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Michigan Laws Will Increase Penalties For Performing Female Genital Mutilation

Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder signed legislation on Tuesday creating harsher penalties for doctors, parents and others convicted of female genital mutilation. Above, the state Capitol in Lansing in 2012.
Carlos Osorio

New legislation signed into law by Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder on Tuesday makes female genital mutilation a felony punishable by up to 15 years in prison. The laws apply both to doctors who conduct the procedure and parents who transport a child to undergo it.

"Those who commit these horrendous crimes should be held accountable for their actions, and these bills stiffen the penalties for offenders while providing additional support to victims," Gov. Snyder said in a statement. "This legislation is an important step toward eliminating this despicable practice in Michigan while empowering victims to find healing and justice."

The governor also signed a bill allowing for a health professional's license or registration to be revoked if he or she is convicted of female genital mutilation.

Michigan is the 26 th state to ban the practice; the state laws go into effect in October. The practice was banned in the United States in 1996, but Michigan's laws impose harsher penalties than the federal law.

The package of bills comes amid the federal criminal trial of an emergency room doctor in Michigan, Jumana Nagarwala, charged with performing the procedure on multiple girls at a clinic in suburban Detroit. The Department of Justice says it believes the case is the first to be brought under the federal law. Another doctor and his wife are also charged in the case, the AP reports.

Defense lawyers in the Nagarwala case have said that the procedure she performed was not female genital mutilation, The Detroit News reported.

The case has inspired new bills across the country that would enact harsher penalties for the practice, The Washington Post reported in May.

Jaha Dukureh, who leads advocacy group against the practice called Safe Hands for Girls, and who underwent the practice as an infant, says outreach and education to prevent the practice are preferable to punishment alone.

"When things like this happen, people just want to focus on getting all states to penalize it," Dukureh told the Post. "But there's a bigger picture out here that we're not focusing on."

One of the new laws requires the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services to create an education and outreach program about the trauma of female genital mutilation and the penalties in effect.

The bills had few opponents, the Associated Press reported last month.

"This barbaric procedure has no accepted health benefits and is only performed to exercise control over young women," said one of the bill sponsors, Republican Sen. Tonya Schuitmaker of Lawton, according to the AP. "We owe it to our girls to give law enforcement and prosecutors every available tool to bring the perpetrators to justice."

The laws set the criminal statute of limitations at either ten years or the 21 st birthday of the alleged victim, whichever is later, according to the News; victims can sue in civil court until they turn 28. The state laws only apply to cases going forward.

The legislation makes clear that cultural defenses will not hold up in court.

"It is not a defense to prosecution under this section that the person on whom the operation is performed, or any other person, believes that the operation is required as a matter of custom or ritual, or that the person on whom the operation is performed, or that person's parent or guardian, consented to the operation," states one of the bills.

As the Two-Way's Merrit Kennedy reported in April, "FGM is practiced in dozens of countries, most commonly in Africa, but also in parts of the Middle East, Eastern Europe and South America. It is not restricted to members of a single faith; according to the U.N.'s Population Fund, it is practiced by some Muslim groups, 'some Christians, Ethiopian Jews, and followers of certain traditional African religions.' "

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Laurel Wamsley is a reporter for NPR's News Desk. She reports breaking news for NPR's digital coverage, newscasts, and news magazines, as well as occasional features. She was also the lead reporter for NPR's coverage of the 2019 Women's World Cup in France.
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