By Privthi G. Tikhe
Boston University Statehouse Program
This article was originally published in the Telegram.
BOSTON — It was 1988 in Sierra Leone, Africa. Four blindfolded sisters under the age of 18, the youngest being 11, waited anxiously with their mother and father outside the bondo bush, a private enclosure constructed near their village. The oldest walked in, unaware of what was about to happen to her.
Despite putting up a fight, her grandmother used a knife and removed her clitoris and labia without any anesthetic. She screamed and almost bled to death.
“It was horrible, very painful and barbaric,” said the 48-year-old Massachusetts resident who twice testified anonymously in support of proposed legislation to protect girls in Massachusetts from female genital mutilation, with no exceptions to religion, culture, or parental consent.
State Sen. Harriette L. Chandler, D-Worcester, introduced the bill at the start of the 2017-2018 legislative session. The bill was placed under review last March, indefinitely postponing action.
“There is no existing law in Massachusetts to successfully prosecute female genital mutilation as a crime,” said Ms. Chandler. “We must address the commonwealth’s oversight in failing to condemn FGM and keep girls in Massachusetts safe from this harm.”
FGM means piercing, cutting, removing, or sewing closed all or part of a girl’s or woman’s external genitals for no medical reason.
Since 1996, performing FGM in the U.S. has been illegal and a 2013 federal law prohibits sending children overseas for the procedure. In spite of the federal law, only 27 states currently have FGM laws in place.
The Center for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that 513,000 women and girls are at risk or have undergone FGM in the United States. Massachusetts ranks 12th in the nation for at-risk populations with an estimated 14,211 women and girls according to the Population Reference Bureau.
The practice is most concentrated in about 30 countries in Africa, the Middle East and Asia, according to the World Health Organization.
Boston is the number 10 metropolitan area in the country for women and girls who are at risk and there are 11,347 women and girls at risk in the Boston-Cambridge-Newton area.
“The number of girls under 18 at risk of FGM in the U.S. has quadrupled since 1997 based on the latest estimates,” said Amanda Parker, senior director at the AHA Foundation, a nonprofit organization for the defense of women’s rights.
The increase is due to an influx of female immigrants who were cut in their homelands, American-born women and girls who are sent to their parent’s home country to be cut, known as vacation cutting, and others who undergo the procedure in the U.S.
The World Health Organization describes four major types of FGM. They range in severity from removing parts of a woman’s genitals to infibulation, when the vagina is sewn closed, leaving a small opening.
Ms. Chandler said while often called “female circumcision,” FGM is much more extensive and often impairs a woman’s sexual and reproductive functions. Most girls undergo FGM when they are between 7 and 10 years old, but the preference seems to be that the operation is done while the child is younger, she said.
The World Health Organization says there are no health benefits to these procedures.
“Girls are suffering severe consequences from the procedure,” said Dr. Melody Eckhardt, the former director of Women’s Refugee Health at Boston Health at Boston Medical Center, who has worked with women from African communities that practice FGM and has performed corrective surgery.
The lifelong health consequences of FGM can include: bleeding, chronic pain, infection; severe pain during urination, menstruation and sexual intercourse; cysts, infertility and complications during childbirth. In some cases, FGM can even be fatal, Dr. Eckhardt said.
Aside from punishing the perpetrators — anyone who gives consent to or performs the procedure — the Massachusetts legislation includes an education, prevention and outreach provision that will inform communities about the health risks, emotional trauma, and criminal penalties for committing FGM. It will train health care providers and law enforcement, and includes mandatory reporting laws. Survivors can advocate for themselves in a court of law and take civil action up to 10 years past their 18th birthday.
There has been no reported case of FGM occurring in Massachusetts.
But it doesn’t mean the procedure does not happen in the state said Mariya Taher, 35, a Dawoodi Bohra Muslim and survivor of vacation cutting, who lives in Massachusetts. She is a member of the Massachusetts Female Genital Mutilation Task Force, which is working on legislation at the state level to ban the practice.
“FGM is a very secretive practice that continues behind closed doors,” she said. “Silence has become a formidable ally in entrenching this form of violence generation after generation.”
For centuries, women have been afraid to speak up about FGM for fear of being ostracized from their community; being labeled a victim; and in countries where FGM is illegal, getting their loved ones in trouble.
There is actually no opposition to the bill from legislators, according to Ms. Taher, who thinks there is caution to not violate a religious or cultural practice by passing the bill. She believes this is understandable, but not acceptable because legislators are “sanctioning violence in the name of culture and tradition.”
Renee Bergstrom, 74, a Caucasian Christian from Minnesota, was mutilated in Wahpeton, North Dakota, when she was 3 because her face turned red when she touched her clitoris.
“White Americans want to think of FGM as happening to women of a different color in a faraway place, so they can ignore it,” she said. “Americans can be so self-righteous and deny many of the atrocities committed on our soil.”
She added that if she had spoken out earlier in her life, she would have been seen as a Western woman imposing her values on other cultures.
Ms. Chandler’s staff said no decision has been made whether the legislation will be re-filed in the 2019-2020 session.
Laws prohibiting FGM are an important tool for prosecutors to bring perpetrators to justice and also send a strong message that this abuse will not be tolerated in Massachusetts, Ms. Parker said.
“FGM is not about culture, religion or tradition,” said the Sierra Leonean woman. “It’s about life; it’s about human dignity.”
This story has been corrected from a previous version regarding the number of states that have laws against female genital mutilation and whether the senator will re-file the bill in the next legislative session.