2017-05-26 / Community News

Mutilation bill would protect minor girls

By Michael Kelley Staff Writer

A bill sponsored by a Scarborough legislator is in the works right now to protect the health of minors across the state.

The bill, LD745 “An Act to Prohibit Female Genital Mutilation,” which is sponsored by Rep. Heather Sirocki, would make the cutting of external female genitalia on minors a Class B crime in Maine.

A Class B crime is punishable by up to 10 years of incarceration and a $20,000 fine. Sirocki may, however, aim to have the crime against the one performing the procedure a Class A crime (punishable by up to 30 years and $50,000 fine) and for the parent or guardian a Class C crime (for first offense) or Class B crime (for second offense).

“This is an effort to help little girls. They need someone to step in,” Sirocki said.

Female genital mutilation, according to Sirocki, occurs in 29 countries, including the United States and is a practice that is common in many African and Asian countries. A February 2015 article in Newsweek indicated the practice is done by parents who feel doing so “will cleanse or purify the girl, ensure she remains sexually chaste, prevent cheating on her future husband and keep behaving well.”

It is typically done on girls between infancy and 15 years old.

While the crime is against federal law and has been since 1996, there is no mention of it in state law. Sirocki’s bill, which was modeled after a recently enacted South Dakota law, would make it so for those performing female genital mutilation on someone under the age of 18.

It would also make it a crime for a parent or guardian to let such a thing happen for non-medical purposes, which include “religion, custom or rite.” It doesn’t outlaw the practice if it “determined necessary” by a licensed physician.

Since there is no state law, the crime has to be prosecuted federally. Sirocki said 24 other states have already codified it and hopes to make Maine the 25th.

“Federal prosecutors take a very small amount of cases. The state of Maine deals with thousands of cases. If a situation would occur and this is the issue, if the federal government doesn’t have enough prosecutors, it doesn’t get prosecuted,” Sirocki said.

Sirocki said the bill, which was co-sponsored by more than 50 of her colleagues in the house along with eight state senators, including Scarborough resident Amy Volk, only applies to minors.

“It’s not prohibiting the procedure in adult, although it probably should. My bill deals with children. This is considered child abuse by the state of Maine,” she told the Leader.

In her testimony before the Committee of Criminal Justice and Public Safety May 5, Sirocki said “to stop this practice, we must have laws in place and we must enforce.”

Oamshri Amarasingham, of the American Civil Liberties Union of Maine, indicated the group is against the bill, in part because it would expand Maine’s criminal code.

“Criminalizing new behavior does little to solve society’s problems and instead has contributed to the crises in funding and space in local jails,” Amarasingham told the committee. She went on to say, “while we do not support the practice of FGM, we do not believe that a criminal approach in Maine will contribute to any legitimate efforts to eradicate the practice.”

There is some debate how much female genital mutilation (which is often simply referred to as FGM) is occurring in Maine. Maine Coalition Against Sexual Assault testified before the Committee of Criminal Justice and Public Safety May 5 arguing it is not happening in Maine.

“We know that there are many Mainers who have been victims of FGM. However, what I have not seen any proof of yet is if it is being practiced in Maine. I have only heard, third hand, of one case from 10 years ago. What I hear from members of the impacted community is that it is not being done in Maine and that there is no confusion about whether or not it is appropriate or legal in this country,” Elizabeth Ward Saxl testified.

Sirocki sees it a bit differently. She points to 2013 data from the American Community Survey that estimates 1,603 females were either already subjected to female genital mutilation or at risk for it, with 399 being under 18. The Centers for Disease Control reports the procedure has been performed on 500,000 females as of 2012. Thousand of others have been subjected to “vacation cutting” which involves sending Americans overseas to have the procedure done there. That was outlawed in 2013. U.S Immigration a Customs Enforcement states close to 400 individuals have been arrested and 785 deported for FGM violations since 2003.

“This is a problem in Maine. Maine has been named as one of the eight high risk areas in the country,” Sirocki said. Because of this, the Maine Access Immigrant Network was given a three-year grant from the U.S. Office on Women’s Health. The funding, according to Sarah Lewis, Maine Access Immigrant Network program manager, supports he HER initiative, which stands for Honor our Bodies, Educate our Community and Respect our Heritage. The goal of the initiative is to decrease the risk of genital mutilation and strengthen clinical care for women who have experienced it.

There have recently been two cases in the news dealing with female genital mutilation. Earlier this spring, two doctors in Michigan were arrested for doing the procedure on young girls at their clinic and in March a man was deported back to Ethiopia after serving a 10-year sentence for doing the procedure on his 2-year-old daughter in 2001. He was sentenced in 2006 and was the first person convicted in the United States.

While the Maine Access Immigrant Network doesn’t condone the practice, its executive director Mohamud Barre said his organization, which was founded by members of the Somali community in 2002, is concerned with how the proposed bill is written. Barre said along with legislation, there needs to be more collaboration with communities where female genital mutilation is happening and awareness raised amongst Mainers in an effort promote of community-driven and culturally appropriate education.

“A rush to legislate without community engagement may be perceived by communities as racism and ethnic discrimination. The unintended consequences may be the isolation of families and erosion of immigrants’ place in society,” he told members of the committee.

“There are many questions that remain unanswered. (Female genital mutilation) is a complex issue with many cultural, gender, class, and traditional layers,” Lewis said. “Criminalization is not an effective public health strategy: it threatens to stigmatize and distance many who have fled to Maine seeking peace. I urge the Committee to consider the negative, possibly unintended harm that this Bill, as it is currently written will have on our most vulnerable communities.”

Sirocki said as a daughter of an immigrant, she understands that people from other countries “naturally bring with them closely held traditions and that is why FGM is so difficult to eradicate.” There are organizations, such as the Immigrant Resource Center of Maine in Lewiston, that do inform newly arriving residents that FGM is federally illegal.

Fatuma Hussein, executive director of the Immigrant Resource Center of Maine in Lewiston, said Sirocki’s bill needs additional work and should not pass as it is stands now.

“LD 745 had the right concept but is both misguided and misled. FGM is a horrific practice, however the approach presented by Rep. Sirocki is not the right solution to this problem,” she said.

“Women and girls in Maine who have experienced FGM need culturally specific services and competent service delivery systems educated on FGM. We strongly support the amended version of LD765. Criminal penalties and creating laws that don’t prevent FGM is not necessary and will further jeopardize existing relationships and services that support FGM,” added Hussein, who is a FGM survivor whose daughters have been sparred from the practice. “FGM is sexual assault. FGM needs to be addressed by trained culturally specific providers in collaboration with our mainstream partners. We urge you to please support education, culturally specific services and cultural competency training for service providers. We need to work with community and organizations addressing this horrific practice.”

Rachel Talbot-Ross, who represents part of Portland in District 40 in the Maine House of Representatives, has a different idea of how to tackle the issue and is interested in amending Sirocki’s bill. Talbot Ross’ plan would include establishing three positions with in the Department of Health and Human Services “to provide culturally specific outreach and education services.”

“The purposes of these positions would be to educate communities and necessary professionals about the physical and emotional risks of FGM and that the practice is banned under current federal law as well as connect victims of FGM with community services and resources as necessary,” Talbot-Ross wrote in her testimony.

The bill does have the support of some individuals, such as Concerned Women for America of Maine.

“Our goal is to pass laws to protect our society from practices and policies that endanger or debase innocent human life,” said State Director Penelope Morrell. “The genital mutilation of a female under the age of 18 for any reason other than for health purposes debases and endangers the lives of young girls and is not in the best interest of the child who must be protected.”

Because it is their job “to protect the health and the well-being of our patients, particularly those who cannot advocate for themselves,” the Maine Osteopathic Association has also offered its support.

“Female genital mutilation is not a religious practice, it is a cultural practice. Even if it is performed with anesthesia, with surgical skill, with consent of the parents, it is a process, which creates long-term damage, physical and emotional trauma, and multiple life-long complications. It brings with it no medical benefit and great medical cost,” Merideth Norris wrote in her testimony.

Burnell Bailey, a resident in South Berwick and Holly Bernstein, of Falmouth, are urging the legislature to pass LD745.

“Savage is a mild term to describe this cultural practice. It needs to be outlawed,” Bailey wrote in email testimony to committee clerk Joseph Klimkiewicz.

“The practice is not only barbaric but completely offensive to the dignity of women. I strongly believe that a woman has the right to choose what happens to her body and not be subjected to a ritual, which is the complete antithesis of her beliefs,” Bernstein wrote. “During FGM, a woman is often a child not able to say no! It is time to say no for that child.”

Sirocki said the Committee of Criminal Justice and Public Safety was divided in its support of the bill, but by a 7-5 vote, came out with an ought to pass recommendation. The bill will first be reviewed by the House of Representatives and then by the members of the state senate.

Sirocki said it is “unclear how it will fare once it comes to the house.”

Staff Writer Michael Kelley can be reached at news@scarbroughleader.com.

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