Final vote held on bill outlawing ‘barbaric’ female genital mutilation in Utah

ST. GEORGE — In an effort to avert a lifetime of potentially crippling medical consequences associated with a practice performed on young women and girls in some cultures, Utah state lawmakers have passed a bill banning female genital mutilation.

A woman campaigning against female genital mutilation conducts an awareness session in Somalia, where the procedure is widely practiced, Jan. 25, 2014 | Public domain image, St. George News

The bill, designated in the 2019 Utah Legislature as HB 430 – “Prohibition of Genital Mutilation,” passed with a unanimous vote in the Senate Wednesday. Having passed in the House last week, the bill is now enrolled to become law and is headed for the governor’s desk.

Female genital mutilation is any procedure involving the partial or total removal of the external female genitalia or other permanent injury to the genitalia. The practice is prevalent in some African, Middle Eastern and Southeast Asian countries but also affects large populations of immigrants from these regions in the U.S., including in Utah.

The procedure, often performed on girls between the ages of 4 and 14 in an effort to ensure virginity, can have life-altering medical consequences, including recurrent bladder and urinary tract infections, cysts, infertility and complications during intercourse and childbirth. It can result in post-traumatic stress disorder for women who experience severe pain and shock during and after the nonmedical procedure.

Considering the myriad detrimental effects associated with female genital mutilation, the bill would make it a second-degree felony to perform the procedure, equal to existing penalties associated with mangling and dismemberment. The practice is also designated as a form of child abuse.

Medical professionals would also face permanent license revocation for performing the procedure, though the bill allows exceptions for surgical procedures necessary for the physical health of a patient.

“Certainly we can all agree that little girls should not be tortured, and that’s the nature of this bill,” legislation sponsor Rep. Ken Ivory, R-West Jordan, said Monday during a Senate committee meeting discussing the proposal at the state capitol in Salt Lake City. “I think we can all agree that it’s our highest duty to protect innocent children who cannot protect themselves.”

Rep. Ken Ivory, R-West Jordan, date and location not specified | Photo courtesy of the Utah Legislature, St. George News

Ivory said he was inspired to introduce the legislation after speaking with Amanda Parker, executive director of the Aha Foundation, a New York-based nonprofit established by Ayaan Hirsi Ali that works to eliminate female genital mutilation, “honor” violence and forced marriages.

While speaking with Parker, Ivory said he doubted female genital mutilation was a problem in Utah, but it only took Parker a matter of seconds to pull up statistics convincing him otherwise: According to the Aha Foundation, there are an estimated 1,800 girls who have already been subjected to mutilation or are at risk of being subject to the procedure in the state of Utah.

“I was stunned,” Ivory said. “Absolutely stunned.”

Since a ban on the female genital mutilation was struck down at the federal level in the interest of preserving states’ rights with regard to crime and punishment, Ivory said it was imperative to implement a state statute against the “barbaric” practice.

Utah joins 28 other states that have already banned the practice, with several other state Legislatures also poised to implement bans this year.

Parker, who spoke to legislators via teleconference during a committee meeting last week, said there are about 513,000 women and girls in the U.S. who are at risk of undergoing or already have undergone female genital mutilation. Globally, that number is estimated to be 200 million women.

Amanda Parker, executive director of the Aha Foundation, date and location not specified | Photo courtesy of the Aha Foundation, St. George News

“FGM is a form of gender-based violence that is internationally recognized as a violation of women and girls’ fundamental human rights,” Parker said, explaining that the practice is motivated by beliefs about what is considered proper female sexual behavior, acting as a way to reduce a woman’s libido to safe-guard virginity or protect against infidelity.

“FGM is a harmful traditional practice that is not particular to any religious group nor prescribed by any faith,” Parker said. “Although FGM has been coopted by some patriarchal societies and religious sects, there is no major religion that requires FGM.”

While the legislation was up for discussion, some lawmakers said they had little to no knowledge of the practice, especially with regard to its effect on Utah residents.

Part of the bill aims to create alleviate ignorance of the practice by requiring the state’s Department of Health to create an education program alerting at-risk communities to the health risks and emotional trauma of female genital mutilation.

According to the bill, the education program will provide training materials for law enforcement, teachers and others who are mandated to report abuse. The program would help trainees recognize the signs that an individual may be a victim of genital mutilation and the best practices for responding to the crime, which often isn’t reported until many years after the procedure.

If the statute of limitations on filing criminal charges has passed, the bill states that a victim of the procedure will still have up to 10 years after the procedure or their 18th birthday to file civil suit against the perpetrator.

Read more: See all St. George News reports and opinions on Utah Legislature 2019 issues

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