ANNAPOLIS – The sponsor of a bill to ban female genital mutilation in Maryland said the practice simply must be stopped – – even as he conceded that he does not know how often it occurs.
“One procedure of this nature is simply one too many,” Del. Talmadge Branch, D-Baltimore, told the House Environmental Matters Committee on Thursday.
“Let me say frankly: Yes I think it does [occur],” Branch said, stressing the word `think.’ “We’re not sure and we haven’t had any cases surface yet.”
But Branch said he is convinced the practice could be prevalent here, after conversations with lawmakers from other states with similar bans and his own research on the subject.
Female genital mutilation, or female circumcision, is a procedure that involves removing or mutilating a girl’s clitoris and surrounding vaginal organs. The practice is a rite of passage for some girls of African or Middle Eastern heritage between the ages 4 and 10.
Opponents call the procedure barbaric because it may be performed with scissors, razor blades, glass or sharp stones and it ultimately lessens the woman’s sex drive, according to a report by the Center for Reproductive Law and Policy.
Nine states have passed laws outlawing the practice and President Clinton signed a federal law on Sept. 30, 1996, banning it and punishing anyone who performed it.
Branch’s bill would penalize both parents who allow the operation to be performed on a girl under age 18 and the person who performed it. They could face up to five years in prison and $5,000 in fines.
Del. Jean Cryor, R-Montgomery, spoke in support of the bill on behalf of the Women’s Caucus.
“Surely there’s no other bill that will mean more to one individual than the bill we’re listening to here today,” Cryor said.
The Center for Reproductive Law and Policy estimates that 130 million women worldwide have been circumcised, but the figure for the United States is unknown.
Even without a specific statistic, Branch adamantly argued for the ban.
He said he was partly motivated by the Centers for Disease Control’s Internet site, which said that female genital mutilation occurs most frequently in high-immigrant populations. Branch reasoned that urban areas such as Baltimore and Washington would likely fit into such a category.
But one expert worried that such laws are unfair to immigrants who may view the practice as no more harmful than male circumcision.
“We question where these laws will lead and if they’ll alienate African-American groups more than they already are,” said Kathy Hall Martinez, a staff attorney for the Center for Reproductive Law and Policy.
While her organization strongly favors eradicating female genital mutilation, she is worried that immigrants who cannot speak English or understand the law will be unfairly singled out.
“There’s a real problem in criminalizing this and then walking away,” Martinez said.
She noted that the federal legislation allocates money for educating immigrants against the practice, but many states’ laws do not.
But Branch said that ignorance of the law is no excuse for allowing so gruesome an operation.
“When you go to America, you’ve got to learn American. That’s just common sense,” Branch said.