Absa Samba, a young Gambian immigrant in the U.S., anti-FGM activist, and founder of The Washington Coalition to End FGM/C along with three other anti-FGM groups advocacy, has resulted in the Governor of Washington State, Jay Inslee, signed a new bill that will protect women and children from female genital mutilation/cutting (FGM/C) in the state.
The landmark move is being celebrated by FGM/C survivors and women’s rights campaigners, who have been working with lawmakers on introducing legislation to help end this harmful practice.
Absa founded the Washington Coalition to End FGM/C, a survivor-led group comprised of survivors, activists, and advocates who worked together to advocate for the passing of a law ending the practice of FGM/C in the state of Washington and told Alkamba Times:
“As an immigrant and a survivor of female genital mutilation, leading efforts to combat FGM in Washington state has been a significant and personal journey for me. The passage of this bill is a powerful statement that the voices of survivors are being heard and that our experiences matter. It means that future generations of girls will be protected from this harmful practice, and survivors will have access to the resources and support they need to heal. This is not just a victory for Washington State but for all survivors of FGM worldwide.”
The new law, which went into effect on April 20, 2023, prohibits people, including health care practitioners, from performing FGM/C on girls under 18, provides care for survivors and their families, and gives survivors the right to take private civil action against perpetrators. It also makes provisions for community-wide education about the harms of FGM/C and the new law, including targeting first responders with awareness raising about responsibilities and implementation.
“This is my gift to a state I’ve grown to love and for generations of females who’ll grow up knowing we fought for them,” Absa said.
FGM/C is a harmful traditional practice involving partial or total removal of the external female genitalia for non-medical reasons. It has no health benefits and can cause a range of long-term psychological and physical health problems, including severe pain and infection, emotional trauma, sexual dysfunction, reproductive health issues, and in some cases, death.
Around 513,000 women and girls are estimated to have undergone or be at risk of FGM/C in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In Washington State, the Population Reference Bureau says 25,000 women and girls are at risk of or have undergone the practice.
It is a federal crime to perform FGM/C in the U.S. or take a girl out of the country to undergo it. But states have a greater capacity to reach girls at risk and intervene to provide protection and support.
Washington State’s new law against FGM/C
Bill SSB5453 was introduced by Washington State Senator Keiser with the support of a range of organizations and was passed unanimously by the Senate on March 1, 2023.
The bill was drafted with significant input from survivors and the Washington Coalition to End FGM/C members. Alongside Equality Now, Sahiyo, and The U.S. End FGM/C Network, which have also been advocating for legal change, the trio anticipate the new legislation will be highly effective in preventing FGM/C at the state level.
FGM/C is now a crime in Washington state, and there is a ten-year statute of limitations from the date the offense occurs or if the victim was a minor until the victim turns 28. For victims who are minors, it gives them a civil right of action and allows them to file a suit for damages against the person who committed FGM/C.
In addition, it makes healthcare practitioners accountable by classifying FGM/C as unprofessional conduct resulting in penalties including fines and loss of license.
The idea for the bill was put forward by Absa Samba, an FGM/C survivor and founder of the Washington Coalition to End FGM/C.
“The passing of Bill SSB 5453 in Washington State is a significant achievement for the movement to end FGM/C. With community-wide education and accountability for healthcare practitioners who carry out FGM/C, survivors and advocates in Washington State have demonstrated their commitment to ending this harmful practice and protecting women and girls’ rights,” Samba said.
“We hope this legislation will inspire other states to follow in Washington’s footsteps and take action to end FGM/C once and for all,” she added.
Washington State is the 41st state to pass a law prohibiting FGM/C, joining others, including California, Michigan, and New York.
Jill Thompson, Regional Representative at Equality Now, added, “We recognize and thank the courageous women who testified in support of the bill. But, unfortunately, like so many crimes against women, FGM usually happens in secret and is rarely prosecuted.
“We need to get the word out that FGM is happening here, in the United States, in a wider range of communities than most people know, and we need to educate and empower girls, and their families, to say ‘No.'”