Nisaa African Family Services is a culturally specific program based in Des Moines and Iowa City for African Immigrant and Refugee survivors of sexual assault and domestic violence. In 2018, Nisaa served nearly 100 victims who disclosed they had experienced some form of Female Genital Cutting before seeking services.
The legislature has pushed two bills out of committee, House File 534 and Senate File 346, which seek to criminalize Female Genital Cutting. However, we think criminalization will cause further harm to victims of this practice.
Nisaa has outlined some strategies and proposals below, in addition to some general education about Female Genital Cutting that we hope is helpful.
What is Female Genital Cutting?
Female Genital Cutting (FGC) is practiced in Africa and some parts of the Middle East and Asia. It involves the partial or total removal of a woman’s clitoris. This is understood as a cultural and traditional custom, and a rite of passage for young girls within some communities. FGC is most often performed between the ages of 5 - 10. Some women are encouraged to undergo FGC, if they have never had it, shortly before their wedding. Performing FGC on anyone under age 18 became illegal in the United States in 1996.
Why is Female Genital Cutting performed?
It’s believed within some cultures that FGC preserves a woman’s chastity before marriage and discourages sexual desire and premarital sex. Female virginity is very important within these communities. FGC is believed to ensure marriageability, improve fertility, and align with tradition. It is not a religious practice, because it occurs across different faiths as a historical tradition that’s existed for hundreds of years.
Why is Female Genital Cutting harmful?
FGC interferes with the natural function of girls’ and women’s bodies. There can be immediate complications, including severe pain, shock, hemorrhaging, infection, injury to nearby genital tissue, and more. Long-term consequences include recurring bladder and urinary tract infections, cysts, infertility, and increased risk of childbirth complications and newborn deaths. It’s not uncommon for women to need corrective surgery later in life.
Does Female Genital Cutting occur in Iowa?
There are currently no health practitioners in Iowa that perform FGC. Parents and families who believe in FGC will most likely either have it performed before they arrive in Iowa, or they may transport their children to their native countries for FGC to be performed, many times under the guise of a “vacation.”
What does criminalization against Female Genital Cutting actually do?
Many communities practicing FGC perceive attempts to criminalize it as an outside institution with power and control (the government) admonishing their cultural practices and dictating what they can and can’t do. Criminalization can be alienating and cause fear within communities, forcing the practice of FGC further underground. Sexual assault or domestic violence survivors may not want to seek services because it could cause the inadvertent disclosure of their FGC.
We believe it is unfair to make attempts to legislate against a cultural practice when community members are largely unaware of the harm they’re causing. Since this is a cultural practice passed down from one generation to another, they believe what they are doing is the right thing for their family.
Criminalization laws tend to target parents and family members for imprisonment, breaking up families that otherwise are peaceful and productive members of society.
What are some effective solutions to stop Female Genital Cutting from occurring?
Rather than instilling fear, the best way to achieve long-lasting change toward curbing FGC is through grassroots community organizing and education.
In the outreach and support groups that Nisaa African Family Services facilitate, we have seen how education on the harms of FGC changes hearts and minds. With education comes the knowledge that FGC is harmful and unnecessary, and has caused many community members we work with to reevaluate the practice.
We recommend the following actions, which we believe will have a long-term impact in stopping the harmful practice of Female Genital Cutting:
Outreach and education from “community insiders” who understand the practice and can better support survivors through bicultural and multilingual services
Education for healthcare professionals to better meet victims’ needs
Prevention measures and education at pediatric clinics that work with immigrant parents
Healthcare benefits for FGC victims, especially those who need corrective surgery
Ensure that FGC is a priority area in grants from the Iowa Crime Victim Assistance Division to expand outreach efforts to impacted communities
Referrals to culturally specific programs that can help meet the needs of community members who have experienced FGC
For additional questions or concerns about Female Genital Cutting, please reach out to Nisaa African Family Services at (515) 255-5430. You can also visit them online: http://nisaa-afs.org/.