24 states have no laws against female genital mutilation. Here’s why that needs to change.

24 states have no laws against female genital mutilation. Here’s why that needs to change.
Surgical instruments used in the process of clitoral restorative surgery.
Source: Carl de Souza/Getty Images
Surgical instruments used in the process of clitoral restorative surgery.
Source: Carl de Souza/Getty Images

Under a series of new laws signed Tuesday, Michigan became the 26th state to place a criminal ban on female genital mutilation, or FGM, according to NPR.

The new legislation imposes a prison sentence of up to 15 years for those found guilty of performing FGM, and doctors who carry out these procedures may have their operating licenses revoked, NPR reported.

“Those who commit these horrendous crimes should be held accountable for their actions, and these bills stiffen the penalties for offenders while providing additional support to victims,” Gov. Rick Snyder said in a statement to the outlet. “This legislation is an important step toward eliminating this despicable practice in Michigan while empowering victims to find healing and justice.”

The laws come shortly after a Michigan doctor was federally charged for performing FGM procedures on multiple young girls.

While many anti-FGM advocacy groups across the country are celebrating Michigan’s new legislation, the laws also shed light on a grim statistic: 24 states have no laws banning FGM.

A female toddler in Indonesia poses for a photo amongst her relatives before being circumcised.
Source: Bay Ismoyo/Getty Images

The practice of female genital mutilation is widespread

The two dozen states that lack specific female genital cutting legislation consequently fall under federal law, which has criminalized FGM in the United States since 1996, according to anti-women’s violence advocacy group AHA Foundation. An amendment added in 2013 makes it illegal to transport girls from the U.S. to their home country for the procedure, in a practice known as “vacation cutting.”

Also known as female genital cutting or female circumcision, FGM is an archaic ritual practiced across the world that involves either cutting off the clitoris, removing the labia, narrowing the vaginal opening or executing other painful alterations to a woman’s genitals, according to the World Health Organization.

To date, more than 200 million women and girls have been victims of FGM, according to the WHO.

Many cultures believe female circumcision purifies women and turns them into better wives by decreasing their libido. However, extensive research has proven that the practice offers no health benefits whatsoever and can result in intense pain, shock or death, according to the WHO.

The Centers for Disease Control estimate that approximately 513,000 girls are at risk for genital cutting in the United States. Because the procedure is illegal on a federal level, AHA Foundation Senior Director Amanda Parker said experts assume most procedures are done discreetly in basements or other unprofessional environments by family members and community practitioners.

Lack of state laws against FGM often results in lesser sentences

While the United States’ federal legislation may appear sufficient on the surface, Parker explained that in states without their own laws, FGM allegations often get swept under the rug. In fact, the Michigan doctor’s case represents the very first time a federal FGM prosecution has taken place in the United States in the law’s 21 years, the Washington Post reported.

According to Parker, this is largely because prosecutors often defer to state laws when charging a crime, rather than abiding by federal legislation. In states with their own laws related to cutting, this can lead to a criminal FGM state prosecution. But in states that solely follow the federal law, she said FGM typically gets categorized as child abuse, assault or other charges, which frequently results in lesser sentences.

“That’s one reason that state legislation is important,” Parker said in an interview with Mic. “It gives prosecutors the tools that they need to really fight this.”

Approximately 513,000 girls are at risk for genital cutting in the United States.

Former NPR and Mother Jones editor Tasneem Raja detailed her own experience with FGM in a Mother Jones piece in April. Raja said the memory of the procedure — which she underwent at about 7 years old — was repressed until the age of 13, when she watched a video about female circumcision in Africa in a high school social studies class.

From that point on, Raja wrote that she’s been haunted by traumatic memories surrounding the procedure that she and many of her friends experienced as young girls, right here in the U.S.

“Two Indian aunties I had never seen before held me down on a mattress and pulled down my underwear as I squirmed to get free,” Raja wrote in the piece. “One of them held a small pair of silver scissors, like the ones my dad used to keep his beard trimmed. Then, the sudden sensation of a tight, mean little pinch between my legs.”

Residents pass a kiosk that is used as a clinic where girls are circumcised by a barber, in the Imbaba area of Giza, Egypt.
Source: Maya Alleruzzo/AP

Parker said state laws are necessary to fight instances like Raja’s, as they often impose punishments harsher than the “lenient” federal legislation, which caps prison sentences for those found guilty of FGM to five years. State laws can also extend the statute of limitations for those reporting FGM, Parker said, which can encourage girls who remain traumatized from the procedure years later to report the incident when they’re comfortable.

“In addition to the fact that it’s happening to little girls who are usually so small that they can’t stand up for themselves, it’s also done on a very private part of the woman’s anatomy,” Parker said. “And even in Western cultures, it’s something that people don’t talk about very much — it’s the genitals of little girls. There are a lot of reasons this doesn’t come to light very often.”


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Abbey Schubert

Abbey is an editorial intern with Mic's news team. She's entering her senior year at Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism, where she studies magazine writing and editing.

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