It’s sad that this needs to be said in 2018, but lawmakers should not follow the lead of racist, xenophobic organizations.
Unfortunately, that’s exactly what happened when Gov. Paul LePage and Rep. Heather Sirocki, R-Scarborough, introduced legislation — LD 1819 — with help from ACT for America, the nation’s largest anti-Muslim hate group. ACT has a history of pushing radical legislation based on an extremist anti-Muslim and anti-refugee ideology.
This is the second year lawmakers are spending time considering legislation to criminalize female genital mutilation, a practice already illegal under federal law. It is vital that we better understand the practice and the motivations in repeatedly bringing forth such unnecessary legislation.
Female genital mutilation is cultural — not religious — and as such is practiced in some regions of the world by people of Christian, Muslim, Jewish and animistic faiths. ACT strives to connect Islam to the practice and then to further criminalize it in order to associate Islam with criminal acts in the minds of Americans.
This is purposeful. By repeatedly making this association, ACT seeks to incite fear in Americans who are not Muslim to make them wary about Muslim immigrants. It’s part of a larger xenophobic narrative being pushed by the extreme right to make the lives of Muslim immigrants harder and ultimately stop their immigration to this country.
To be clear, female genital mutilation is already illegal in America. There is no evidence to suggest that it is occurring in Maine. Attorney General Janet Mills has stated that should female genital mutilation happen here, it can already be prosecuted under current Maine statutes.
Legislation focused on criminalization and not education makes survivors of female genital mutilation less safe because media attention to this issue — especially media reports that fail to make clear the link between Sirocki’s bill and ACT’s anti-Muslim, anti-refugee agenda — further stigmatizes a community already suffering from hate-fueled attacks and disregards the journey many women have made to escape violence and assault and to find safety in Maine.
An unnecessary focus on criminalization creates barriers to care for women and girls in immigrant communities. The fear generated by these legislative efforts makes it harder for survivors who experienced female genital mutilation in another country to seek medical care.
When we create an environment where simply walking through the doors of a health center can bring a family and community into contact with law enforcement and the criminal-justice system, we guarantee those impacted by this practice will avoid needed care and experience more anxiety when they seek it. This becomes a cycle that repeats itself each time a survivor must engage with a new provider or health care system.
Those who truly care about the well-being of women and girls who have experienced female genital mutilation should want them to be able to freely access health care, reproductive care and mental health care.
While female genital mutilation does not affect just one ethnicity, religion or nationality, there are many survivors in Maine’s immigrant community. This community already faces serious barriers to accessing high-quality health care, including economic conditions, historical trauma, social and cultural differences, and language challenges. Anything that undermines immigrants’ ability to seek care and trust providers is going to negatively impact their health outcomes.
At a time when fear of deportation and uncertainty about our immigration system has increased immigrants’ anxiety about law enforcement and government, the proposed legislation further increases the fear and trauma our immigrant neighbors in Maine experience. Again, this only further harms survivors.
It is important to remember that Maine’s immigrant community is already working to support survivors and ensure that the practice doesn’t happen in our state. The HER Initiative through Maine Access Immigrant Network and other community education efforts provide culturally appropriate education and training around female genital mutilation and help connect survivors to the full range of services they need.
If we really want to help women who have experienced female genital mutilation, we should focus on better funding for community-based programs providing education and resources to immigrant women and girls. We should make sure that all women and girls have access to a robust health care system that meets their physical, reproductive and emotional needs. We can provide more support for immigrants and all women and girls who have experienced trauma.
Most of all, we must listen to immigrant women — listen to their experiences and expertise in all areas of life. This is how we create a safe and inclusive community for all.
Eliza Townsend is executive director of the Maine Women’s Lobby.
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