Congress stalls on bills to end female genital mutilation

Today, as the United Nations recognizes the International Day of Zero Tolerance for Female Genital Mutilation, federal legislation banning the practice is stalled in Washington. Sometimes referred to as female circumcision, FGM is often portrayed as a practice that doesn’t affect the United States. But the reality is that approximately 507,000 U.S. women and girls – mainly in immigrant communities – are either at risk for or have suffered through it.

FGM is the practice of cutting female genitalia for nonmedical reasons. It ranges from what some describe as “ceremonial pricks” to the full removal of external genitalia. Short-term risks include infection and the possibility of bleeding to death. In the long run, it can cause issues with fertility, as well as sexual and mental health. 

A cultural norm in some parts of Africa and the Middle East, FGM is becoming increasingly common in the United States. The number affected or at risk doubled between 2000 and 2013, according to the Population Reference Bureau, despite a federal ban enacted in 1996. 

The legislation banning FGM for girls under age 18 was ruled unconstitutional and overturned in 2018. Citing states’ rights, Michigan Judge Bernard Friedman declared that it’s not within Congress’ jurisdiction to regulate the practice. Thirty-five states currently have laws prohibiting the practice.

At the start of the following Congress in 2019, Rep. Scott Perry (R-Penn.) quickly introduced two bills, the Protect Our Girls Act of 2019, that aimed to reinstate a federal ban on FGM, and the Empower our Girls Act, which would create grants to support FGM victims. The acts had 50 and 41 bipartisan sponsors, respectively, and were sent to subcommittees. 

Rep. Perry along with Rep. Lois Frankel (D-Fla.) also introduced a bipartisan resolution “denouncing female genital mutilation/cutting as a violation of the human rights of women and girls and urging the international community and the Federal Government to increase efforts to eliminate the harmful practice.” The resolution was adopted by the House in May with a vote of 393-0.

Because the resolution is symbolic and doesn’t have any legal effect, Perry also introduced the Federal Prohibition of Female Genital Mutilation Act of 2019 in the House last June. A corresponding Senate bill was introduced on the same day by Sen. Marsha Blackburn (D-Tenn.). The act would once again make FGM a federal crime for girls under 18 — this time with six new provisions from the Justice Department aimed at strengthening the legislation against potential legal challenges. 

The bills propose updating the previous federal ban with new language noting that FGM causes physical and psychological trauma, that it’s often beyond the state’s control or ability to handle and that foreign and interstate travel often play a role. The hope is that the link to interstate or foreign commerce is enough to place the issue solidly under Congress’ jurisdiction. 

Joanna Vergoth, founder and executive director of forma, an organization dedicated to providing comprehensive, culturally-sensitive clinical services to women affected by FGM, can attest to the negative physical and mental effects of the practice. A licensed social worker and psychotherapist in private practice specializing in trauma, her first experience working with survivors of FGM was as the coordinator of the Midwest Network on Female Genital Cutting.

“More mental health professionals need to be involved so that women can understand that the problems they’re having are related to their FGM,” Vergoth said. “Down the road, many years later, [many issues] could be attributed to the experiences they had while undergoing this practice.”

Perry said the United States must combat FGM domestically before joining the push for an international ban. “One part of this fight is in the United States,” he said. “Americans cannot effectively advocate for foreign countries to take steps to combat FGM when our own anti-FGM laws are in question.”

Laura Detter, the communications director and foreign affairs advisor to Perry, said he’s been consistently dedicated to building support for anti-FGM legislation.

“We’re frankly disappointed in the lack of bipartisan support,” Detter said. “We’ve reached out to offices that have previously supported our initiative … Our previous two bills have proven there is strong bipartisan support in Congress to combat this crime.”

Vergoth believes the current political climate in the United States is what’s preventing the federal government from banning FGM. “It doesn’t matter what color you are, how old you are or where you’re from. This is a culturally sanctioned trauma that has to stop,” she said.

How close is the act to becoming law? Perry said it’s up to the House of Representatives and specifically Judiciary Committee chairman Rep. Jerry Nadler, a New York Democrat. 

“Fifteen months after introduction in December 2018, the House Judiciary Committee has yet to consider this important legislation,” said Perry. “I continue my call for Chairman Nadler to bring forth my legislation for committee examination.”

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