Warning: This story talks explicitly about female anatomy and traumatizing procedures.
A district court judge ruled last year that a federal law banning female genital mutilation was unconstitutional. He said it’s up to the states to make laws about this cultural practice. While we don’t know how many people undergo the procedure in the Mountain West, many hope to amplify the conversation as some states pass laws and others don’t.
Imagine a young girl going to a family event. The girl isn’t sure what it’s about, but soon she does. It’s about her. She may be held down. She may just be told to stay still. Then she undergoes a procedure that her parents say not to talk about. It hurts.
This story belongs to many girls.
But Naima Dido makes it very clear: her mother loved her.
“She didn’t cut me to harm me. She cut me so that I would have a secure future, I would have a husband, I would be able to fit into the community we come from, I wouldn’t be ostracized,” she said.
Dido grew up in Kenya and is one of generations of children who’ve undergone female genital mutilation. It’s a cultural practice involving cutting or removing parts of a woman’s clitoris or labias, often to encourage chastity.
The practice is associated with African countries like Somalia but it also happens regularly in Egypt, Indonesia and Oman among others. It happens across races and religions and right here in the United States.
Many girls are cut between ages 3 and 18. Dido was 9.
“At the age of 16 or so, I realized what had happened and spent from then until now to really understand it for myself but also work with the community in initiating some of the changes that we need to make,” she said.
Today, Dido lives in North Carolina and works with nonprofits Tostan in west Africa and Threads Weaving Dreams to help survivors of female genital mutilation. The first time she spoke out publicly about the procedure, though, was last February during the Family of Woman Film Festival in Sun Valley, Idaho.
Dido said she’s happy to hear that since her visit, Idaho has criminalized female genital mutilation, or FGM.
Starting July 2019, someone in Idaho could be sentenced up to life in prison if they cut a minor. It’s one of the toughest prison sentences for FGM in the nation.
The bill’s sponsor, Republican representative Priscilla Giddings, said she was hoping the law would go even further to charge parents who send their children off to get the procedure done.
“In working with our Attorney’s General staff, they weren’t quite as confident in including that language for Idaho,” she said.
Colorado and Nevada have had an FGM law on the books for two decades, and Utah passed legislation last year. Montana and Wyoming don’t have any anti-FGM laws.
Kimberley Schaefer is an immigration attorney with the Schaefer Law Firm in Boise, Idaho, who also works with students at Concordia University School of Law’s immigration law clinic. She said laws that criminalize FGM can help women feel safe, especially if they specifically sought asylum in the U.S. as victims of cutting or to avoid that procedure being done to themselves or their children.
“They’ve suffered a huge trauma. They were finally able to escape, get to America, we’ve granted them asylum. They have this sense that they’re going to be safe,” she said. “Then they find out this could happen to their daughters here. The safety that they thought they had isn’t really here.”
Schaefer has helped about 20 women with FGM asylum cases. She often has to ask women to rehash traumatic situations to help them apply, and some have lasting psychological and physical pain.
Ranit Mishori, a family medicine professor at the Georgetown University School of Medicine, said there are four types of FGM procedures, and “the most severe also happens to cause more complications and chronic conditions.”
The most intensive types involve nearly sewing the vagina shut.
Some women don’t face any long-term consequences from an FGM procedure and are very proud of having it done. Others can have PTSD, depression, chronic pain, sexual dysfunction, regular infections and major complications giving birth.
Mishori thinks the practice is a human rights violation, but she’s concerned that criminalizing it could make immigrant communities even more wary of U.S. law enforcement and doctors.
“Working with the community and community leaders and education may be more effective in the long term than working on these issues through the criminal justice system.” she said.
Naima Dido understands Mishori’s concerns. In fact, she said when FGM was banned in her home country of Kenya it drove the practice underground. But she said the answer is that the laws need to be passed alongside education.
“People need to understand why it's illegal. It's not because the government is against you, it's because of the implications, long-term effects that it has on the woman on the girl,” she said. “Unless there is empathy and compassion involved, it's hard to get through to people.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that more than 500,000 women in the U.S. have had the procedure or are at risk of having it done, but the agency’s data is full of caveats and disclaimers. It’s challenging to count something that no one wants to talk about.
There was a bipartisan effort in Wyoming to ban the practice this year, but the bill ran out of time to get through the legislative process. Democratic representative Cathy Connolly brought the bill to the legislature, and said it wasn’t particularly necessary to pass this legislature this year because only one district court struck down the federal law, and another could still uphold it.
However, as one of only 15 states without an FGM law, she said, “The fear is, we could become a destination for the practice.”
Nearby Montana doesn’t have a law adressing FGM, either.
For Naima Dido, those laws are tools to keep girls safe. Tools like outreach and her own voice. She says she first spoke out in Idaho because of her four-year-old daughter. She didn’t know it at the time but her daughter had been listening to her conversations with others about female genital mutilation.
“And she asked me, momma are you going to cut me? And my heart broke. And I didn’t know what to say. One, I don’t think she even understands what is being cut, but she’s picked up enough to know there’s something wrong and there’s fear there.”
This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUER in Salt Lake City, KUNR in Nevada, and KRCC and KUNC in Colorado.