Gov. John Kasich has signed a law criminalizing female genital mutilation, or FGM.
FGM is described as surgical modifications or cutting to external genitalia for non-medical reasons. It’s a cultural practice that is common in some African countries, and can result in serious health complications.
“In Ohio, most of the populations that might be affected by FGM would probably be Somali origin communities, Ethiopian origin communities – mostly immigrants from Africa,” says Sarah Hayford, a sociologist with The Ohio State University who has studied FGM in sub-Saharan Africa.
The new law is especially relevant in Ohio because Columbus is home to the second largest population of Somali immigrants in the United States – a group at high risk for FGM. Under the law, performing FGM is a felony punishable by fines and prison time.
The Population Reference Bureau, a nonprofit research organization, estimates Ohio is one of 10 states with the highest risk of FGM in the country. In Columbus alone, the group estimates over 18,000 women and girls are at risk of FGM - more than half of whom are under 18 years old.
“It’s also the case that immigrants change their practices when they move to new countries,” Hayford says. “So we don’t have a good sense of how common this is among Somalis who move to the United States, and who move to Columbus.
Hayford explains that criminalizing FGM can have mixed results.
“Criminalization can help people who are already thinking about changing their behavior,” she says. “There’s not good evidence that criminalization changes the way people think – if people are strongly in favor of a practice, criminalization will often just push it underground.”
Ohio is the 28th state to outlaw FGM. The practice has been illegal under federal law since 1996.