By Emma Batha
Jan 7 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - The United States has toughened its ban on the "abhorrent practice" of female genital mutilation (FGM) in a move campaigners hope will bolster efforts to end an ancient rite forced on millions of girls worldwide.
The US had already outlawed the widely condemned ritual, which dates back more than 2,000 years, but its first ban hit an unexpected legal roadblock so it moved to tighten the wording this week.
"This is fantastic news. I'm ecstatic," Mariya Taher of the US End FGM/C Network, which advised on the legislation, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation on Thursday. "This is really important for protecting future generations of girls in the US from this very harmful practice, and I hope it will motivate other countries to pass their own laws."
The law signed by President Donald Trump on Tuesday says the US should lead the way, calling FGM "a form of child abuse, gender discrimination, and violence."
The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates more than half a million girls and women in the US have undergone or are at risk of FGM, which involves the partial or complete removal of the external female genitalia.
Globally, more than 200 million girls and women have been cut, often in the name of religion or tradition, according to United Nations data.
The "STOP FGM Act of 2020" will empower federal authorities to prosecute people who carry out or conspire to carry out FGM and increase the maximum prison sentence from five to 10 years.
Government agencies will also have to report to Congress on the estimated number of women and girls who have undergone or are at risk of FGM, and on efforts to prevent the practice.
Although Congress passed a law against FGM in 1996, attempts to prosecute a doctor accused of cutting nine girls in Detroit collapsed in 2018 when a Michigan federal judge ruled the law was unconstitutional and said it was a state issue.
The case was the first attempt to prosecute FGM under the federal law.
The new law closes the loophole and extends the scope of punishable offences relating to FGM.
FGM, which can cause a host of serious physical and mental health problems, is most commonly associated with a swathe of countries in Africa.
But it is also practiced in parts of the Middle East and Asia, and by diaspora communities in the US, Europe, and elsewhere.
Countries lacking laws include Sierra Leone, Liberia, Somalia, Mali, and India.
Divya Srinivasan, a legal expert on FGM with global rights group Equality Now, said the new law would make it easer for the US government to persuade other countries to act.
"Ending FGM is part of US foreign policy so it's important for their credibility that they have a strong law themselves," she added.
Campaigners urged the 11 US states that still do not have their own laws against FGM to swiftly enact similar legislation.
(Reporting by Emma Batha @emmabatha; Editing by Lyndsay Griffiths. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, which covers the lives of people around the world who struggle to live freely or fairly. Visit http://news.trust.org)