FEATURED STORIES, Investigative Report, U.S., WORLD
Female Genital Mutilation Still Legal In America
Female genital mutilation (FGM), or female circumcision, seems like a thing of the past. Western society tends to associate it with an older, more cultish version of religion. But as technology progresses, the world grows smaller. More cultural practices, typically done in secret, have come to light. And the United States needs to rise to the occasion to deal with the problem.
A Michigan court overturned the federal ban on FGM in 2018. This placed the sole responsibility of outlawing the practice on individual states. However, 15 states have yet to act, putting more than 55,000 women at risk of FGM in the country. Survivors and activists agree: this is a problem that must be addressed.
FGM AROUND THE WORLD
In 2015, Newsweek wrote that the rise in immigration from countries like Ghana, Nigeria, Ethiopia, and Egypt, was the sole cause of the sudden uptick in cases of FGM. According to the United Nations, 29 countries around the world still practice FGM. 3 million women undergo the horrific procedure annually.
When the World Health Organization (WHO), United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), and United Nations Population Fund issued a statement defining FGM in 1997, it was found that it violated several human rights. At the time, the WHO estimated that there were 140 million women in the world living with FGM.
In 2004, the African Women’s Health Center in Brigham released a study. It found that more than 227,000 American women had undergone or were at risk of FGM. A report from the Center from Disease Control in 2012 found that the number had doubled. 513,000 women in the United States were living with FGM.
FGM IN THE UNITED STATES
However, several reports issued by independent news outlets found that FGM was not specifically a practice done in foreign countries. In fact, there were many Christian sects in the United States that performed FGM, believing that it purified women. Dr. Renee Bergstrom wrote that in 1947, she was cut in a church clinic in midwestern America.
She said, “I remember the excruciating pain and feeling betrayed. I was told not to talk about it, but keeping the secret meant I was alone with my questions as I grew into puberty: what was missing?”
Bergstrom discovered that FGM also made childbirth risky and difficult. She stated, “I, like so many women around the world, did not know genital scar tissue does not stretch.” Doctors need to be made aware of the complications brought about by FGM, otherwise the scarring puts both child and mother at risk.
Neither Christianity nor Islam have any ties to FGM. Rather, the practice pre-dates the rise of both religions and has survived in small regional communities in different countries. To say that banning the practice would interfere with the practice of religion is, at best, ignorant.
The United States declared FGM illegal in 1996, but a court overturned the ban in 2018. The judge wanted states to ban the practice, but so far only 35 have acted.
VICTIMS OF FGM
Because of the secretive nature of the procedure, it is difficult to say just how many victims there are in the states per year. However, the Muslim American Leadership Alliance reported that the organization received three calls from women who were in direct danger of receiving FGM. The Alliance had no resources they could give to these women.
The AHA Foundation, founded by FGM survivor Ayaan Hirsi Ali, released a report in June of 2019. The report questioned why there was such a backlash on a legislative level when it came to the question of banning FGM. It came to the conclusion that legislators must be mistakenly associating the practice with freedom of religion.
The United Kingdom banned FGM in 1986. But thanks to a failure to prosecute, 103,000 women are living with the consequences of FGM. The AHA Foundation’s report broke this failure down into parts. Victims and survivors typically receive FGM at a young age, so they are unable to share with the world their stories. Most victims do not want to shame their parents and their communities. Hatred or a desire to hurt does not drive FGM. Authorities are at fault because they are “hypersensitive” about hurting communities or hindering religious freedom. A lack of general education is also to blame.
In the States, while the federal ban lasted for 21 years, only one case received attention from a court. Ali stated, “An ongoing challenge to prosecuting FGM is the lack of state legislation criminalizing the practice.”
While 35 states have banned FGM, only ten states have put laws into practice making it mandatory for doctors to report cases of FGM. And while clinics have opened in the U.K. for women who have endured FGM, there are no such resources available to the women in the United States.
STATES WHO FAILED TO ACT
Pennsylvania and North Carolina are the two latest states to have passed laws banning FGM. Washington, Montana, Wyoming, New Mexico, Alaska, Hawaii, Nebraska, Indiana, Kentucky, Mississippi, Alabama, Maine, Connecticut, Vermont, and Massachusetts have left 55,766 women at risk because of their inaction in legislation. These states have all received a failing grade from the AHA.
Some bills in states like Wyoming failed to get off the ground despite bipartisan sponsorship. The proposed legislation would have criminalized all forms of FGM, as well as the transporting of minors to other states. The crime would have fallen under “human trafficking.” However, it did not make it past the state house of representatives.
Other states, like Washington, have left 25,000 women at risk while doing nothing to prevent FGM through state law. Democratic
In states like Alaska and Hawaii, very few women, if any, are at risk for FGM. There are still reasons to ban the practice. Families in other states who want their daughters to receive FGM will often travel to states where it is still legal to perform the procedure. While some states criminalize these kinds of “vacations,” overall criminalization adds a buffer that prevents families from considering the act.
In Massachusetts, where more than 14,000 women are at risk, activists have made a petition to get state legislature to ban FGM.
WHAT CAN BE DONE
Mariya Taher, who started the petition, is the cofounder of SAHIYO-United Against Female Genital Cutting. She survived FGM in India at the age of seven. The author of this report interviewed Taher about FGM in Massachusetts, and throughout the United States. Taher said that while “enacting a law is one component, law online will not end FGC (female genital circumcision). If that were true, then we would have ended domestic violence and sexual assault by now.”
However, law is still an important step, according to Taher: “But law is important as a prevention tool and in that it can help survivors access resources if need be. For FGC to end and for us to protect girls, we must work in a holistic manner and that means many sectors (law, health, child protection, community groups, etc) working together to provide prevention and support.”
Taher explained that the federal overturning of the FGM ban in the states might have been necessary in order to address the practice at a local level. She said, “The practice is considered very secretive and so in general, one doesn’t hear about it happening. Also, just in terms of the overturning of the federal law. I think it is important to recognize that when Judge Bernard Friedman said that FGC was harmful, but ruled that the federal law against FGC unconstitutional, he did so because he believed that Congress had overreached its authority in passing the law in connection to the commerce clause as he did not see the association to interstate commerce (between states).”
Taher continued, “He instead believed that FGC was a “local criminal activity” and that states should pass their own laws in much of the same way that states pass their own laws when it comes to domestic violence or sexual assault.”
Inaction on an issue that threatens women across the country is a stain on states’ legislatures.