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Saturday, June 12, 2010

U.S. Bill Would Outlaw FGM ”Holidays”

June 12, 2010
By Beatrice Paez - IPS News

NEW YORK, Jun 12  (IPS)  - The U.S. currently lags behind several Western European countries in closing a legislative loophole banning the practice of Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) beyond its borders to protect U.S. citizens and residents. But this may soon change. Some 6,000 girls endure FGM every day, totaling about 100 to 140 million girls and women who bear the lifetime consequences. The ”Girls Protection Act” would make it illegal to transport a minor abroad for the purpose of FGM. Introduced by members of Congress Joseph Crowley and Mary Bono Mack as a bipartisan initiative, the bill is now awaiting review in a congressional committee.

FGM rituals are practiced in many parts of Africa, the Middle East and some countries in Asia. It involves
procedures that partially or completely remove the external female genitalia and is undertaken at infancy or later in childhood, depending on a particular culture.

There are four types, which range in severity. Most common as characterised by the World Health Organisation is Type II, ”the excision of the clitoris with partial or total excision of the labia minora.”

Political asylum has been granted in the United States to FGM survivors, and activist organisations for women such as Equality Now and Sanctuary for Families warn that those at risk also include women living in the U.S.

Canada, Spain, Britain and several Scandinavian countries have already enacted such legislation, commonly known as ”vacation provisions”, which protect girls sent during on "holiday” for circumcision.

In the past, under these provisions, Sweden and France have prosecuted parents that have forced their child to undergo this rite of passage. While these laws cannot monitor and establish conclusively who is at risk, they are intended to act as a deterrent.

”If you make something illegal, people tend not to want to break the law,” Crowley told journalists at a briefing this week. If found guilty, the adults responsible can be fined or serve up to five years in prison.

However, prosecuting is a tricky situation when bearing in mind the child's welfare and the mother's second-class citizenship within her culture. ”We're not calling for the arrest of parents, especially the mothers, who very often do not have the power to decide whether or not their girls will be cut,” Taina Bien-Aimé, the director of Equality Now, told IPS.

The bill will also be coupled with community outreach and educational programmes to shore up awareness on the link between FGM and many serious health complications. Potential consequences for those subjected to FGM include urinary tract infection, complications at childbirth, infertility, cysts, death and need for surgery.

For girls aware of these hazards, they are balanced in mind with the stigmatisation and rejection they face from family members. Mothers preparing their child for marriage facilitate the practice as an ”act of love”, to ensure their child will not be rejected by men and the broader community. Local terminology describes FGM as ”cutting the dirt” or ”cleansing”, a way to preserve the chastity or virginity of a woman.

The impetus for the bill owes to the efforts of grassroots movements and the testimony of FGM survivors campaigning to uproot this tradition from their culture.

Fanta, an FGM survivor who escaped the procedure with the support of her parents, has spoken out about the pressure young girls from her community here in the U.S. face. ”I went through so many rejections, I was not accepted by certain members of the family. It took a lot of sacrifices for my parents,” she said.

Dismissed in the past as a cultural matter, service providers such as guidance counselors, social workers, the police and teachers on the frontline are often unequipped to help those at risk, said Archana Pyati, an attorney from the group Sanctuary for Families.

Bien-Aimé underscored the importance of scaling up grassroots efforts and in establishing networks within the communities as a source of support and information on FGM.

Whether the approach to outreach and education is tailored to a specific culture or not, it is vital that service providers can tackle the issue, Pyati and Bien-Aimé agreed.

”State laws also need to have the vacation provision as a counterpart because the first responders are the police and local service providers,” Bien-Aimé told IPS.

Currently, out of 17 state laws that ban FGM, only Nevada and Georgia instituted these provisions.