Staff Columnist

Iowa House bill would protect young girls

The Grand Stairway at the Iowa State Capitol building in Des Moines on Tuesday, Jan. 10, 2017. (Stephen Mally/The Gazette)
The Grand Stairway at the Iowa State Capitol building in Des Moines on Tuesday, Jan. 10, 2017. (Stephen Mally/The Gazette)

Seven members of the Iowa House have filed the first bill of this General Assembly to replace a federal law struck down last year protecting young girls from female genital mutilation.

The bill, House File 63, was introduced on Jan. 23 and referred to the Judiciary Committee. All seven sponsors are Democrats: Marti Anderson of Des Moines, Mark Smith of Marshalltown, Mary Mascher of Iowa City, Monica Kurth of Davenport, Mary Gaskill of Ottumwa, Charlie McConkey of Council Bluffs and Jeff Kurtz of Fort Madison. The new proposal is straightforward and similar to a bill filed solely by Anderson in 2016.

Until last fall, federal law addressed this unnecessary procedure; similar bans have been enacted in more than 40 countries. The crime had been on U.S. books since 1996, and amended in 2013 to prevent girls from being trafficked out of the country for procedures. That changed with a federal court ruling in November.

As part of a Michigan case involving nine 7-year-old girls, U.S. District Court Judge Bernard A. Friedman ruled that female genital mutilation was “local criminal activity” for states to regulate, not a commercial activity that could be regulated by Congress.

With the federal ban revoked, Iowa became one of 23 states without a specific law to protect at-risk girls.

Female genital mutilation is generally performed on girls under the age of 15. It involves removal of female genitalia — a partial or total removal of the clitoris, and often the labia minora. In some cases the vaginal opening is narrowed or sewn shut.

There is no health benefit. These procedures are done to take away a woman’s ability to experience sexual pleasure in some ill-conceived attempt to safeguard her chastity until marriage. Girls undergoing the procedure often experience chronic infections or incontinence, in addition to lifelong emotional and physical scars. And, as the Michigan case made all too clear, this isn’t some far-flung problem; there are at-risk girls in the Midwest who need members of the Iowa Legislature to act.

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The bill now before the House would make the procedure a Class D felony, regardless of consent by the minor undergoing the procedure or that minor’s legal guardians, unless a legitimate need for medical intervention can be shown. Transporting a girl out-of-state for such a procedure could also be prosecuted as the same class of felony.

In Iowa, Class D felonies are the lowest tier, including such offenses as prostitution and pimping. They are punishable by up to five years in prison and a fine ranging from $750 to $7,500. While I’d like to see statewide advocacy and education about the harm of female genital mutilation as well as stiffer penalties for those who willingly engage in physical harm that can last a lifetime, making this practice an offense is the top priority.

If Iowa fails to make this procedure a criminal offense, girls in our state will be unprotected. Worse yet, as more states act to close the new gap in federal law, Iowa could become a safe haven for such abuse.

Please reach out to your representatives, especially those on the House Judiciary Committee, and urge them to act on this bill.

• Comments: @LyndaIowa, (319) 368-8513, lynda.waddington@thegazette.com

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