By Hunter Kessous
On January 5th, the H.R. 6100-STOP FGM Act was signed into law, upon being passed through the House of Representatives and the Senate unanimously. The federal law criminalizes female genital cutting (FGC), a form of gender-based violence against young girls, which involves medically unnecessary partial or total removal of the external genitalia.
According to the Centers for Disease Control, over 500,000 girls and women have undergone or are at risk of undergoing FGC in the United States alone. Globally, that number rises up to 3 million girls at risk per year, with a total of over 200 million girls and women having been cut. The STOP FGM Act strengthens the opposition to FGC by stating that religious or cultural beliefs may not be used in defense of the practice. Additionally, government agencies, such as the Departments of Education and Justice, will be required to report to Congress on the estimated number of women and girls who have undergone or are at risk of FGC in the U.S., and on efforts to prevent the practice. They will also give a report on the actions they take toward educating the community and preventing FGC from continuing.
Advocates and policymakers have been working toward this goal for so long that it was concerning when the new law didn’t garner a lot of media attention. This could be because the U.S. has technically had a law against FGC since 1996—emphasis on technically, because for the past two years, the Department of Justice has refused to enforce the law. The only intact portion of the law has been a ban on taking a minor out of the U.S. to be cut, a practice known as vacation cutting. In 2018, a Michigan doctor was taken to court for the mutilation of over 100 girls. The judge dismissed the charges and ruled that Congress did not have the authority to pass the FGC law by associating it with the Commerce Clause, claiming that there is nothing “commercial or economic” about FGC. The STOP FGM law clarifies that FGC is, in fact, linked to inter-state or foreign commerce, thereby confirming Congress’ power to make FGC illegal. Since that pivotal case over two years ago, young girls are now protected against FGC under federal law.
Although there is reason to celebrate, activists aren’t putting their feet up anytime soon. As far as policy goes, there is still more work to do. Despite the federal law, state laws against FGC are a necessary tool. Federal and state laws each protect girls in different ways. The federal law against FGC will be put to use if the crime involves interstate activity, such as transporting a girl to another state to be cut. We need state laws against FGC to protect girls in cases of local criminal activity, as was recommended by the judge in the aforementioned Michigan court case. To date, there are still 11 states which do not have any laws against FGC. In the states that do have anti-FGC policies, action must be taken to make these laws more comprehensive. Several states do not clarify that cultural/ritual reasons and alleged consent may not be used as a defense for performing FGC on a minor. Few states have legislation which includes a provision for community education and outreach, which is a key component of prevention.
In addition to improving state laws, even more can be done at the federal level. Policy from the Department of Education and Health and Human Services requiring FGC education in schools can go a long way toward prevention.
“While we celebrate the signing of H.R. 6100 and the recent Massachusetts law, we must continue to advocate for not only the criminalization of FGM/C, but a Federal Education Law,” said Angela Peabody, founder of the Global Woman P.E.A.C.E Foundation and political lobbyist. “It is imperative for every child in the United States to be knowledgeable about the practice of FGM/C. Even though several states have included an education clause in their laws, a federal law would cover all states. The schools already teach Family Life Education; therefore including the study of FGM/C in the FLE curriculum is not a difficult task. Virginia is already in the process of doing that.”
Virginia has incorporated education about FGC into their school curriculum for middle and high schoolers in which they learn “the dangers of FGC, the criminal penalties, and the rights of the victim.” Education such as this serves to increase awareness, put an end to the thinking that FGC is not an American issue, and give a voice to the next generation of activists.
The current law criminalizes FGC, and calls on several government agencies to enact programs that will protect girls and create public awareness. The law left the guidelines for these agencies vague, which leaves room for experts and advocates to guide these departments. There are many ways, for example, that policy can support girls and women living in the U.S. who have already undergone FGC, or those who will be cut in spite of the new law. Survivors face a range of physical and psychological complications. These include, but are not limited to, infection, fistulas, birth complication, sexual dysfunction, and post-traumatic stress disorder.
Policy could go a long way to alleviate these burdens. For example, survivors of domestic violence are permitted to enroll in an ACA healthcare plan at any point during the year, rather than just during the open enrollment window. A policy such as this being applied to FGC survivors and their dependents would be a great step toward increasing access to healthcare. Yet, many of the less expensive healthcare plans do not provide counseling services, and this may not be apparent until after the plan has been purchased. Therefore, another area where legislation could protect FGC survivors is by creating federally funded programs to provide needed health care services, which may be lacking from their current healthcare plan, at subsidized rates or at no cost. There was an effort to pass a law which would include protections for survivors of FGC in the Violence Against Women Reauthorization Act of 2019. The bill passed through the House, but sadly reached an impasse in the Senate.
These recommendations are just a few of the ways policy can protect girls and women from the harmful effects of FGC. The STOP FGM law is an excellent step toward ending gender- based violence in the U.S. But there is much more that we, as a country, can advocate for regarding increased prevention against FGC and improved support for survivors. This work is not entirely in the hands of legislators and government agencies. Most of our public servants are not experts on FGC. It is up to activists to guide the next steps that our local and federal agencies take toward ending FGC and supporting survivors.
One way that folks can get involved in this movement is by reaching out to the U.S. End FGM/C Network, an interagency group of grassroots organizations, survivors, healthcare providers and policymakers. Additionally, it is up to all of us to hold agencies accountable. We must encourage our officials to take FGC action seriously, to put it on their meeting agendas, and to allocate funds in their budget towards ending FGC and supporting survivors.