Politics

Vermont lawmakers urged to ban female genital mutilation


George Till
Rep. George Till, D-Jericho, sponsored a bill to ban female genital mutilation. Photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

An anti-female genital mutilation organization is urging Vermont lawmakers, and those from 15 other states, to enact laws banning the procedure. 

While female genital mutilation, or genital cutting, was outlawed in the United States for two decades through federal legislation, the law was ruled unconstitutional in 2018 by a federal judge. That case prompted anti-genital mutilation activists to turn to state legislators to fill the current federal void to deter the procedures. A bill to ban female genital mutilation in Vermont passed in the House during the last legislative session, but is now stalled in the Senate.

Judge Bernard Friedman, who sits on the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan, ruled in 2018 that the federal law enacted in 1996 banning female genital mutilation was unconsitutional because Congress did not have the authority to pass it. Because genital mutilation is considered a “local criminal activity,” the procedure should be regulated by states, Friedman determined.  

Which is why state legislators need to act urgently, said Liz Yore, the head of EndFGMToday, an organization that aims to end female genital mutilation in the US. 

Yore said she is worried that states like Vermont that don’t have protections could provide an open legal window for procedures to take place. But like other illicit markets, it’s hard to tell for sure how often this loophole may be exploited. 

“There’s no going back once a little girl is cut. It destroys her life,” Yore said. “We have to send a loud and clear message that this is not going to be tolerated in Vermont.”

The World Health Organization defines female gential mutilation as “procedures that intentionally alter or cause injury to the female genital organs for non-medical reasons.” There is no health benefit to the procedure and the practice can cause severe bleeding, infections and complications in childbirth, according to the WHO.

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Genital mutilation most commonly occurs in Asia, the Middle East and Africa. Among certain cultures, parts of female genitalia are viewed as unfeminine and are cut to ensure premarital virginity, according to the WHO. Some argue that female genital mutilation is an important cultural tradition, which should not be criminalized by western cultures claiming societal superiority. 

A 2013 study conducted by the Population Reference Bureau found that up to 507,000 women and girls in the United States had undergone genital mutilation or were at risk of undergoing the procedure. The PRP also found that about 650 women and girls are at risk in Vermont. The study did not indicate if or how many Vermont women or girls have undergone the procedure.

Rep. George Till, D-Jericho, introduced the bill that would ban female genital mutilation in Vermont in part because of the state’s growing Somali population. Till said Somali residents testified in support of the bill while it was in the House and that he has not heard of any pushback against it. 

Till, an obstetrician, said he has seen first-hand the effects of genital mutilation. 

However, similar laws have been shot down over concerns that they single out religious or ethnic communities. The ACLU of Maine did not support a 2017 bill that would ban and criminalize female genital cutting for this reason. It preferred educational prevention efforts instead.

James Duff Lyall, executive director of the ACLU of Vermont, said the organization is opposed to the practice of female genital mutilation, but would have to see specific legislation before commenting on it.

Senator Ginny Lyons, D-Chittenden, chair of the Health and Welfare committee where the bill currently sits, said her committee ran out of time to move it forward before the end of the session. The bill came to the committee April 12. The session ended May 29. 

Lyons said Vermont is behind on enacting laws to keep female genital mutilation from occurring within the state. She said her committee is planning to make the bill a priority when the next legislative session starts in January. 

“We’re not going to let it die,” Lyons said. “We absolutely need to have more protections in place.” 

Till said he’s not surprised that the bill was not passed last session because it was handed off from the Judiciary Committee to the Health and Welfare Committee late in the session. Rep. Sarah Copeland-Hanzas, D-Bradford, who was a sponsor of the bill, said she also wasn’t surprised it didn’t pass the Senate for similar reasons, but she hopes her colleagues greenlight the bill quickly. 

“I hope there is a greater recognition of urgency to move this bill forward than there was last year,” Copeland-Hanzas said. 

According to EndFGMToday, the following states do not have laws protecting against female genital mutilation: Alabama, Alaska, Connecticut, Hawaii, Indiana, Kentucky, Maine, Massachusetts, Mississippi, Montana, Nebraska, New Mexico, Vermont, Washington and Wyoming.

Editor’s note: This story was updated on Sept. 25 at 4:55 p.m. with comments from the ACLU. A previous version of the story inaccurately referred to a “staff shortage,” in explaining why the ACLU was not available for comment. ACLU spokesperson Beth Nolan said nobody was available to speak on the issue before VTDigger’s deadline.

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Grace Elletson

About Grace

Grace Elletson is VTDigger's government accountability reporter, covering politics, state agencies and the Legislature. She is part of the BOLD Women's Leadership Network and a recent graduate of Ithaca College, where she was editor in chief of the Ithacan. She previously interned for the Chronicle of Higher Education, The Christian Science Monitor and The Cape Cod Times, her hometown newspaper.

Email: [email protected]

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