A federal judge dismissed charges in a historic female genital mutilation case in Detroit, Michigan, on Tuesday after determining that it is up to individual states to regulate the harmful practice, CBS News reports.
US District Judge Bernard Friedman dismissed mutilation and conspiracy charges against eight people, including two doctors, who were arrested after nine girls were forced to undergo FGM in the suburbs of Detroit in April 2017.
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Jumana Nagarwala, an emergency room doctor, who was accused of performing the brutal cutting procedure on nine girls — between the ages of 6 and 12 — was cleared of the genital mutilation charges. However, she still faces conspiracy and obstruction charges.
Three mothers, who brought their daughters to Detroit under the pretense of a girls' weekend only to have FGM performed on them as part of religious practice are among Nagarwala's co-defendants, the Detroit Free Press reports.
Activists are worried about the larger implications the ruling could have on efforts to stop the practice, which is on the rise in the US.
"Unfortunately, this is going to embolden those who believe that this must be continued ... they'll feel that this is permission, that it's OK to do this," Mariya Taher, who leads a campaign in Cambridge, Massachusetts, to ban FGM told the Detroit Free Press.
"This is a violation of one person's human rights. It's a form of gender violence ... This is cultural violence," Taher said.
While the court order recognized FGM as a form of physical abuse and a "despicable practice," it deemed the practice a "local criminal activity" — that can only be regulated at the state level — not by Congress.
Dismissal of charges is deeply concerning & reaches far beyond the defendants in this case, impacting 1000s of girls at risk from #FGM across the #USA. "This is a giant step backward in the protection of women's & girls’ rights," ENs @ShelbyRQuast#EndFGMhttps://t.co/QP6VrGvCQu— equalitynow (@equalitynow) November 21, 2018
In the US, FGM is illegal in 27 states. However, FGM was not illegal in Michigan until after Nagarwala and others were arrested, and the defendants cannot be retroactively charged under the new law. As a result, Nagarwala, who was on trial for crimes now punishable by 15 years to life in jail, may serve much less or no time at all.
Although FGM has been federally illegal since 1996, a case had never been brought to court before this one. The judge ruled that it is unconstitutional for Congress to regulate the procedure since it falls under local crime and has no impact on interstate commerce.
More than 200 million women and girls globally have undergone FGM, the majority of them before the age of 15, according to the World Health Organization.
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While the practice is most prevalent in countries across Africa, it impacts many women and girls in Western countries too, including the US, the UK, and Canada.
An estimated 513,000 women and girls have experienced or are at risk of FGM in the US — and many of these women and girls live in one of the 23 states, where laws against the medically unnecessary practice have not been passed.
Even those who live in states where FGM is illegal are at risk since they can be transported across state lines for the procedure.
It's a giant step backward in the protection of women's and girls' rights," Shelby Quast, the Americas director of Equality Now, told the Detroit Free Press. "Especially when there is a global movement to eliminate this practice."