MINNEAPOLIS, Minn. – Republican state legislator Mary Franson has spent two years pushing for a new state law that would allow tougher prosecution of parents who facilitate or allow the genital mutilation of their daughters.
But Franson and supporters of those who want to punish more than just the practitioners of the horribly painful and widely condemned practice are finding opposition, both active and passive, to what its supporters believe should be a legislative no-brainer.
“The bill makes FGM (female genital mutilation) a felony, and it empowers social services to come in and take those children out of the home and remove the parental right from those parents,” Franson told Fox News in an interview. “This is completely on par with child endangerment such as criminal sexual conduct or assault with a dangerous weapon – anything that causes substantial bodily harm.”
An estimated 8,000 girls endure FGM around the world every day, a practice the World Health Organization (WHO) classifies as a serious human rights violation. The practice brings with it serious physical and emotional health consequences, including sexual dysfunction, incontinence, increased risk of HIV transmission, the risk of infection, and uncontrolled bleeding.
But Franson’s efforts have been far from smooth sailing. When her bill first hit the floor in 2017, it faced tough questioning from several lawmakers – among them then-state legislator and current U.S. Rep. Ilhan Omar, who suggested Franson was using the bill as a bid for press attention.
"What I don't want us to do is to create laws because we want to get in the media,” Omar stated in a committee at the time. "What I would like to have been done is to have (the parents) charged with laws that already exist.”
Despite Omar's concerns, she and another 123 House members voted for the bill to pass on. Four other representatives did not. The bill fell flat in the Minnesota Senate.
Franson said Omar should have done more. “Ilhan hasn’t mentioned it at all. She never spoke about it on the House floor. She was in the back room watching it on the TV until it became time to vote, and she had to come out and vote.”
Omar’s support would have been particularly important because she represented the large Somali community where girls are at higher risk of being forced into FGM. And Franson argues it was in fact pressure from that community that kept her bill from moving forward.
Somali-American nonprofit groups have raised concerns that further criminalizing FGM would push the issue deeper underground, effectively worsening the problem. They have argued instead that putting more funding towards outreach and education would be more effective.
Another FGM-related bill was introduced by a male senator, Warren Limmer, last year. That effort, too, was rejected by groups who viewed it as bigoted. So Franson is trying again.
“I re-introduced it this year, we have some Republican authors on there,” Franson said. “Nobody is willing to carry it in the Senate because they are weak.”
Under current Minnesota law, the practice of FGM is already illegal but focuses more on those who actually perform the FGM. So not only would Franson’s bill mandate it a felony for parents to subject their daughters to FGM, but it also calls for the loss of custody and prison terms between five and 20 years.
Franson said she was motivated to continue pursuing the issue after a Michigan judge ruled in November that a 1996 U.S. federal law banning FGM was “unconstitutional” – thus dropping key charges against practitioners accused of performing FGM on nine young girls. That spurred an outraged Franson not to abandon the fight.
“This ruling underscores the dire need to pass my bill to protect girls from female genital mutilation and send a message to parents that there are consequences for this practice,” she said. “I will never stop fighting for the safety of little girls and will keep working to put an end to this barbaric practice and punish parents who subject their daughters to these horrors.”
Franson’s updated bill would punish Minnesota parents that force their girls to undergo the practice, which involves partially cutting or completely extracting female genitalia under the guise of “a girl’s purity and eligibility for marriage.”
One prominent group against the measure is Isuroon, a non-profit organization that seeks to help Somali women build self-sufficiency. The group has called efforts to further criminalize FGM a "witch hunt" against their community, which could potentially harm already scared Somali refugees.
Farun Weli, founder and executive director of Isuroon, Minneapolis, told Fox News there is no data that proves female genital “circumcision” – a term some argue is medically inaccurate but preferred by those who oppose efforts to toughen laws against it – is happening in Minnesota. Weli also claimed Franson was a “domestic terrorist,” who terrified families with the notion their children could be taken away, or unlawfully “checked” without parental permission.
"It's such an outlandish statement that it lacks any credibility," Franson said of Weli’s “domestic terrorist” remark. "I suppose we have different definitions of that term."
Franson also expressed concern that Rep. Rena Moran, a Democrat, was recently named chair of the House Health and Human Services Policy Committee, which could pose a further challenge to the bill. Moran was one of the four Democratic legislators who opposed the initial legislation in 2017.
Those four "no" votes came from worries over separating children from their parents of potential deportation, which could lead to further complications and frighten victims from coming forward, according to public records. Somali-American organizations had been advocating the representatives give more funding for outreach and education, and some of the opposing lawmakers agreed.
Moran and Omar did not respond to a request for comment.
“Those opposing focus on the issue that the child is going to be removed from the home, parental rights are going to be terminated,” Franson continued. "And my response to that is if you don’t practice FGM and don’t harm your daughter, it is never going to happen to you, and you are not going to lose your child."
Franson intends to speak on the issue next month on behalf of the Muslim American Leadership Alliance (MALA), during a panel addressing FGM at the United Nations in New York. And while she says she continues to face powerful outside resistance, several FGM survivors and other community activists from within the Somali-American and wider immigrant community – including men who want to stop this from happening to their daughters and sisters – are standing firmly by her side.
An overwhelming 98 percent of women aged 15 to 49 are believed to have undergone FGM in Somalia, according to a 2006 report by the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF). Somalia is considered the highest-risk country for the procedure, even though the government there – which also refers to it as “circumcision” – constitutionally banned the measure in 2012.
And Somalia announced its first-ever FGM prosecution last year after a 10-year-old girl bled to death after being taken to a traditional cutter.
FGM is considered not to be a religious practice, but rather a cultural one. And while Minnesota is home to the largest Somali immigrant population in the country, it’s a melting pot of migrants and an array of ethnicities from all across Africa, Asia, and the Middle East.
There have been no known cases of FGM reported in Minnesota. But Franson and other activists believe that’s because it’s a largely “hush-hush” practice, occurring behind closed doors.
She pointed to one case in 2017 in which two girls belonging to a small Indian Muslim sect known as the Dawoodi Bohra, according to court documents, who were taken to Michigan to have FGM performed, which Franson said motivated her to examine the issue more carefully.
“If this wasn’t happening,” Franson asked, “then why is our own health department dedicating resources to this?”
The Minnesota Department of Health offers an FGM “cutting prevention and outreach program” that offers funding for the MDH Refugee and International Health Program and the International Institute of Minnesota (IIMN) to form and co-lead a working group dedicated to prevention and community engagement on the matter.
The custom is not only carried out by trained medical practitioners in some communities; but also community elders in non-safe settings - with sharp scissors as a tool of choice.
While at least 30 countries have laws prohibiting FGM to different degrees, world leaders and human rights defenders have long lamented that penalties are lax, and often not enforced. Within the U.S., legislation is often state-by-state. Some 23 states don’t have laws on the books prohibiting FGM.
As Franson and others have noted, exact figures concerning the depth of the problem are hard to come by, given that the practice is largely shrouded in secrecy. Yet U.S. officials have cast a spotlight on the matter in recent years, pointing out that the number of girls at risk of being forced into FGM has doubled between 2007 and 2017.
Activists in the U.S. have also long underscored the importance of educating refugees and immigrants on arrival – especially from countries in the Middle East and Africa where it is widely practiced – of its strict illegality in the U.S., something which the State Department itself has not historically done.
”A lot of time, girls are coming here because they are fleeing oppression,” Franson said. “And they need to be free from the oppression that FGM brings here in America. I am not going to admit defeat. I am still hopeful we can change this.”