A major part of our work at AHA Foundation is to end female genital mutilation (FGM) in the U.S. But even as we work to ensure the passage of laws criminalizing FGM, we realize that far too many survivors have gone without justice for far too long. So we partnered with two law firms, White & Case LLP and Reed Smith LLP, to break new ground in the fight against FGM. We are proud to announce, in honor of the International Day for Zero Tolerance of FGM, that alongside our partners we have created the first-ever legal guides for survivors of FGM in the U.S. These guides are available for free on our website and we hope they help survivors understand the legal routes available to them in their search for justice.
So far we have produced 8 guides, for California, Michigan, Minnesota, Texas, Virginia, Pennsylvania, Illinois, and New York—states that collectively house around 50% of all those living with the effects or at risk of FGM—and more are on the way. You can access them here.
Below, you can read our interview with Adijatu Kamara, a lawyer at Reed Smith who helped work on the guides. Elsewhere, our Executive Director George Zarubin also discusses the new guides: see here.
AHA Foundation: Thank you for speaking with us today, and for all the hard work you and your colleagues have put into this important project. To start off, could you provide a short description/explanation of these survivors’ legal guides?
Adijatu Kamara: The FGM survivors’ guides to legal remedies (or the guides) provide survivors and those at risk of FGM with information about applicable criminal and civil laws both at federal and state level, and identify relevant resources for stakeholders.
AHA Foundation: Reed Smith has an established pro bono project (the FGM Project) to help various organizations campaigning for the end of the practice of FGM. Why did Reed Smith decide to set up the FGM Project?
Adijatu Kamara: Reed Smith’s FGM Project was set up in 2015 to collaborate and establish working synergies with various charities involved in advocating/campaigning for the end of FGM as a practice to see how we can support their work through research and dialogue. Reed Smith’s FGM Project has for the past number of years worked with various international charities, and has included drafting various country law reports and preparing an anti-FGM Model Law and, most recently, collaborating with AHA Foundation to produce FGM survivors’ legal guides for several states in the United States (U.S.). We currently have over 45 volunteers across the U.S. and Europe, the Middle East, and Africa (EMEA) on the FGM Project.
I am passionate about [the fight to end FGM]…because it is inhumane and…the negative impact on a survivor’s health is far-reaching, [and] also because I am originally from Sierra Leone—a country reported to be the only country in southwestern Africa with a very high FGM/Cutting rate and this naturally means that I do have close relatives still at risk of FGM.
AHA Foundation: Why is this fight close to your heart?
Adijatu Kamara: As a co-lead for this project, I am passionate about the FGM redress discussion and putting an end to the practice globally not only because it is inhumane and that the negative impact on a survivor’s health is far-reaching, but also because I am originally from Sierra Leone—a country reported to be the only country in southwestern Africa with a very high FGM/Cutting rate and this naturally means that I do have close relatives still at risk of FGM.
AHA Foundation: How did you and your colleagues get involved with AHA Foundation in this project?
Adijatu Kamara: I co-lead the FGM Project along with my colleague Cindy Li, a trainee solicitor in our London office. Cindy and I are supported by Constantin Conrads, who is based in Munich and is the Reed Smith relationship partner for the firm’s FGM Project, and our key U.S. team for this AHA Foundation project spearheaded by Katy Basile, a partner in our Silicon Valley office, and Caitlin Chambers, a senior associate in our Houston office. This project has been a true team effort for our team across different offices and we are proud of it.
Reed Smith’s FGM Project was invited to get involved in AHA Foundation’s campaign to end FGM through one of our other partner organizations. Prior to agreeing to e-meet with AHA Foundation, we considered AHA Foundation’s advocacy footprint and whether their campaign aligns with our ongoing work on ending FGM. We were very much impressed by what AHA Foundation has achieved in the fight to end FGM.
AHA Foundation: Why did you and your colleagues decide to help AHA create these guides – why are they needed?
Adijatu Kamara: We decided to collaborate with AHA Foundation to produce the FGM survivors’ legal guides because the project aligns with our FGM Project’s purpose to support charities in the fight to end FGM through research and advocacy. As mentioned above, the guides provide survivors with information about applicable criminal and civil laws at both federal and state level, and identify relevant resources for stakeholders.
Unfortunately, FGM survivors in most cases are not familiar with the rights they have. This was one of the challenges that we aimed to tackle when producing the FGM survivors’ legal guides. The guides are drafted in a way that they are both comprehensive and easy to understand for non-lawyers, which helps survivors to assess their legal remedies.
AHA Foundation: Who are the guides designed for? How will they help survivors?
Adijatu Kamara: The guides are produced for FGM survivors and those at risk of FGM. It is intended that the guides will act as a jargon-free signpost for stakeholders. The guides aim to provide survivors of FGM and those at risk with a comprehensive framework explaining both civil and criminal remedies available to them in the courts.
AHA Foundation: Why are these guides important and special?
We believe that this project is unique as it seeks to create a one-stop signpost of FGM specific laws and related general criminal laws at both federal level and state level. The guides are important as they outline legal remedies available to FGM survivors and those at risk.
Adijatu Kamara: AHA Foundation has undertaken a flagship project in collaboration with law firms to produce legal guides for FGM survivors and those at risk of FGM in various states across the U.S. We believe that this project is unique as it seeks to create a one-stop signpost of FGM specific laws and related general criminal laws at both federal level and state level. The guides are important as they outline legal remedies available to FGM survivors and those at risk.
FGM is thought to affect over 200 million women and girls worldwide, and around 500,000 in the U.S. AHA Foundation’s aim is to provide knowledge, tools, best practice models, and support networks, to partner with policymakers, law enforcement, and social services in order to help affected communities and individuals and bring about sustainable change to end FGM.
AHA Foundation: Reed Smith worked on the Illinois survivor’s guide; could you tell us a little about the current situation in Illinois and how you and your colleagues tailored the guide to that state?
Adijatu Kamara: Reed Smith lawyers on the FGM Project in both the U.S. and EMEA have worked together to produce the Illinois FGM Survivors’ Guide to Legal Remedies. Our strategy in producing the Illinois Guide (and the remaining guides for the other five states covered by the Reed Smith team) was to ensure that the legal research is undertaken by our U.S. lawyers as the primary source is based on U.S. legislation.
Our EMEA team of lawyers was then tasked to review the legal research and to create summaries in plain jargon-free English from a non-U.S. lawyer’s standpoint, which were finally signed off by our U.S. based lawyers. This approach was effective because it ensured that individuals not familiar with legislation in the U.S. did a first-hand interpretation of the same, seeking guidance from our U.S. team to limit the use of legal jargon and defining terms where necessary.
The state of Illinois offers FGM survivors additional legal remedies through its state court system. First, FGM offenders can be prosecuted under the general crime of ritual mutilation and ritualized abuse of a child. Second, Illinois has enacted specific anti-FGM laws creating a criminal civil cause of action against a person guilty of such a Class X felony. Third, Illinois provides for FGM victims to bring both domestic and non-domestic battery claims. Courts can classify this as ‘aggravated’ for particularly severe forms of battery. Finally, the State can prosecute FGM perpetrators via other legal remedies (as applicable), including conspiracy, endangering the life or health of a child, neglecting or abusing a minor, aggravated unlawful restraint, or (aggravated) kidnapping.
In Illinois, criminal proceedings must be commenced by a prosecutor within 3 years of the committed offense in relation to both general crimes related to cutting and crimes specific to FGM, unless if the FGM survivor is under the age of 18 – where in most cases the action may be brought by the prosecutor at any time.
It is worth noting that, for example, an award for restitution will not preclude an FGM survivor from also bringing a civil action against the perpetrator for damages. An FGM survivor must commence legal redress within two years of the committed offense if pursuing a civil cause of action, or within 2 years of the FGM survivor having attained the age of 18.
AHA Foundation’s work in advocating the end of the practice of FGM in the U.S. further strengthens the United Nations’ fight for the full eradication globally of the practice of FGM by 2030… In light of this, it is fair to say that such legal guides or similar aids will be essential until the practice of FGM is fully eradicated globally.
AHA Foundation: How did you and your colleagues find the process of creating the guide?
Adijatu Kamara: The number of civil and criminal laws in each U.S. state can be overwhelming, so wading through all of them and identifying those that are applicable to FGM survivors was an important first step in the creation of the guides. Although many states have instituted laws specific to FGM survivors, we wanted to ensure to cover the entire universe of laws and regulations that could apply to an FGM survivor.
Accordingly, we spent time evaluating any criminal or civil law that could be related to what an FGM survivor experienced. For example, a criminal law related to kidnapping may not be the first law that comes to mind when thinking about FGM survivors. However, upon review of the specific definitions and elements of kidnapping, it was clear that kidnapping should be included in the guide because it is a crime that could be associated with FGM actions. Although the process was challenging at times, our key U.S. team was assisted by other Reed Smith attorneys who are licensed and know the law in the states for which the guides are being created.
AHA Foundation: In what ways, and how, would a survivor use these guides?
Adijatu Kamara: The FGM survivors’ guides to legal remedies are drafted in plain English setting out a summary of the legal protections and remedies currently afforded FGM survivors and those at risk to enable them to navigate the text without the need for specialist or lawyer interpretation.
The guides also provide useful information on the court process in the designated states when seeking legal recourse whether through criminal or civil proceedings so that a plaintiff (if seeking criminal redress) or claimant (if seeking civil redress) is aware of what to expect in terms of due process. The guides can be used by FGM survivors and those at risk as a starting point in understanding the remedies that may be available to them under both federal and state-specific law.
The guides are structured to first address FGM specific legislation criminalizing and thus prohibiting “cutting” or female genital mutilation, so that FGM survivors and those at risk are aware of the primary legal resource to consider before navigating the general legal protection or redress regime under both civil and criminal law remedies including (as applicable) conspiracy, endangering the life or health of a child, neglecting or abusing a minor, aggravated unlawful restraint, or (aggravated) kidnapping. Where it is not obvious to a female if they are FGM survivors or at risk of FGM, the guides recommend consulting with an OB/GYN or contact firstname.lastname@example.org.
Keeping in mind the complexity of the issues surrounding FGM, we also took into account and included reference to guidance available in other external resources. For example, the guides also refer to the World Health Organization’s website for a description of the different types of FGM (see here). The guides also consider some of the FGM related health challenges—both physical and mental health problems that could go on to affect women later in life including, but not limited to, irregular periods, bladder problems, recurrent infections and natural childbirth challenges.
AHA Foundation: How long will it take until such guides are no longer needed?
Adijatu Kamara: AHA Foundation’s work in advocating the end of the practice of FGM in the U.S. further strengthens the United Nations’ fight for the full eradication globally of the practice of FGM by 2030, following the spirit of Sustainable Development Goal 5 (gender equality and empower all women and girls). In light of this, it is fair to say that such legal guides or similar aids will be essential until the practice of FGM is fully eradicated globally.
However, we should not make light of what has been achieved in the U.S. through AHA Foundation’s advocacy, with 40 states having declared the practice of FGM a criminal act and enacting anti-FGM specific laws—and within the ambits of federal law, in strengthening the protection afforded to vulnerable women and girls. Great wins have indeed been achieved in the U.S. through AHA Foundation’s work in its capacity as a national leader in anti-FGM advocacy, both at federal level—lobbying for the enacting of the STOP FGM Act of 2020 into law—and at state level spearheading the efforts that resulted in five additional states, including Idaho, Kentucky, Massachusetts, Vermont, and Wyoming, enacting or strengthening their anti-FGM laws in 2020.
Ultimately, pushing for the remaining 10 states in the U.S. to enact anti-FGM specific laws so that a full circuit of strategic protection and redress is available to FGM survivors and those at risk is a step in the right direction in eventually making such legal guides becoming obsolete.
We hope that state lawmakers recognize that the power to make specific positive change in the protection of vulnerable women and girls is in their hands.
AHA Foundation: What do you and your colleagues hope to accomplish with the guides?
Adijatu Kamara: First, we believe that our collaboration with AHA Foundation to produce these legal guides for FGM survivors will further strengthen our ongoing work in the fight to end the practice of FGM by 2030, the targeted timeframe set by the UN General Assembly.
Second, we hope that the legal guides will serve as a signpost to the legal protection and remedies available to FGM survivors and those at risk under both federal and state laws.
Third, we hope that the guides will serve as a reminder to policymakers in those states in the U.S. that have yet to pass specific anti-FGM legislation instead of leaving FGM survivors with remedies based in general state criminal or civil laws or federal laws. States that enact anti-FGM laws are less likely to encounter arguments that the state law is unconstitutional. For example, the U.S. Female Genital Mutilation Act of 1996 was ruled by a federal judge in Michigan as unconstitutional because it fell outside the “Interstate commerce” clause and dismissed charges against several doctors in Michigan who had carried out the procedure on about 100 underage girls over a period of 12 years in United States of America v. Nagarwala et al., Crim. No. 17-CR-20274, 2018 U.S. Dist. Lexis 6198 (E.D. Mich. January 14, 2018).
[FGM is ultimately] an act of child abuse, gender discrimination, and sanctioned violence against females under the premise of traditional or religious beliefs.
Thankfully, AHA Foundation was instrumental in campaigning for the enactment of the bipartisan legislation, known as the Strengthening the Opposition to Female Genital Mutilation Act of 2020 (STOP FGM Act of 2020), which was ultimately passed and bans the practice of FGM and imposes a penalty of up to 15 years in prison for assisting or performing the procedure—but it applies only to future violations. Accordingly, we hope that state lawmakers recognize that the power to make specific positive change in the protection of vulnerable women and girls is in their hands.
Finally, we hope that the guides will serve as an eye-opener to the practice of FGM in its basic form—an act of child abuse, gender discrimination, and sanctioned violence against females under the premise of traditional or religious beliefs.
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This response has been provided by Reed Smith who provides legal services to AHA Foundation. This response has been prepared for AHA Foundation only, and has not been applied to specific facts. Reed Smith owes a duty to AHA Foundation only.
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