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Advocates At Statehouse Disagree On Path To Prevent Female Genital Cutting

hibo jama
Katarina Sostaric
Nisaa African Family Services Executive Director Hibo Jama speaks with senators at the Iowa Capitol Monday, Feb. 18, 2019.

A Senate panel advanced a proposal Monday to make female genital cutting a crime in Iowa.

The bill would also make it a felony to transport a minor out of the state for the procedure, which is performed in Africa and some parts of the Middle East and Asia. A House panel advanced the proposal last week.

Everyone at Monday’s meeting agreed female genital cutting should be stopped, but advocates are divided on whether it should be criminalized.

“This is a culture,” said Hibo Jama, executive director of Nisaa African Family Services. “It’s a tradition they’ve been doing since a long time ago. We don’t want the practice to continue, but the approach that is being taken is a much bolder way, and we feel it will put communities at risk that are already marginalized.”

Jama said education, community outreach and preparing health care providers would be more effective than criminalization. She said there is no evidence that female genital cutting is happening in Iowa, but people take their children to other countries to get the procedure.

She said Nisaa has been able to convince women who experienced female genital cutting to not put their own children through that by educating them about associated health risks.

“At the beginning they were like, ‘It’s my culture. It’s my tradition. This is what I’m going to do,’” Jama said. “But a couple of days later, they changed and they said, ‘Okay, I don’t want my child to have hemorrhaging. I don’t want them to have tumors.’”

Other health risks include severe pain, infections, infertility, childbirth complications and infant deaths.

Lobbyist Threase Harms said female genital cutting victims who work for her client EveryStep support criminalization.

“They think it is really important to carry through where Somalia and the other countries have actually banned this practice,” Harms said. “It’s illegal there as well.”

Harms said these women told her “people need to feel that threat or they should go to jail if this is the practice they are doing.”

Republican Senators Amy Sinclair, R-Allerton, and Annette Sweeney, R-Alden, voted to advance the bill. Sinclair said female genital cutting has been a federal crime until recently, when a federal judge ruled it’s up to the states to decide and enforce that.

“I don’t believe criminalizing these actions runs counter to what you ladies are doing,” Sinclair said to Jama and another representative from Nisaa. “You’re heroic in your efforts to change the culture of your families and the people you share a lifestyle and a culture with here in the U.S. It should work hand in hand.”

She added she wants to keep working on the bill to make it better. Senate Minority Leader Janet Petersen, D-Des Moines, said she wants to see how the bill will be changed before signing on to it.

Katarina Sostaric is IPR's State Government Reporter