New York Times, Page A1, October 12, 1996.

Congress Bans Genital Rite


Congress outlawed the rite of female genital cutting in the United States just before it recessed two weeks ago.

It directed federal authorities to inform new immigrants from countries where it is commonly practiced that parents who arrange for their children to be cut here, as well as people who perform the cutting, face up to five years in prison.

The new law also requires United States representatives to the World Bank and other international financial institutions that have lent billions of dollars to the 28 African countries where the practice exists to oppose loans to governments that have not carried out educational programs to prevent it.

Support for these measures -- included in an end-of-session spending bill -- built this year as the case of Fauziya Kassindja, a young woman who fled Togo to avoid having her genitals cut off and sought asylum here, gained attention in the American media, government officials said.

"You keep trying to explain that this is not circumcision," said Rep. Patricia Schroeder, D-Colo., who along with Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., has repeatedly introduced bills in past sessions to outlaw the practice. "This is more like Lorena Bobbit. Once they really find out it goes on and is not some victim fantasy we're having, they're horrified."

Experts say there is no way to measure how many girls are being genitally cut in the United States since the rite is usually performed privately.

But the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently estimated that more than 150,000 women and girls of African origin or ancestry in the United States may be at risk of the rite or have already been cut. Researchers developed these rough estimates by matching 1990 Census Bureau population data on the number of girls and women whose families came from the African countries where the practice is customary with estimates of the prevalence of the rite in those countries.

New York and Newark, N.J., as well as Los Angeles and Washington, are among the metropolitan areas where the largest number of these at-risk girls and women live, according to the estimates.

The data was gathered in response to an April directive from Congress. At that time, Congress also told federal health officials to develop a program to educate immigrants about the dangers of the practice, which they are now doing.

The federal ban on genital cutting, which takes effect six months after the law's passage on Sept. 30, comes when states and health workers are increasingly debating how to respond to a cultural practice that is a highly valued rite of passage among some African immigrants, but is abhorred by many Americans.

California, Minnesota, Tennessee, Rhode Island and North Dakota are among the states that have outlawed the practice in the past two years, congressional researchers say.

A group of physicians at the the Harborview Medical Center, a public hospital in Seattle, have taken a different view. After Somali mothers repeatedly requested that their daughters be genitally cut in the hospital, the doctors proposed what they considered a largely symbolic form of the ritual: nicking the tip of a girl's clitoris, with her consent, under a local anesthetic. No tissue would be removed, they said. The proposal has stirred an emotionally charged debate there.

"I think that this is an issue that should be decided by a physician, the family and the child," Abraham Bergman, chief of pediatrics at the hospital, said. "Privacy should prevail and the brouhaha is inappropriate."

It is not clear whether the procedure being proposed in Seattle would violate the new law against what Congress termed "female genital mutilation," government officials said.

The Federal law provides for the prosecution of anyone who "circumcises, excises, or infibulates the whole or any part of the labia majora or labia minora or clitoris of another person who has not attained the age of 18." Infibulation involves stitching together the labia to largely cover the vagina.

Members of Congress say they believe the United States needs to send a forceful, clear message to immigrants here that female genital cutting is a practice they must abandon.

They say the United States should follow the example of the French, who over the past 10 to 15 years have criminally prosecuted parents in more than 30 families from Mali, Mauritania, the Gambia and Senegal for the excision of daughters. Such cases are usually reported to the police by doctors, who detect the practice while examining the girls. Usually, the convicted parents have been given suspended sentences, though occasionally they get prison time.

"At first the doctors hesitated, saying, 'We cannot betray families,"' said Linda Weil-Curiel, a lawyer who is France's leading crusader against the practice. "I said, 'Your first obligation is to the child. If you do not report a family when you notice they practice excision, then the next child born will be excised, too. You bear the responsibility."'

The congressional push to outlaw genital cutting in the United States was led by a handful of senators and representatives. Reid, the point man in the Senate, said he first lost sleep over this issue in 1994 after CNN broadcast a video of a 10-year-old Egyptian girl being cut.

"They grab her and hold her down and rip out her genitalia with a razor blade," Reid said, adding that he thought at the time of his two young granddaughters.

"I said, 'What am I going to do about this?' All my staff advised me to stay away from it. You have to be careful on issues like this. Is this something a man should be involved in? The first time I talked about it on the floor, I felt very uncomfortable. You're talking about a little girl's vagina."

Representative Schroeder, who is retiring from the House of Representatives this year, has been working on the issue for more than 20 years.

Both said in recent years that they have been unable to get a ban through Congress. They said some members simply could not believe that the practice actually goes on. And some were worried that it would lead to proposals to abolish male circumcision.

This year, they said, their years of pestering their fellow members, combined with greater press attention to the issue, including a series of articles in The New York Times, and the Republican-controlled Congress's desire to counter the tendency of female voters to support Democrats, led to passage of the law.

A separate measure to pressure African governments to take action in their own countries had another important ally in the Senate, Patrick Leahy, the ranking Democrat on the foreign operations subcommittee of the Appropriations Committee.

The provision, which takes effect a year from now, made United States support for loans from international financial institutions dependent on foreign governments carrying out educational campaigns against genital cutting. It charges the secretary of the treasury with deciding whether U.S. representatives to the lending institutions will oppose or support loans and grants to countries.

"Some in the World Bank bureaucracy have always taken the position that if the United States suggests another country do something differently, the client countries will react against it," Leahy said.

"In fact, it is through this kind of pressure that we've had changes necessary in a number of countries, ranging from privatization in the former Soviet Union to female education in developing countries. This requires diplomacy on the part of the international financial institution, but they have a lot of people paid a great deal of money to practice that diplomacy."

Officials in such financial institutions as the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund say that the success of the new American strategy will depend on how diplomatically it is carried out.

"If it highlights the problem, it will be constructive," said Eric Chinje, external affairs officer for Africa at the World Bank. "If it provides an instrument for fingerpointing, it will be counterproductive."

(The New York Times often publishes second rounds of letters and rebuttals to published letters)

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