NEW American anti-FGM Law Closes Religious Loopholes

On January 7, 2021, the United States tightened the ban on the “abhorrent practice” of female genital mutilation (FGM), attempting to end the ancient ritual that forces millions of girls worldwide to endure. 

The United States has already outlawed the widely condemned ritual dating back more than 2,000 years. But the first proposed ban on FGM hit an unexpected legal roadblock before a federal judge in Detroit, Michigan, in November 2018, who declared the law unconstitutional.

Bernard Friedman, the U.S. District Judge in Detroit, said Congress lacked authority under the Commerce Clause to adopt the 1996 law. He declared the power to criminalize female genital mutilation belonged solely to the individual states.

"As despicable as this practice may be, it is essentially a criminal assault," wrote Friedman. "FGM is not part of a larger market, and it has no demonstrated effect on interstate commerce. The Commerce Clause does not permit Congress to regulate a crime of this nature."

As a result, the judge’s decision eliminated the main charges against Jumana Nagarwala, a doctor who performed the procedure on nine girls from Michigan, Illinois, and Minnesota at another doctor's clinic in the Detroit suburb of Livonia. Four of the eight defendants were dismissed, including three mothers accused of subjecting their daughters to FGM.

In October 2019, the “STOP FGM ACT of 2020” was introduced to clarify congressional authority and increase protection. 

By voting the STOP FGM ACT into law on January 7th, federal authorities can increase the maximum jail sentence for those who perform FGM from five to 10 years.

The new law closes loopholes, extending the span of punishable offenses relating to FGM. The law specifies that “Congress has the affirmative power to prohibit this conduct.”

Part of the law in Section 3 reads:  

(2)by amending subsection (c) to read as follows:
(c)It shall not be a defense to a prosecution under this section that female genital mutilation is required as a matter of religion, custom, tradition, ritual, or standard practice.

Section 4 reads: “Not later than one year after the date of the enactment of this Act, and annually thereafter, the Attorney General ... shall submit to Congress a report that includes—

(1) an estimate of the number of women and girls in the United States at risk of or who have been subjected to female genital mutilation; (2) the protections available and actions taken, if any, by Federal, State, and local agencies to protect such women and girls; and (3) the actions taken by Federal agencies to educate and assist communities and key stakeholders about female genital mutilation.”

A legal expert on FGM with the global rights group Equality Now, Divya Srinivasan, advises that the new law will help the U.S. government persuade other countries to act.

“Ending FGM is part of the U.S. foreign policy, so it’s important for their credibility that they have a strong law themselves,” Srinivasan added.

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