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Syrian Government and Rebels pour Reinforcements into northern city of Aleppo

Half-million civilians remained trapped in the city, and at least 230 civilians are known to have been killed there in the past two weeks

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Syria Democratic Forces (SDF) fighters greet civilians who were evacuated by the SDF from an Islamic State-controlled neighborhood of Manbij, in Aleppo Governorate, Syria, Aug. 12, 2016.
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Syria, August16, 2016: On Monday, the Syrian government and rebel factions seeking to topple it poured reinforcements into the besieged northern city of Aleppo. Both sides encouraged for a decisive battle that diplomats are trying to avert. Monitors said as many as 2,000 pro-government fighters had arrived in the devastated city since late Sunday, prompting the head of the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which monitors Syria’s civil war, to warn that “the great battle of Aleppo” is, in a word, “imminent.

Separately, the government-leaning Syrian daily Al-Watan reported Monday that the army had received “the necessary military reinforcements” to retake areas of the ravaged city from which it retreated under heavy rebel fire Saturday.

Rebel militia, including al-Qaida-linked fighters, captured the eastern part of the city in 2012 and have battled to a stalemate against government forces for control of the city since then.

Monitors say as many as a half-million civilians remained trapped in the city, and at least 230 civilians are known to have been killed there in the past two weeks.

A woman embraces a Syria Democratic Forces (SDF) fighter after she was evacuated with others by the SDF from an Islamic State-controlled neighborhood of Manbij, in Aleppo Governorate, Syria, Aug. 12, 2016.
A woman embraces a Syria Democratic Forces (SDF) fighter after she was evacuated with others by the SDF from an Islamic State-controlled neighborhood of Manbij, in Aleppo Governorate, Syria, Aug. 12, 2016.

Russia, U.S. deal

The latest buildup comes as Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu, speaking on Russian television, said Moscow and Washington are moving closer to a deal that could help ease the massive humanitarian crisis gripping the once vibrant city.

“Step by step we are nearing an arrangement … exclusively about Aleppo, that would allow us to find common ground” that could bring peace to the territory, Shoigu said Monday.

In Washington, U.S. State Department spokeswoman Elizabeth Trudeau, responding to Shoigu’s remarks, told reporters that U.S. and Russian envoys remain in close contact on the Aleppo crisis.

“We have seen the (Shoigu) reports and have nothing to announce,” she said.

This undated image posted online July 18, 2016, by supporters of the Islamic State militant group on an anonymous photo-sharing website, shows Islamic State fighters firing their weapons during clashes with the Kurdish-led Syria Democratic Forces in Manbij, in Aleppo province, Syria.
This undated image posted online July 18, 2016, by supporters of the Islamic State militant group on an anonymous photo-sharing website, shows Islamic State fighters firing their weapons during clashes with the Kurdish-led Syria Democratic Forces in Manbij, in Aleppo province, Syria.

IS ‘caliphate’

The multi-sided Syrian civil war pits the government forces of President Bashar al-Assad and his Russian allies against a loosely knit coalition of rebels seeking to drive Assad from power. That coalition includes al-Qaida-linked fighters, making Western governments reluctant to send arms to the rebels.

The third major party to the five-year-old conflict, the extremist Islamic State, is seeking to establish an Islamist “caliphate” in large swathes of Syria and neighboring Iraq. The group has used widely circulated videos to show its fighters slaughtering hundreds of civilians as it seeks to expand its rule.

Separately, the Syria Democratic Forces, formed in 2015 with U.S. support, has focused on driving IS fighters from strongholds along the Turkish border.

The United Nations estimates as many as 400,000 people have been killed, most of them civilians, since fighting first erupted near Damascus in 2011. (VOA)

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The Attention Shifts To The U.S. As It Strikes Down FGM Law

Looking beyond the Michigan case, Jones said the key to stopping FGM isn’t just legislation but also education.

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FILE - A T-shirt warns against female genital mutilation. Its wearer attends an event, discouraging harmful practices such as FGM, at a girls high school in Imbirikani, Kenya, April 21, 2016.Image source: VOA

When a U.S. district judge last month ruled a federal ban on female genital mutilation unconstitutional, he undercut the federal government and alarmed anti-FGM activists, who hope to eradicate the practice.

The World Health Organization calls FGM, also known as female circumcision, a human rights violation of women and girls, with no health benefits.

Some 200 million women and girls around the world, mainly in Africa, have experienced FGM, the WHO says.

In his opinion, Judge Bernard Friedman called FGM “despicable,” but also “a local criminal activity” that must be addressed at the state level. In enacting a federal law, he said, Congress overstepped.

Now, local lawmakers, advocates and newspapers are calling for state bans that equal or surpass the scope of the federal law that was struck down.

Female Genital Mutilation, FGM, judge
A badge reads “The power of labor against FGM” is seen on a volunteer during a conference on International Day of Zero Tolerance for Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) in Cairo, Egypt, Feb. 6, 2018. (VOA)

‘Never again’

The case Friedman ruled on centers around Dr. Jumana Nagarwala, an emergency room physician accused of performing FGM on at least 100 girls in Michigan for more than a decade.

Prosecutors have focused their case on nine girls, aged 7 to 12, from three states. The girls allegedly were subjected to FGM with the aid of Nagarwala and seven others, including the girls’ mothers.

Defense attorneys say the procedure amounted to only a “nick” on the girls performed as part of a religious ritual — not FGM. But they also argued in July that the federal law banning FGM is unconstitutional.

State Senator Rick Jones, who represents Michigan’s 24th district, told VOA by phone that he was shocked to learn about Nagarwala’s case and strongly disagrees with Friedman’s ruling.

Last year, Jones became the spokesperson for a package of bills outlawing FGM statewide. The legislation passed with overwhelming bipartisan support.

Female Circumcision, FGM
The barbaric practice of genitalia mutilation has been banned in developed nations. Wikimedia

Now, Michigan has some of the toughest FGM laws in the country.

Health-care providers convicted of performing FGM face up to 15 years in prison, along with the permanent loss of their medical licenses. Parents who take their daughters to doctors to be cut can lose custody.

The 1996 federal law, meanwhile, stipulated up to five years in prison and fines for medical providers who perform FGM.

“We wanted to send a strong message around the world: Never again bring your girls to Michigan for this horrible procedure,” Jones said.

Across the U.S., 27 states have passed laws banning FGM, many of which have been written in recent years and include penalties that go beyond the federal law, which also criminalizes so-called “vacation cutting,” the practice of taking girls out of the United States to have FGM performed overseas.

News organizations are among those pushing for an expansion of state laws. Last month, the Seattle Times editorial board called for a ban in Washington, one of 23 states yet to outlaw FGM.

FGM
A doctor checks her phone as she poses for a photograph in Mumbai, India, June 8, 2016. The 50-year-old woman defends what is widely considered female genital mutilation within her small, prosperous Dawoodi Bohra community in India. VOA

Earlier this month, the Los Angeles Times editorial board said all 50 states should ban the “barbaric” practice, in light of Friedman’s ruling.

Religious ritual?

The health-care providers and families involved in the Michigan case belong to Dawoodi Bohra, a Shi’ite Muslim sect based in India with about 2 million followers worldwide.

According to a study published earlier this year, FGM, called khafd in Dawoodi Bohra communities, is widespread in the sect and involves cutting the clitoral hood or part of the clitoris, without an anesthetic, when girls turn seven.

The study, commissioned by WeSpeakOut, an advocacy group focused on eradicating khafd, also found that three-quarters of Dawoodi Bohra women have experienced FGM.

The severity and nature of FGM can vary.

Health-care providers have identified four types of FGM. Khafd involves Type 1 FGM. Other types involve removing all of the external genitalia and narrowing the vaginal opening.

Jones rejects the idea that there’s a religious basis for the procedure, however it’s performed.

FGM
FILE – A counselor holds up cards used to educate women about female genital mutilation (FGM). VOA

“Across the world, this has been practiced by Christians, pagans, Muslims, even a small Jewish sect in Ethiopia,” he said.

“This is not about a religion,” he added. “This is about men attempting to control women’s behavior by this horrible procedure.”

The WHO identifies both short-term and permanent harms associated with the practice. Immediate concerns include severe pain, infections and, in some cases, death. Long term, women and girls subjected to FGM face a range of physiological and psychological complications that can affect menstruation, childbirth and sexual health.

The United States has been unequivocal in condemning the practice, saying “the U.S. government considers FGM/C to be a serious human rights abuse, and a form of gender-based violence and child abuse” on a fact sheet posted to the Citizenship & Immigration Services website.

Education and legislation

Friedman’s November decision is the latest in a series of setbacks for prosecutors.

Nagarwala spent seven months in 2017 in jail before 16 friends posted a $4.5 million unsecured bond, against the pleas of prosecutors, who argued Nagarwala could silence potential witnesses or even flee the country if released.

FGM
KAMELI, KENYA – AUGUST 12: A Masaai villager displays the traditional blade used to circumcise young girls August 12, 2007 in Kameli, Kenya. Maasai are a pastoral group mostly clustered in the Rift Valley. They practice circumcision on both boys and girls during puberty years as a rite of passage to adulthood. VOA

And in January, the judge dismissed charges that Nagarwala and a second doctor, Fakhruddin Attar, transported minors with the intent to engage in criminal sexual activity, an offense that carries a lifetime sentence.

Nagarwala still faces conspiracy and obstruction charges that could result in decades in prison.

The trial is now set to begin next April, the Detroit Free Press reported last month. However, the prosecution could appeal last month’s decision, drawing the case out further.

Also Read: Somalia Calls To Outlaw Female Genital Mutilation

Looking beyond the Michigan case, Jones said the key to stopping FGM isn’t just legislation but also education.

“What we have to do is continue to fight this worldwide. This is a global problem,” Jones said.

“It is a violation of human rights,” he said. “And I’m going to continue speaking out worldwide against this horrible, horrible practice that must end.” (VOA)