Opposition from some members of Minnesota’s immigrant and refugee communities is slowing the momentum of a bill that would impose stiff penalties for parents involved in cases of female genital mutilation.
Since the bill’s near-unanimous passage in the Minnesota House this week, some longtime critics of the ritual have met with senators, lobbied the governor’s office and handed out fliers — all to raise alarm about the legislation.
The Council for Minnesotans of African Heritage, a nonprofit called Isuroon and other groups argue that the legislation carries overly harsh punishment and unintended consequences, including the possibility that newcomers from countries where genital cutting is widespread would not seek medical care and other services for their children. They call for a less punitive approach focused on educating parents.
Now, the author of the Senate version is voicing second thoughts about approving the legislation yet this session, though Senate GOP leadership have not committed to a course of action. “We all agree this practice is absolutely horrible, and something needs to be done,” said the author, Sen. Karin Housley. “How can we empower communities to address this practice from within rather than having Big Brother come down and say, ‘This is wrong?’ ”
Rep. Mary Franson, who introduced the House bill, said the Senate is bowing to pressure from groups “more concerned with perception than doing the right thing and protecting girls.”
“Watering down the bill really does a disservice to the little girls who are in danger,” she said.
Concerns about the bill
Franson’s bill makes it a felony for parents to subject their daughters to the procedure and calls for loss of custody and prison terms from five to 20 years, depending on the extent of the injuries. It also increases penalties for those who perform the procedure, which has been illegal since pioneering Minnesota legislation in the 1990s.
The bill won support from all but four of the 128 House members who voted, including Rep. Ilhan Omar, the country’s first Somali-American legislator.
Fadumo Abdinur, one of several Somali-American women who testified in favor of the bill, said stiff penalties are needed to root out a practice that leaves girls and women with long-term health problems. Abdinur, who experienced genital cutting, did not get her period until she was 20, and only after a Texas physician partly reversed her procedure. She also suffered painful periods and intercourse.
“I don’t want any girl to go through this,” she said. “I will talk against it for the rest of my life.”
Lul Hersi, a St. Cloud mother of four and a supporter of the bill, says the United States should warn refugee parents against rushing to have their daughters cut before traveling to the United States — and disqualify them from resettlement if they do: “The parents know the risks they’re putting their kids in.”
Fartun Weli of Isuroon, which won a $180,000 federal grant this winter to educate health care providers about the procedure, stresses that she does not condone the practice.
But she and other critics balk at separating girls from their families, which they argue victimizes them a second time. They say they worry about families arriving from places where the practice is deeply rooted. An amendment to Franson’s bill states the penalties apply only if the ritual is practiced in the United States. But Haji Yusuf, a Somali community leader in St. Cloud, questions whether authorities can always readily determine that.
For parents who came to the United States with girls who’d already undergone the procedure, the bill, which mandates reporting to authorities by health care providers and others, could discourage doctor visits.
The bill requires Minnesota’s health commissioner to provide outreach and education about the dangers of female genital mutilation (FGM) in immigrant communities — and to seek private funds to do that. The lack of designated funding for education, including for law enforcement and mandated reporters, is an issue for Ann Hill in the state’s Office of the Ombudsperson for Families, which has also raised concerns about the bill.
Brikti Hiwet, an Ethiopian-American elder and reproductive health lecturer at the University of Minnesota and St. Catherine University who attended Monday’s hearing, said she felt lawmakers had a “knee-jerk reaction” to the issue. She says existing state and federal laws prohibiting the practice are effective.
“How can you protect children when you take them away from their families and put them in foster care?” she said.
Hodan Hassan, a mental health clinician, also argues for a less punitive approach.
“When I read the bill, my heart sank,” Hassan said. “It criminalizes parents who don’t understand the legality of their actions and don’t have the ability to advocate for themselves.”
Hassan says lawmakers should not scrap the bill but should revisit and revise it.
Weli says she worries the House discussion framed the issue as a Somali community problem when almost a dozen immigrant communities in Minnesota hail from countries that practice genital cutting. At least one of the Minnesota girls whose parents took them to a Michigan doctor now charged with performing the procedure — the case that inspired the House bill — was not Somali, according to child protection documents.
“All our mothers went through this. Some of our sisters who grew up in Africa went through this. Our daughters won’t go through this because so much has changed,” said Abdullah Kiatamba, a West African community leader.
Aim is to protect girls
Franson says the bill’s intent is clear: protecting girls. So is the language in the bill that limits penalties to those who live in the United States when the practice takes place. She says loss of custody must be a consequence of a procedure that causes girls lifelong harm.
“America is the land of the brave and the home of the free,” she said. “Little girls who moved here from other countries have the right to be free from the oppression of female genital mutilation.”
She pointed to an event the nonprofit Voice of East African Women planned to hold Thursday evening as evidence that immigrant supporters of the bill have already taken on the task of educating communities about it.
But Housley, who met with Weli and Kaade Wallace of the Council for Minnesotans of African Heritage, said she wants to ensure senators get broad input and consider unintended consequences before they act — and time is running out this session.
“When laws get made this quickly, that’s when mistakes get made,” she said.
Kiatamba says the bill’s passage seems to have sparked an open conversation on a rarely discussed issue.
“Something dramatic needs to happen and bring this issue out of the shadows,” he said.
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