Now that a federal judge has struck down a nationwide ban on female genital mutilation, Washington state legislators should move swiftly to pass their own law making it a crime at the state level.
Dozens of countries have enacted laws against female genital cutting, a procedure in which parts of young girls’ genitalia are surgically altered or removed for nonmedical reasons.
For more than 20 years, the United States was one of them. That changed earlier this month, when a federal judge in Michigan struck down the longstanding U.S. ban on the practice, which is sometimes called female genital mutilation, or female circumcision.
In his ruling, U.S. District Judge Bernard Friedman said the cutting of young girls’ genitals is a local criminal matter that must be regulated by the states, not by Congress.
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“As despicable as this practice may be, it is essentially a criminal assault,” Friedman wrote. Female genital mutilation “is not part of a larger market and it has no demonstrated effect on interstate commerce. The Commerce Clause does not permit Congress to regulate a crime of this nature.”
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For now, that leaves states to decide whether to criminalize this procedure, which is typically performed on girls age 15 and younger for social, cultural or religious reasons.
While 27 U.S. states already ban female genital cutting, Washington state does not. Washington state legislators should not hesitate to pass their own law this coming session making it a crime to perform female genital cutting on children under 18.
An estimated 200 million women worldwide have undergone some form of female genital cutting, which often includes removing all or part of the clitoris and sometimes parts of the labia. In severe cases, it can include sewing together the vaginal opening to leave only a small hole for urination and menstruation.
Reasons for the practice vary. Some social groups view it as a rite of passage into womanhood, or a means of controlling women’s sexuality. Others consider it a way of making women more clean, or as a prerequisite for marriage.
While female genital cutting is common in several countries in Africa, as well as certain places in the Middle East and Southeast Asia, some instances have also been reported in the United States. In the Michigan case, the lead defendant was a local doctor accused of performing female genital mutilation on nine girls between the ages of 8 and 13.
While there is no data tracking how many girls have been subjected to this in Washington state, that doesn’t mean it doesn’t happen, including during trips back to their home countries, says Isatou Jallow, a survivor of female genital cutting who lives in Seattle. In most cases, it is not something that families will discuss openly, says Jallow, who emigrated from The Gambia and now is completing postgraduate work at the University of Washington.
“I just want people to know that it is happening,” says Jallow, who underwent a severe version of the procedure when she was 8. “There are American citizens and kids who came here with their parents, who will be taken back to their countries to be cut.
“Lawmakers are oblivious to this, so having a law in place to protect these kids is very important.”
The federal ban that was struck down included a prohibition on “vacation cutting,” in which girls are transported to other countries for the purpose of having their genitals cut.
The painful procedure provides no health benefits but can cause lingering problems, including complications in childbirth, painful sexual intercourse and urinary infections. The practice is broadly condemned by the United Nations and the World Health Organization, who call it a violation of women’s rights.
Yet both organizations say the practice remains a pressing issue worldwide, both due to rising populations in countries where it occurs and increased emigration from those areas to other parts of the world.
Jallow says she worries that people who believe in the procedure will feel emboldened by the recent ruling.
As a countermeasure, Washington should join the other states that already have banned this practice. Doing so would send a clear message in support of women’s rights, while ensuring a strong legal deterrent remains in place against a practice that can cause irreversible damage to women and girls.