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Bill fighting female genital mutilation starts through MN Legislature

Farhio Khalif testifies to a Minnesota House committee Wednesday, May 3, 2017, about a procedure she underwent as a child known as female genital mutilation, also called female circumcision. With her is Rep. Mary Franson of Alexandria, sponsor of a bill making the procedure a felony; parents could be prosecuted under the bill. Don Davis / Forum News Service

ST. PAUL—Farhio Khalif brought a "hush hush" religious ritual often called female genital mutilation into the open, saying the procedure is very painful to girls and parents should know it is illegal.

Khalif said she should know, because it happened to her as a child.

"It is not our will as little girls," she said, but parents make the decision for their daughters to undergo what also is called female circumcision.

Khalif told a Minnesota House committee Wednesday, May 3, that she supports a bill that would make the practice a felony, including giving prosecutors the ability to charge parents. It would also require education efforts in communities where the ritual is practiced. The committee unanimously passed the legislation, sending it to other panels in what author Rep. Mary Franson, R-Alexandria, hopes is a path to become law this year.

Franson brought the legislation before lawmakers in light of reports that two 7-year-old Minnesota girls were taken to Michigan last month for the procedure to be conducted.

Three Michigan doctors face federal charges in the case.

"Let's put a strong message out there: This is a child abuse," Franson said in an interview. "If it was any other area of the body, that child would be taken away and protected. Just because it is a sexual organ doesn't mean that we are just going to close our eyes and allow it to happen." While female mutilation already is against the law, Franson said her bill would increase penalties.

"It is a human rights issue," an emotional Franson told committee members.

Female circumcision, often related to Islam, involves cutting genitals of a girl ages 7 to 9, and then stitching up the area, Khalif said. "You only have a small place that you can only pee."

She and Franson said the procedure is a lifelong health risk.

"I want to educate the parents how painful this is ... " Khalif said. "They think this is the way things are supposed to be."

When it was her turn to have the procedure, Khalif said, she ran away from brothers and cousins so she would not have to undergo it. However, she said, her mother took her out of her bed when she slept the next night so the procedure could be done.

Khalif said female mutilations are common in her home country of Somalia, as well as in several countries in north Africa and the Middle East. No one knows how many American girls are subjected to the ritual because people do not talk about it, she said.

"The parents don't know better," Khalif told Forum News Service, but the education part of Franson's bill could go a long way in letting them know it is dangerous and illegal.

Franson, often emotional during the committee meeting, said that news of the two Minnesota girls who underwent the procedure in Michigan motivated her to take action.

"Never in my wildest dreams did I think parents would find a person willing to break the law and rob ... them (the girls) of future sexual enjoyment" while introducing them to lifelong psychological problems, Franson said.

She said one girl was returned to her parents after a three-day investigation. She did not know if the other was back home.

No one outright opposed Franson's bill, but Democrats questioned it, given existing law. Rep. John Lesch, D-St. Paul, said he was disappointed Franson did not talk to county attorneys and doctors about the issue.

The country's first Somali-American legislator was critical of Franson and the bill, although she voted in favor of it. Rep. Ilhan Omar, D-Minneapolis, said she does not want to pass laws "because we want to be able to get in the media. I don't want us to create laws because there is a flashy headline."

Rep. Ilhan Omar says she wants lawmakers to go slow on making female circumcision a felony so they can get it right.

Omar urged lawmakers to go slow on the Franson bill to make sure it is done right.

Franson said the higher legal penalties in her bill are important. Now, she said, they are too low compared to other infractions that bring the same penalties. "Do you really think that throwing rocks at a train is on the same level of female genital mutilation?"

The legislation is due to be heard by the House Public Safety Committee, and Franson said she hopes lawmakers pass the bill before adjourning on May 22.

Budget talks begin

Gov. Mark Dayton and legislative leaders opened budget negotiations Wednesday, May 3.

They decided their next job in crafting a $46 billion, two-year state budget will come Thursday afternoon when they will discuss agriculture and higher education funding bills. The Democratic governor and the Republican-controlled Legislature are closer on those two bills than most of the other eight budget measures; they are far apart on many of the bills.

Before the state budget can be approved, Dayton insists that hundreds of the 609 policy items be taken out of budget bills. For months, he has warned that bills funding various parts of state government should not contain policy items unless they require funding.

The talks began on the day the Star Tribune of Minneapolis reported a poll showing Dayton with his best-ever approval rating of 62 percent.

Don Davis
Don Davis has been the Forum Communications Minnesota Capitol Bureau chief since 2001, covering state government and politics for two dozen newspapers in the state. Don also blogs at Capital Chatter on Areavoices.