DES MOINES — Legislation to ban female genital cutting faced opposition Thursday from advocacy groups and women who said they were victims of the practice.
Rather than criminalize female genital cutting, which is practiced in Africa and parts of the Middle East and Asia, lawmakers were told education is the key to preventing the practice in Iowa.
Criminalization “has implications that will traumatize the communities that are already traumatized,” said Hibo Jama of Nisaa African Family Services, an Des Moines-based organization that provides support for African immigrants and refugees in Iowa who have experienced sexual assault and domestic violence.
The bill could make women who have undergone female genital cutting “feel they’re looked down upon” and drive the practice underground, Jama said.
Jama made her remarks during a House judiciary subcommittee hearing on House Study Bill 115 that would make it a Class D felony to perform female genital cutting or take a girl outside of Iowa to have it performed. A Class D felony is punishable by up to five years in prison and a fine of $70 to $7,500.
However, lobbyist Threase Harms told the subcommittee she represents Sudanese women who support the measure and want the penalties imposed.
“They are really trying to change the situation for younger women,” Harms said. “It creates trauma for the rest of their lives.”
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Female genital cutting, also referred to as female genital mutilation, is often performed on girls between the ages of 5 and 10 years old — and in some cases as early as a few months after birth — to preserve chastity and discourage sexual desire and premarital sex, Jama and Bawraqo Aden, also of Nisaa, told legislators.
In addition to pain, shock, hemorrhaging and infection when female genital cutting is performed, it can lead to bladder and urinary tract infections, infertility and childbirth complications.
There are no female genital cutting practitioners in Iowa, according to Nisaa, but some families return to their native country to have it performed on their daughters.
While they agreed with the intent of the law, Jama and Aden said it should be phased in over time — five years, they said — to allow for education efforts among their community as well as the health care community. Jama said providers need to know how to care for women who have had female genital cutting performed on them.
“I’m a victim,” Aden said. “I don’t want any girl to go through that, but we want education before we do anything else.”
Lobbyists for victims of domestic and sexual assault agreed with that approach.
“If prevention is our goal, then this (law) isn’t a terribly effective way to go about it,” said Laura Hessburg of the Iowa Coalition Against Domestic Violence.
Community-led education is consistent with efforts by the World Health Organization and UNICEF, said Amy Campbell of the Iowa Coalition Against Sexual Assault.
“Laws alone won’t change the behavior. It has to come with that social, behavioral, cultural change that is going on,” she said.
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However, Rep. Marti Anderson, D-Des Moines, who proposed a similar law in the past, disagreed with suggestions that child endangerment laws are strong enough to address female genital cutting.
“I don’t think taking someone’s pleasure organ away is simply child endangerment,” she said. “People need to be held accountable for taking an organ away from a girl child as much as if they took the scrotum away from boy child.”
Subcommittee members Rep. Ashley Hinson, R-Marion, and Rep. Liz Bennett, D-Cedar Rapids, plan to move the bill to the full committee but expect there will be changes. Phasing in the ban over five years is too long, they said.
“We have a responsibility to the girls of this state to protect them,” Bennett said.
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