA Foundation says the number has quadrupled since 1997. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates approximately 513,000 women and girls are at risk of FGM in the United States.
The first ever federal FGM prosecution only occurred in 2017, more than two decades since FGM was made a federal crime in 1996. Doctors in Michigan were charged last April with performing FGM on girls aged between six and eight for 12 years. Authorities believe they may have performed FGM on as many as 100 girls over the dozen years.
Twenty-six states currently have legislation prohibiting FGM. But in the 24 states that do not have specific laws pertaining to FGM, FGM in those states can only be prosecuted under statutes criminalizing other acts.
While the United States’ federal legislation may appear sufficient on the surface, Parker explained that in states without their own laws, FGM allegations often get swept under the rug. In fact, the Michigan doctor’s case represents the very first time a federal FGM prosecution has taken place in the United States in the law’s 21 years, the Washington Post reported.
According to Parker, this is largely because prosecutors often defer to state laws when charging a crime, rather than abiding by federal legislation. In states with their own laws related to cutting, this can lead to a criminal FGM state prosecution. But in states that solely follow the federal law, she said FGM typically gets categorized as child abuse, assault or other charges, which frequently results in lesser sentences.
“That’s one reason that state legislation is important,” Parker said in an interview with Mic. “It gives prosecutors the tools that they need to really fight this.”
Furthermore, state laws would be able to extend prison sentences for those found guilty of FGM (federal legislation limits prison sentences to five years) and extend statute of limitations (since the victims are so young they often cannot or do not come forward for many years).
Here is the list of the 24 states in which FGM is not a crime:
- New Hampshire
- New Mexico
- North Carolina
- South Carolina
The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent those of any other individual or entity. Follow Sarah on Twitter: @sarahmquinlan.