Scarred but no longer scared, survivors of female genital mutilation embraced one another and lawmakers Monday at the State Capitol after the House voted to impose harsh new penalties on doctors who subject little girls to the painful ritual.
“I have two beautiful daughters. I don’t want my two beautiful daughters [to] go through what I [went] through,” said Waris Mohamud, a Somali immigrant standing with a group of women, young and old, dressed in bright headscarves of red, white or blue.
All had undergone genital mutilation as children. All vowed their own children never would.
The House overwhelmingly passed the measure on a 124-4 vote. A Senate spokeswoman said the higher chamber would take up the measure later this week.
Every nation on Earth has banned the ritual cutting as a human rights violation, but the practice persists in dozens of cultures across more than 30 countries. The World Health Organization says it’s carried out for the purpose of stifling female sexuality.
Changing a culture, survivors have found, isn’t easy.
“The women are afraid. We were raised [to believe] if you’re not circumcised, you’re not going to get married. Men are not going to love you if it’s not done,” said Farhio Khalif, another local Somali-American survivor of the practice. Her message to her community: “Stand up for your daughters. I’m proud to say all of these women, they all have daughters and none of them are circumcised.”
In April, a Michigan doctor was arrested after being accused of performing the procedure on two Minnesota girls. Under the House bill, parents or guardians who subject girls to genital mutilation, along with the doctors who cut them, would face felony charges and prison sentences ranging from five to 20 years, depending on the damage done to the child. Teachers and caregivers would be mandated to report any suspected incidents of genital cutting. Parents could also lose custody of their children, possibly permanently.
“If you harm your child in this way, you’re going to be held responsible, parents,” said state Rep. Mary Franson, R-Alexandria, who sponsored the bill. “I don’t care what religion, what culture, anything.”
Bravely stepping forward
Franson hadn’t expected to find anyone willing to testify in public, on camera, about a subject immigrant communities barely discuss among themselves. Of the women who stepped forward, Franson said, “They’re the heroes here.”
Khalif was one who came forward, horrifying lawmakers as she described the day she was blindfolded and held down as someone sliced away part of her genitals. Just 7 or 8 years old at the time, she described how she ran away and clambered up a tree to escape, only to have her mother and other relatives climb up and grab her once she fell asleep. She described the pain, the blood, and the sight of her own severed flesh.
“It is a human rights issue, women’s health issue and a gender violence issue,” Franson said. The World Health Organization estimates that more than 200 million women around the world have undergone this procedure. It’s unclear how prevalent the practice is among immigrant communities in Minnesota, Franson said.
Some lawmakers balked at the harsh penalties, worried that a felony conviction could result in deportations for immigrant parents, while being removed from their homes and placed in foster care would be a different sort of trauma for child victims.
“We don’t want this to happen to any young girl, but neither do we want to tear families apart because they didn’t know” this country’s laws, said state Rep. Rena Moran, DFL-St. Paul.
The case of the Michigan doctor and subsequent response by state lawmakers is raising awareness among affected communities. The Tasho Community organization will host a forum in Minneapolis on Thursday evening to educate families about the physical and legal dangers of genital cutting.
The ritual is practiced in Asia, Africa and the Middle East, often as a means of controlling a girl’s sexuality. A 2012 study from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimated that more than 513,000 girls in the United States had been subjected to or were at risk of undergoing genital cutting.
“We’re saving little girls’ lives,” Khalif said.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.