Ending Female Genital Mutilation In Massachusetts

Survivors of Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) (also known as Female Genital Cutting or FGC) - which involves removing part or all of a girl's outer sexual organs and can result in physical complications, death in childbirth and lifelong trauma - warn that American girls are being taken out of the country to be cut and may be subjected to mutilation on US soil. (The Guardian May 14, 2014, FGM Survivors; "It happens on US soil, but it happens in secret", video available.)

FGM has been illegal in the US under federal law since 1996 but lack of prosecutions and desire to hold onto what is seen as a deep-rooted cultural practice means American girls are still being cut. The absence of widespread knowledge and open discussion about FGM places these girls, many of whom are sent, unaware, on vacation to be cut, at risk.

The World Health Organization estimates that about 140 million women and girls worldwide are living with the consequences of FGM and according to estimates from UNICEF and the United Nations Population Fund at least 30 million girls under the age of 15 are at risk of being cut. (Sanctuary for Families 2013 "Female Genital Mutilation in the United States") The practice - most prevalent in Africa, the Middle East and parts of Asia and carried out between infancy and age 15 to maintain the purity of girls and acceptance for marriage - has spread to other parts of the world including the US, as immigrant populations have relocated. As of the 2000 US census, according to a report of the African Women's Health Center at Brigham and Women's Hospital, at least 228,000 American women and girls are at risk of being forced to undergo FGM.

The COVID-19 pandemic lockdowns have also lead to increased rates of FGM reported in East and West Africa, and increased challenges to prevention and protection for girls, according to this Policy Briefing from the Orchid Project. 

On  August 6, 2020, Massachusetts became the 39th state to pass a law outlawing female genital mutilation. An Act relative to the penalties for the crime of female genital mutilation passed the House on July 16th, and passed the Senate by unanimous vote on July 30, 2020. The law goes into effect on November 6th, 90 days from the date of enactment. MassKids joined with the Women's Bar Association and nearly 50 other organizations whose support was crucial to moving the bill into law. 

The World Health Organization recognizes FGM as a violation of the human rights of girls and women and describes it as “one of the most brutal gender-based acts of violence against little girls.” According to the WHO, more than 200 million girls and women alive today have been subjected to the practice. Over fourteen thousand at-risk women and girls reside in Massachusetts, which ranks our state as 12th in the nation for at-risk populations. The Massachusetts law fills a critical gap in existing state criminal laws, which top Massachusetts law enforcement officials  said would not cover FGM.

The bill includes education programs for communities with females who are at a high risk of undergoing genital mutilation, and creates interagency partnerships directed towards prevention. The Commissioner of Public Health is tasked with implementing an educational program on FGM prevention, and partnering with the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, the Department of Children and Families, the Executive Office of Public Safety and Security, the Attorney General's office, and other government and non-governmental organizations to protect and provide assistance to FGM victims. It also directs the Commissioner of Public Health to develop recommendations for training health services providers to recognize the risk factors and warning signs associated with FGM.

The bill sets a penalty of up to five years in state prison, or a fine of up to $10,000 and up to two and a half years in a county jail for anyone who knowingly commits female genital mutilation on someone under age 18. The same penalty applies to anyone who knowingly transports a person under the age of 18 within the commonwealth or outside the state for a FGM procedure.

FGM victims may also bring a civil action seeking damages, and treble damages may be awarded if the defendant's acts are deemed to be willful and malicious. Civil actions must be commenced within 10 years, but the time limit is tolled until the child has attained the age of 18.

Many thanks to Senate President Spilka, House Speaker DeLeo, and House and Senate bill sponsors for their leadership, support, and action in passing this critical protection for girls.