This month, the AHA Foundation sat down with Maine State Representative, Heather Sirocki, who has served the Scarborough district of Maine since 2010. She is leading the fight against female genital mutilation (FGM) in her state by authoring and sponsoring an anti-FGM bill, LD 745. Despite her fierce battle to get this legislation passed, the bill is unfortunately now dead. In spite of what seems to be insurmountable setbacks, Representative Sirocki is unstoppable and is not giving up her battle to protect little girls in her state as she explores different avenues to ban FGM in Maine. The AHA Foundation has been impressed by her determination throughout the last four months and is proud to support her efforts to pass legislation that would criminalize FGM in Maine.
AHA Foundation: Your bill, LD 745, was written to prevent little girls from being mutilated in Maine. What inspired you to put this bill forward?
Representative Sirocki: There was a person that approached me to put the bill forward and at first I thought it was a little nutty to tell you the truth. FGM can’t possibly be happening here. And it was during campaign season and my district is always a little difficult. I indicated that if I was to win the honor of re-election, I would certainly put the bill in because I think that if someone in Maine has an idea for a bill and they feel passionately about it, it is nice to give every bill an opportunity. Then, I started doing research on it and I was horrified to discover that this actually is happening here.
That is how I was inspired to put the bill forward. And then I did a Google Alert on FGM and was even more horrified with the videos and the stories from Indonesia, Somalia, and all over the world. Even the UK shocked me to discover that last year, more than 5,000 cases were reported and they had not had one prosecution ever, even though they have had legislation since 1985.
AHA Foundation: Can you tell us a bit about the FGM situation in Maine?
Representative Sirocki: Maine may seem like a faraway place that it couldn’t possibly be happening. However, about 11% of the population in Lewiston is Somalian. And if you expect that 98% of all females have undergone mutilation in Somalia, then that tells me that you have a very deep-seated cultural inclination towards doing this. My mother comes from another culture and I know that people do bring with them their own cultural traditions. We need to make it clear to new people in this country that we do not tolerate something like FGM.
As far as the situation in Maine, I did ask the Department of Health and Human Services if they could run two reports. One was if anyone reported this procedure in our state. I was hearing anecdotally many reports. I wanted to know if the mandated reporters, the doctors and nurses, are reporting this to the proper authorities. And I found out that they are not. There has not been one single report.
Then, I asked the Department of Health and Human Services to run a MaineCare billing report. MaineCare is Maine’s version of the Medicaid program and about 25% of Mainers are on the Medicaid program. And last year, just that one year, three of the specific FGM codes were billed for 8 individuals and providers were reimbursed. We don’t know the ages of the females or where the charges were filed. I don’t know where the cutting took place. But this indicated to me that it is happening and that providers are treating this and getting reimbursed for this but there is no reporting.
And the other thing is, a non-profit called MAIN, Maine Access Immigrant Network, did apply for and receive a federal grant that only 8 locations in the country were awarded, to focus specifically on outreach and education in the immigrant community to stop FGM. The federal government realizes this is a problem in Maine.
AHA Foundation: Why does Maine need FGM legislation if it is already a federal crime?
Representative Sirocki: That was explained to me by our Maine Prosecutors Association District Attorney, Maeghan Maloney, who I have been working with. She explained clearly that federal prosecutors prosecute federal laws. You cannot ask a state prosecutor to prosecute federal law. You have to have state laws for state prosecutors and federal laws for federal prosecutors.
All we are asking is for the state of Maine to codify that which is already federal law. This is not unusual. It is a very normal thing to do, to have state law in addition to federal law.
A lot of the argument against the bill has centered around this very thing. Opponents say that our penal code is already sufficient. That our penal code already allows a way to prosecute for this crime. We already have child abuse laws on the books. We already have aggravated assault laws on the books. And that the prosecutors already have plenty of state laws on the books to prosecute this crime.
Opponents say that this is very unnecessary and that this is a hate bill. The only reason to put this in is to target an immigrant community and to create hate, they say. So my response is, “you’re absolutely right, I hate child abuse.”
I don’t buy their argument at all. The Maine Prosecutors Association even provided evidence that they are not confident that they could gain a conviction with the current state laws. The prosecutors are saying that they would really like clearly stated state laws to help them prosecute. And that is why we need this legislation even though it’s already a federal crime.
I believe the case in Michigan also indicated that little girls are being trafficked from Minnesota, a state that prohibits FGM, to Michigan, which at the time did not have prohibition. And the word on the street up here is that girls are being taken to a hub in a nearby state without legislation for cutting. So you could travel from one state to another, especially to states that don’t have legislation, as this makes it more difficult for the state prosecutors to enforce what’s going on.
AHA Foundation: Are these challenges specific to Maine or do other states face them?
Representative Sirocki: I think other states are facing the very same thing. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) has all of a sudden come out in opposition against this. They are very interested in this particular bill. They opposed expanding the criminal code. Are you kidding me? They didn’t step forward and say one word about expanding the criminal code when we had distracted driving laws on the books and we wanted to specifically prohibit texting while driving. There was no testimony. Nothing said about that. And all of a sudden they have a problem with this.
I’ve spoken with representatives from other states and they have said they were facing the same types of kick back as we’ve seen in Maine. They have mentioned that the immigrant community has gotten organized in communicating with each other. And they are using the same rationale. They are saying that you really need a culturally sensitive outreach program and that is the best way to handle this. That it does not need to be a crime. That is exactly what they are saying in the state of Maine and states around the country.
In Maine, we had an intense floor debate and one of the representatives said “Are you kidding me? Are you telling me that you would go to someone who has been committing domestic violence and say ‘here’s a little brochure… we are going to tell you the culturally sensitive way that you should not be committing domestic violence. You shouldn’t be doing that.’”
There was a one hour interview with Mark Hyman, which was amazing because there was a young lady who had been mutilated sitting next to a doctor and the doctor was saying that they would very hesitant to report the crime because they wanted to gain the trust of the Muslim women so that they would come in and seek healthcare. She was very careful about her terminology. She doesn’t use mutilation; she uses circumcision to soften the terms a bit. The young lady sitting next to the doctor got upset. She finally says, “Let’s call this what it is… child abuse!” She was angry that the doctor was trying to be culturally sensitive and she explained that her aunt did this to her. She explained that her father was furious when he found out. So it is not necessarily always the male figure in the household calling for this. It can be woman to woman. This young lady did not think we should be softening the terms at all. And I think the doctor had her eyes opened and that maybe she shouldn’t be so culturally sensitive.
Engaging with the community is important but what we are doing right now is not working. As evidence by zero cases being reported. I mean, you can be culturally sensitive all you want, as we are being in Maine, and nothing is happening.
AHA Foundation: What are some other common arguments that you saw against the bill?
Representative Sirocki: I’m not sure if this happens in other states but it’s a playbook move to shift the focus onto an isolated target so that it becomes that the sponsor of the bill is the problem. It’s not the bill, it’s that Heather Sirocki is hate-motivated. They shift it to whoever is the sponsor. They are to be hated so much that you can’t possibly pass this bill. It becomes a personal attack on the sponsor. So whoever is sponsoring must be prepared to be personally attacked, marginalized, and questioned. They question your integrity. They question your motives.
What’s funny is that in our state house, we have rules that we abide by when we are in the Chamber. We have to speak through the Speaker. We are not allowed to make eye contact with other members in the Chamber. People are constantly reminded because it’s easy to forget and they will get upset at someone on the other side of the aisle, or even within their own party, and they start to turn around and glare at you. And the Speaker will say, “May I remind the Member to please speak through the Speaker.” And you are not allowed to question the motives of others or impugn their character.
But as soon as you step foot outside of that Chamber, that’s exactly what they do. They are in your face; impugn your character; question your motives. My bill was hate-motivated. I’m a racist. I’m anti-immigrant. So that has been a real problem. They hate me so much that they couldn’t move forward with the bill.
AHA Foundation: What are next steps to getting FGM legislation passed in Maine?
Representative Sirocki: There are a few options. One, the Governor in Maine can put a bill in whenever he wants. He doesn’t have to have permission. A legislator can only put in a bill once every 2 years. You cannot put a repeat bill in the year after attempting to pass the original bill, as a legislator. So, I cannot put the bill back in. The Governor can put a bill in at any time though and my guess is that he will put this bill in around January. This bill would be altered from the original LD 745, as that bill itself went through several versions.
But then there is another option. In Maine we are one of the few states that allows for direct initiative. A direct initiative is a bill that is completely grassroots. You go out and you gather enough signatures from voters and any question, with any language you want, no one can change the language of the bill, goes onto the ballot. Then, the voters vote directly. Direct democracy. It is dangerous because it is basically mob rule and I don’t like the process. We as a state are easy to manipulate.
But in this situation, there are some very upset Mainers who are organically, on their own, already talking about coalescing and forming a group to do that exact thing. If they are going to do that, I would like to be involved so that they have a good piece of legislation to put forth. So, I think that maybe this is already in the works because people are so angry that this bill failed. I’ve never seen anything like it. I have never had so many phone calls and emails as this.
The media won’t touch it. The local media barely even mentioned this. But the people on social media are all over this.
What could happen is this… they do bring forward a ballot initiative brought forward by citizens after they gather signatures. We have until sometime in March to get this done and get 70,000 signatures. So, we need boots on the ground to get that done. Anyone can sign it as long as you are a registered voter in the state of Maine. Then you turn them into the Secretary of State in Maine, who approves the signatures. That’s all they do. They don’t even look at the language of the bill. Then it’s on the ballot.
The only way you would not have the bill on the ballot is once the signatures are certified, then it goes to the legislature and we have one decision to make – whether we refer the bill to a committee for a public hearing. The public hearing will not stop the bill. That bill will be on the ballot unless the legislature decides that they are going to vote on it and pass it so it never goes on the ballot.
AHA Foundation: What can our supporters do to insure that FGM legislation is passed in the future in Maine?
Representative Sirocki: I would say the more phone calls and emails the better. Anyone that can write to their local papers in Maine would also be helpful because the media is refusing to interview or even report on this. I got one TV interview on this locally. And I had two newspaper articles; one after it failed and one earlier. But basically it’s been a blackout. So trying to get the media to pick it up is needed.
Facebook ads that target Maine would be great because so many people are on Facebook and it can get directly to people’s newsfeeds. We have seen an organic growth of this and it’s out there but the more the better.
AHA Foundation: Can you provide our supporters with some tips on the best ways to engage representatives on issues supporters want to raise?
Representative Sirocki: My advice is this… we receive hundreds of emails on one given issue that look like a form letter. I view those all as one. Don’t ever use a form email. I view that as generated by a computer that is prompted by an outside group.
If I hear from a constituent, in a very informal way, it is more genuine. When the people feel strongly about an issue, they call me. We get very few phone calls. A handwritten letter is extremely rare. Emails that are not so formal are good too.
Even fewer do we get people asking to sit down and talk with us. That’s very rare. If you have a constituent that wants to sit down and talk to you, you go and talk. And that carries a lot more weight. It is a lot more effort on the constituent’s part but to just have a person, who is not a lobbyist, contact us is so rare. To come across as more genuine has a far greater impact. These are all better ways. All of these take more effort, but they are worth it if you are really passionate about an issue.