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How a Minn. female genital mutilation case involving two 7-year-old girls is spurring efforts to stiffen penalties

Minnesota Sens. Carla Nelson of Rochester and Bruce Anderson of Buffalo talk during a Senate session Monday, May 15, 2017. Nelson returned to the Senate Monday after spending days with her ailing father. Don Davis / Forum News Service

Minnesota state Rep. Mary Franson received a note from a friend last year urging her to draft stricter legislation against female genital mutilation. The state already had banned the practice in 1994, so the Republican worried that a new law would seem "Islamophobic," given its target audience.

One case changed her mind.

Federal prosecutors last month charged three Michigan doctors with putting two Minnesota girls under the knife. The parents of one girl - ostensibly complicit in the procedure - lost custody "for a whopping 72 hours," Franson told lawmakers on the floor of the Minnesota statehouse last week.

Now she wants Minnesota to pass a bill that would send perpetrators to prison for up to 20 years, targeting parents as well as doctors.

"We're saying that if you harm your child in this way, you're going to be held responsible," she said.

Female genital mutilation has been a federal crime in the United States for more than two decades, carrying a maximum sentence of five years in prison. But the three doctors are the first to be charged under the law. The case has set off a flurry of new bills across the country, with a growing number of states moving to extend penalties to the parents and hit them with lengthy prison terms.

The issue has been a lightning rod in right-wing political circles for years, with anti-Muslim and anti-immigration activists linking it explicitly to Islam. In fact, there is no mention of female genital mutilation in the Koran, and the procedure is rare in most Muslim countries. But attorneys for the doctors, who are Muslim, say their trial defense next month will likely invoke religious freedom, a move that is sure to lend the case even more political ammunition.

Republican-authored bills are pending in Michigan, Minnesota, Texas and Maine, and activists say Massachusetts is also weighing legislative action.

In Minnesota, already among the 25 states that ban female genital mutilation, state representatives on May 15 voted 124-4 in favor of expanding the penalties. The bill will go to the state Senate for consideration, but will probably be signed into law before the fall.

Female genital mutilation (FGM), sometimes called female genital cutting or circumcision, refers to the ancient, ritual practice of cutting off parts of a girl's genitalia, and sometimes sewing shut the vaginal opening. It has no health benefits, and it can result in serious complications, including hemorrhaging and death, the lifelong loss of sexual pleasure, painful intercourse and chronic infections.

The World Health Organization says more than 200 million women and girls living in 30 countries have experienced FGM. Most of those countries are in Africa.

The practice spans an array of ethnic and religious groups, despite nearly universal national bans. Although the rationale for the practice varies, experts say it is often driven by social pressures to control women's sexuality and ensure girls' virginity before marriage. Some practitioners also believe that it serves a religious mandate, although the practice has no root in religious doctrine.

Some Muslim clerics have endorsed the practice, but a number of major Muslim leaders have condemned it. The Grand Mufti of Egypt, a leading Sunni authority, issued a fatwa against it in 2007, and Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, a leading Shiite authority, condemned the practice in 2009. Christians, Animists and Jews have also participated in FGM.

The three doctors in Michigan and the girls whom investigators say they cut are from the tiny Dawoodi Bohra sect of Shiite Islam, in which the practice is common and clerics are said to endorse it. Their trial is set for next month.

There's no reliable data on how common the practice is in the United States, according to the authors of a 2016 Government Accountability Office report. But the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that about 513,000 women and girls in the United States either had the procedure or are at risk of experiencing it in the future, based onimmigrant populations from countries where the practice is prevalent, including Somalia, Ethiopia and Sudan.

The Maine law would make parents who consent to FGM liable for up to 10 years behind bars. This month, the Texas state Senate unanimously approved a similar bill that would allow the state to prosecute people "who transport or permit the transport of a person for the purpose of FGM," the bill's author, state Sen. Jane Nelson, a Republican, said.

In Michigan, where the state Senate unanimously approved a package of female genital mutilation bills on May 17, perpetrators and accomplices would face up to 15 years in prison.

"We want to send the message that Michigan is not the place to bring your daughter for this evil, horrific, demonic practice," state Sen. Rick Jones, a Republican, told his colleagues during a recent hearing on the measure.

The fresh wave of attention has been bittersweet for thecoterie of U.S.-based activists who have spent years campaigning to end a practice that they say is poorly understood and generally ignored by the public, law enforcement and U.S. officials.

"When things like this happen, people just want to focus on getting all states to penalize it. But there's a bigger picture out here that we're not focusing on," said Jaha Dukureh, the founder of the Atlanta-based Safe Hands for Girls, a leading advocacy group against FGM.

Dukureh, who underwent the procedure as an infant in Gambia, said she would rather see education and outreach aimed at preventing the practice than punishment alone.

For instance, many activists, doctors and lawmakers have said they want better training for medical professionals so they can address the issue with pregnant women who have experienced FGM before they give birth to girls. And they want to see efforts to spread awareness of the procedure's dangers in vulnerable schools and communities, enlisting the support of neighborhood and religious leaders in condemning it.

Somali-American activists have been pushing legislators for funds to prevent the practice through education and outreach, said Minnesota state Rep. Susan Allen of the Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party.

"They have not gotten resources," she said.

The United States banned female genital mutilation in 1997, and in 2003 banned the transport of a minor abroad to have the procedure. But there have been only two other FBI investigations into the practice over the past two decades. In both cases, the FBI was unable to find victims, and only one of the cases, in California, led to charges, according to the GAO report. In that case, the owner of a body piercing and modification shop and his girlfriend were sentenced in 2005 to prison for five years and two years, respectively, for conspiring to commit FGM and distributing child pornography.

Experts say a culture of shame and secrecy - or even ignorance of having undergone a procedure that they might have been too young to remember - keeps many from talking about FGM in the United States.

Deborah Thorp, an obstetrician-gynecologist in Minneapolis, said she sees at least one patient a day who has undergone FGM, many of them older refugees from Somalia, where the prevalence rate is 98 percent.

But she said she doubts the practice is common for Somali-American children who are born in the United States.

"I'm seeing a lot of moms who are so angry that it got done to them that I have a hard time thinking that they would ever have anything to do with it," she said.

Some activists and Democratic lawmakers have argued - in lieu of hard data about the prevalence of FGM - that racism, Islamophobia and anti-immigrant sentiments have played a role in fueling enthusiasm for the new policies.

Far-right blogs and news websites have long perpetuated the myth that FGM is a common Islamic practice by immigrants who are fundamentally at odds with American society.

FGM and honor killings "would not exist in the U.S. without mass immigration bringing its practitioners into U.S. communities," Breitbart reporter Katie McHugh wrote in March. Stephen Miller, a top aide to President Donald Trump, has voiced the same sentiment.

In Minnesota last week, some dissenting lawmakers worried that meting out "draconian" punishment for a poorly understood crime might make it worse. The Minnesota law would make it easier and more likely for the state to take custody of a child whose parent is suspected of involvement in FGM. For suspects who are not yet U.S. citizens, the crime would probably mean deportation.

"When you start removing children from their families, increasing penalties for families," Allen said, "it's likely that it may deter them from reporting the violence. They may not cooperate with police."

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