STATE HOUSE, BOSTON, FEB. 4, 2015…..Seeking to give prosecutors tools to combat ritual disfigurement of children that is common in certain areas of the world, Massachusetts lawmakers are seeking to add a new crime to the books.
Legislation sponsored by Rep. Sarah Peake and Sen. Will Brownsberger would establish criminal penalties for those who engage in female genital mutilation (FGM), according to a bill summary provided by the Women’s Bar Association of Massachusetts. Brownsberger is the Senate chairman of the Legislature’s Judiciary Committee.
Gov. Charlie Baker signed a proclamation declaring Feb. 1 through Feb. 7 Female Genital Mutilation Awareness Week. FGM is common in some countries in Africa and is practiced by certain groups elsewhere around the world, according to international organizations.
“This is done to suppress women, to make them marriage-able and acceptable,” said Deborah Benson, who chaired the bar association’s task force on the subject. The United Nations defines the practice as the “non-medical” altering or injuring of female genitalia, and the global body expressed concern that FGM procedures are conducted “more and more often” by medical professionals even though there is no medical justification. The World Health Organization attributes the popularity of FGM to “a mix of cultural, religious and social factors,” while saying “no religious scripts prescribe the practice.”
The bill would outlaw sending a child out of the state for the procedure in addition to specifically criminalizing it within Massachusetts.
“It’s not so much that the procedure is occurring here, but some recent immigrant communities, they’re sending their daughters back to their home countries, and it’s not just for a visit with grandma and grampa, but to have this disfiguring and brutal procedure performed,” Peake told the News Service. She said the effort has support from “leaders of the various immigrant communities,” and said her bill would in no way affect male circumcision.
According to the United Nations, FGM is carried out on girls as young as infants, and it can cause potentially deadly health problems. The UN said 140 million women and girls today have undergone “some form of FGM.”
Benson said data on FGM will be released Friday on the International Day of Zero Tolerance for Female Genital Mutilation.
“We are the 12th most at-risk state in the country,” Benson said. She said the at-risk calculation is based on the country of origin of the population.
Benson said the penalties for FGM in the bill follow the human trafficking statute, but said the FGM bill includes no mandatory minimum sentences. Human trafficking offenses carry a penalty of 5 to 20 years, or up to life in prison if the victim is under the age of 18. According to Benson, FGM has been illegal under federal law since 1996.
According to a fact-sheet provided by the bar association, 23 states have passed an FGM law. The fact sheet says parents and guardians would be subject to prosecution under the bill. The bill only applies to minors, bans travel out-of-state for FGM, creates a “medically necessary” exception, and includes provisions for outreach.
“Most of these laws are not as complete as the bill that we drafted,” Benson said. Joanne Golden, who is a member of the bar association’s task force, said the move to criminalize the practice in Massachusetts began in May 2013, and Benson said it was “in response” to a UN resolution.
Middlesex District Attorney Marian Ryan, who attended the Women’s Bar Association breakfast Wednesday at the State House, told the News Service she recalled one case that involved FGM.
Ryan said the FGM was a “piece of a larger case,” and the prosecutors used other statutes against the defendant, and said she knew the perpetrator was convicted on some of the charges he faced.
“A lot of times there’s a crime, there’s something that’s clearly an offense, and we just don’t have a finely tuned enough statute to address the issue,” Ryan said.