RICHMOND – International groups that work to combat violence against women and girls are praising the Virginia General Assembly for approving legislation that makes female genital mutilation a crime.
“Passing a law that explicitly outlaws the practice sends a clear message that this is human rights abuse and is not acceptable in the U.S.,” said Amanda Parker, interim executive director of the AHA Foundation. The group, based in New York, was founded by Ayaan Hirsi Ali, a women’s rights activist who was subjected to FGM while growing up in Somalia.
According to the AHA Foundation, 24 states have laws criminalizing FGM. Virginia is poised to join the list after lawmakers approved SB 1060. Under the bill, it would be a Class 1 misdemeanor to perform a circumcision or infibulation of the labia majora, labia minora or clitoris of a minor – or for parents or legal guardians to consent to the procedure for a girl in their care. The crime would be punishable by up to 12 months in jail and a $2,500 fine.
The bill passed unanimously in the House on Wednesday and the Senate on Thursday. It now goes to Gov. Terry McAuliffe.
“I would like to see (this legislation) in all 50 states,” said Shelby Quast, policy director for Equality Now, an advocacy group for gender equality.
SB 1060, sponsored by Sen. Richard Black, R-Loudoun, was one of two bills this legislative session calling for the criminalization of FGM. The other was SB 1241, introduced by Republican Sen. Siobhan Dunnavant, an obstetrician in Henrico County. During the committee process, the two bills were merged and went forward as SB 1060.
No law in Virginia bans the specific practice of FGM. The offense falls in the category of malicious wounding, which is a felony.
Black and Dunnavant originally proposed that performing or allowing a female circumcision be a felony punishable by at least five years in prison and a fine of up to $1 million.
However, incarcerating someone costs money, and the General Assembly has been trying to close a budget shortfall. Because of the fiscal impact of making FGM a felony, the bill’s supporters feared it might fail, according to Mallory McCune, Dunnavant’s legislative assistant. So they agreed to reduce the penalty to a misdemeanor.
Quast said she wished SB 1060 “matched the federal penalty,” which calls for five years in prison. However, she noted that still can happen under Virginia law.
Under the legislation, Quast said, a person charged with performing a female circumcision could also be charged with malicious wounding, resulting in harsher penalties than a misdemeanor conviction allows. “It makes it very clear that this law that has just been passed does not preclude prosecution under any other statute,” she said.
Parker isn’t so sure. She said the legislation is a step in the right direction, but Virginia would have the weakest penalty of any state to outlaw the practice of FGM.
But a criminal charge isn’t the only action that can be taken under SB 1060. The bill allows a girl who has been circumcised to sue the person who did it. McCune said Virginia will be one of only two states where victims of FGM have civil recourse. Quast said that is significant.
“It allows the victim of FGM, up to 10 years after her 18th birthday, to actually sue those that subjected her to FGM or did the cutting,” Quast said. “It gives more rights to somebody who may not recognize the violation at the time.”
FGM is common in parts of Africa, the Middle East and Asia. It is also prevalent in some immigrant communities in North America, Europe and Australia.
A report last year by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimated that more than 513,000 females in the United States – including 169,000 minors – were at risk of or have experienced FGM.
“Educating communities about the lifelong psychological and health consequences associated with this practice, as well as its illegality, is needed,” Parker said.
Parker and Quast said teachers, doctors, law enforcement officers and social service providers need training on how to recognize and respond when girls have been subjected to female circumcision.
“We see the law more as a prevention tool than a prosecution tool with regard to FGM,” Quast said.