Wednesday March 20, 2019
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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.

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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.

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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.

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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)

Next Story

U.S. Government Human Rights Report Shows ‘Amber’ Warning Light Situation in Hong Kong

"Human rights issues included substantial interference with the rights of peaceful assembly and freedom of association [and] restrictions on political participation," the report said.

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The flags of Hong Kong (left) and its communist ruler China, in file photo. RFA

A U.S. government human rights report is ‘an amber light’ for the human rights situation in Hong Kong, with some of the city’s traditional freedoms under threat, commentators told RFA.

The State Department highlighted several areas of concern in its 2018Human Rights Report published last week, in particular, “encroachment” by the ruling Chinese Communist Party in Beijing on Hong Kong’s promised autonomy.

“Human rights issues included substantial interference with the rights of peaceful assembly and freedom of association [and] restrictions on political participation,” the report said.

The report cited multiple sources as saying that Chinese operativesmonitored some political activists, nongovernmental organizations(NGOs), and academics who criticized Beijing’s policies in Hong Kong,which is supposed to be separate legal jurisdiction under the terms of the “one country, two systems” framework.

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The move came as the Hong Kong Journalists Association warned ofincreasing self-censorship among local journalists, often among mediaoutlets with business interests in mainland China. VOA

It also pointed to cross-border detentions and abductions, citing thedisappearance of businessman Xiao Jianhua and the cross-border rendition of Hong Kong bookseller Gui Minhai, who is a Swedish citizen.

“Xiao’s and other abductions show the Chinese Central Government’swillingness to act contrary to the rule of law and undermine Hong Kong’s autonomy,” the report said.

It said Hong Kong and Chinese officials had restricted, or sought to restrict, the right to express or report on political protest and dissent, particularly the notion of independence for Hong Kong.

U.S.

“But if Hong Kong’s human rights situation continues to deteriorate in the next couple of years … for example, if we see more kidnappings, then I think the U.S. is very likely to abolish Hong Kong’s status as a separate trading territory.” VOA

The trial of dozens of protesters, including key figures, after the 2014 Occupy Central pro-democracy movement on public order charges had”raised the cost of protesting government policies and led to concerns the government was using the law to suppress political dissent.”

The report also cited the jailing of two disqualified lawmakers, Sixtus Leung and Yao Wai-ching, last June for four weeks on “unlawful assembly” charges, following scuffles with Legislative Council security guards in 2016.

It said the banning of the pro-independence Hong Kong National Party(HKNP) last September was one example, while the disqualification of six pro-democracy lawmakers for “improperly” taking their oaths of allegiance was another.

The U.K.’s Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) voiced concern at thetime over the ban, which relied on colonial-era legislation under theSocieties Ordinance that originally targeted criminal organizations, or “triads.”

“The UK does not support Hong Kong independence, but Hong Kong’s highdegree of autonomy and its rights and freedoms are central to its way of life, and it is important they are fully respected,” the statement said.

‘An amber light’

Hong Kong political commentator Sang Pu said the State Departmentreport had struck a note of warning to the international community.

“I don’t think this is a red light, but it is an amber light,” Sang told RFA, adding that a further deterioration could affect Hong Kong’s international reputation as an open port.

“But if Hong Kong’s human rights situation continues to deteriorate in the next couple of years … for example, if we see more kidnappings, then I think the U.S. is very likely to abolish Hong Kong’s status as a separate trading territory.”

Another red flag would be the enactment of sedition, subversion andnational security laws, as mandated by Article 23 of the city’s mini-constitution, the Basic Law, Sang said.

Meanwhile, a national law passed by Beijing in September 2017“criminalizes any action mocking the Chinese national anthem and requires persons attending public events to stand at attention and sing the anthem in a solemn manner during its rendition,” the State Department report said, adding that Hong Kong will soon legislate to make the law apply in its own jurisdiction.

It also pointed to the effective expulsion from Hong Kong, the first since the handover, of Financial Times Asia news editor Victor Mallet, after he hosted at event at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club featuring HKNP founder Andy Chan as the speaker.

The move came as the Hong Kong Journalists Association warned ofincreasing self-censorship among local journalists, often among mediaoutlets with business interests in mainland China.

Pro-democracy lawmaker Alvin Yeung, who also heads Hong Kong’s CivicParty, said he shares concerns over Hong Kong’s reputation.

“Our most important competitor, Singapore, has free trade agreements with pretty much the rest of the world, and Hong Kong is lagging behind,” Yeung said.

Also Read: North Korean Authorities Ramping Up The Levels of Strictness at Weekly Self-Criticism Sessions

“Our international image is probably that Hong Kong wouldn’t be capable of such a thing,” he said. “Other countries might not be interested in pursuing free trade agreements with Hong Kong, because there are no benefits to doing so.”

But pro-Beijing lawmaker Priscilla Leung said Hong Kong remains a free society.

“We have a very high level of human rights protection,” Leung said. “I hope they aren’t going to suppress our economic freedom under the guise of human rights.” (RFA)