Virginia joins global movement to criminalize female circumcision

Virginia’s General Assembly unanimously passed legislation Wednesday to crack down on female genital mutilation, criminalizing the procedure with up to a year of prison. The bill now awaits Democratic Gov. Terry McAuliffe’s signature.

Virginia’s bill makes FGM a Class 1 misdemeanor, which carries a maximum jail sentence of one year and a $2,500 fine. This is a lower punishment than what was originally proposed earlier this year, which called for a 5-year minimum sentence and a fine up to $1 million.

The move could help reduce the practice in an area with the second highest number of women and girls at risk, according to the human rights organization Equality Now.

More than 51,000 women and girls in the Washington D.C. metro area, including Arlington and Alexandria, Virginia, are at risk of FGM, a procedure to partially or completely remove female genitalia for nonmedical reasons, according to Equality Now. The only city center with more females at risk is the New York City, Newark and Jersey City tri-state area, according to figures from Equality Now.

At the state level, Population Reference Bureau data from 2013 estimates that more than 30,000 women and girls in Virginia are at risk of FGM, the seventh highest in the nation. Part of that is due to the high level of immigrants who come to the state from cultures where FGM is a regularly practiced, according to the Virginia Department of Health and FGM experts.

“It’s not right that in this country alone we have 500,000 and globally we have 200 million women who are currently victims of FGM,” said Jaha Dukureh, founder of Safe Hands for Girls, who praised Virginia’s bill as an important step forward. “Being someone who has gone through FGM personally, it is a practice that has to end, it is a practice that needs to end,” she added.

FGM can be performed as a cultural or religious act and is mostly performed on girls between infancy and 15 years of age. It can cause extreme health issues and is considered a human rights violation by the United Nations. While FGM is most commonly practiced as a ritual in certain countries of Africa, Asia and the Middle East, FGM is not tied to a singular religion or culture and “is practiced among some adherents of the Muslim, Christian, and Jewish faiths,” according to Human Rights Watch.

Virginia state Sen. Richard Black (R) teamed up with state Sen. Siobhan Dunnavant (R), who is an obstetrician, to write the Virginia legislation. Black said he decided to take action after reading about FGM a year ago.

“This female genital mutilation is an absolutely horrid process, and I’m not a shrinking violet, I was in fierce combat in Vietnam,” Black said. “I’ve seen a lot of carnage on the battlefield, but I must say that when I read what was being done to these little girls, it really sent chills down my spine.”

A federal law has made FGM illegal since 1996, but the federal government rarely prosecutes individual cases, because it does not have the time or resources to do so, Black said.

If McAuliffe signs the bill, Virginia will become the 25th state to criminalize FGM.

Black said budgetary constraints forced him to scale back the penalty, but he hopes to increase the charges for FGM next year. He said a provision in the current bill allows FGM to be combined with other criminal charges to increase penalties.

For example, when a FGM misdemeanor is combined with malicious wounding, a felony, charges could amount to a maximum of 21 years. The law also allows victims who are minors to file a civil lawsuit against their perpetrators at any point before they turn 28 years old.

Amanda Parker, interim executive director of the AHA Foundation, a group dedicated to fighting violence against women and girls, said she is concerned that Virginia’s bill lacks teeth.

“This is a serious human rights abuse that in many cases causes many long-term physical and psychological damages,” Parker said, adding that legislators’ fears about how much jail time would cost the states is “not focusing on what is truly important, which is the human rights of these little girls.”

Other states’ laws against FGM carry heavier penalties. California, for example, requires a minimum of one year in jail, Parker said.

Although Virginia’s bill is not as stringent, other advocates say it is still progress.

“It’s great to have a law in place that protects girls, especially one that identifies FGM as a form of violence and as a human rights violation,” said Shelby Quast, the director of Equality Now’s Americas office.

The estimated number of females at risk of FGM increased to 513,000 in 2016, more than triple the rate in 1990, according to a Government Accountability Office report.

Parker said that is due in part to higher numbers of people coming into the U.S. from countries where FGM is practiced. She said most cases occurred either before the victims came here or when they are sent back to their home country for a short time to undergo the procedure. (The loophole of “vacation cutting,” as the latter is called, was outlawed in 2013 under the Transport for Female Genital Mutilation Act.)

But Quast noted that most statistics regarding FGM are from the Census Bureau and are lacking in more succinct information from doctors and caregivers to fully understand the presence of FGM in the U.S.

Dukureh said the next step for Virginia and other states that already criminalize FGM is to educate women about the health risks associated with the procedure.

“FGM is a belief that’s been around for thousands of years, and we can’t just change it overnight,” Dukureh said.