For more than 20 years Iowa lawmakers have taken refuge behind a federal ban on female cutting. But with the federal law struck down, regulation and punishment now rests on the states. Avoiding an admittedly uncomfortable policy debate about female genital mutilation is no longer an option.
According to government estimates from three years ago, more than 500,000 girls and women in the U.S. have either experienced this form of mutilation or are at risk. Nearly 5,000 of those are Iowans.
We believe it is important for the public to understand exactly how harmful these cultural rituals can be, but we also know providing such understanding requires words that create graphic and disturbing images. Readers unwilling or unable to stomach explicit language should skip the next three paragraphs.
There are four basic types of female genital mutilation, each physically and emotionally harmful. The least invasive is known as a “nick,” which typically involves use of a razor or needle to prick the clitoris, often to draw blood. In some instances, cutting or scraping of other genital areas is done.
A clitoridectomy is removal of the clitoris and often the clitoral hood. Intermediate infibulation involves removal of the clitoris and cutting of the labia minora. Cutting of the labia majora can sometimes be a part of this procedure.
The most severe form is total infibulation or vaginal fusing. In this procedure the clitoris and inner labia minor are removed and the outer labia is cut or scraped as are the walls of the vagina, then the entire genital area is sewn together. Often the feet or legs are bound in an effort to encourage growth of scar tissue to either narrow or close the vaginal opening.
There is no health benefit to any of these procedures, which are most often done on girls under the age of 15, but each can cause a multitude of physical and mental health problems. Rarely is anesthetic used, and the trauma holds immediate risk of shock, significant blood loss, and infection. In the longer term the procedures have caused recurring bladder and urinary tract infections, cysts, infertility, psychosexual difficulties and childbirth complications. At times these complications have led to death.
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The significance of the procedures are not tied to mandates from any major religious belief, but are cultural. They are part of a misguided community belief that girls’ and women’s bodies should be reduced to procreation alone and, to that end, that female sexuality must be controlled. They are designed to specifically reduce the female libido and decrease, if not end, physical pleasure derived from sexual contact.
None of these rituals have justification — not in Iowa, not anywhere. Allowing such abuse of females of any age is a travesty born by a severe lack of public policy leadership.
Two bills making these procedures a felony have been filed — House File 63 and, just this week, House Study Bill 115. Since Iowa is one of 23 states without protections in place, time is of the essence. All neighboring states, except Nebraska, have outlawed these procedures. Iowa must not become a Midwestern safe-haven for this abuse.
While we hope to see more from state lawmakers in terms of public awareness and education about the dangers of female genital mutilation, the first step is making all such procedures a crime. We urge readers to contact their legislators, and we urge the Legislature to act now.
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