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Minnesota bill against female genital mutilation raises opposition

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After the bill’s near-unanimous passage in the House, longtime critics of the practice have raised concerns about the measure, leading to some second thoughts.

Opposition from some members of Minnesota’s immigrant and refugee communities is slowing the momentum of a bill that would impose stiff penalties for parents involved in cases of female genital mutilation.

Since the bill’s near-unanimous passage in the Minnesota House this week, some longtime critics of the ritual have met with senators, lobbied the governor’s office and handed out fliers — all to raise alarm about the legislation.

The Council for Minnesotans of African Heritage, a nonprofit called Isuroon and other groups argue that the legislation carries overly harsh punishment and unintended consequences, including the possibility that newcomers from countries where genital cutting is widespread would not seek medical care and other services for their children. They call for a less punitive approach focused on educating parents.

Now, the author of the Senate version is voicing second thoughts about approving the legislation yet this session, though Senate GOP leadership have not committed to a course of action. “We all agree this practice is absolutely horrible, and something needs to be done,” said the author, Sen. Karin Housley. “How can we empower communities to address this practice from within rather than having Big Brother come down and say, ‘This is wrong?’ ”

Rep. Mary Franson, who introduced the House bill, said the Senate is bowing to pressure from groups “more concerned with perception than doing the right thing and protecting girls.”

“Watering down the bill really does a disservice to the little girls who are in danger,” she said.

Deqa Hussein took pictures as Rep. Mary Franson spoke during Thursday’s meeting. Hussein also spoke out at the event encouraging women to be proactive in protecting children.

Concerns about the bill

Franson’s bill makes it a felony for parents to subject their daughters to the procedure and calls for loss of custody and prison terms from five to 20 years, depending on the extent of the injuries. It also increases penalties for those who perform the procedure, which has been illegal since pioneering Minnesota legislation in the 1990s.

The bill won support from all but four of the 128 House members who voted, including Rep. Ilhan Omar, the country’s first Somali-American legislator.

Fadumo Abdinur, one of several Somali-American women who testified in favor of the bill, said stiff penalties are needed to root out a practice that leaves girls and women with long-term health problems. Abdinur, who experienced genital cutting, did not get her period until she was 20, and only after a Texas physician partly reversed her procedure. She also suffered painful periods and intercourse.

“I don’t want any girl to go through this,” she said. “I will talk against it for the rest of my life.”

Lul Hersi, a St. Cloud mother of four and a supporter of the bill, says the United States should warn refugee parents against rushing to have their daughters cut before traveling to the United States — and disqualify them from resettlement if they do: “The parents know the risks they’re putting their kids in.”

Fartun Weli of Isuroon, which won a $180,000 federal grant this winter to educate health care providers about the procedure, stresses that she does not condone the practice.

But she and other critics balk at separating girls from their families, which they argue victimizes them a second time. They say they worry about families arriving from places where the practice is deeply rooted. An amendment to Franson’s bill states the penalties apply only if the ritual is practiced in the United States. But Haji Yusuf, a Somali community leader in St. Cloud, questions whether authorities can always readily determine that.

For parents who came to the United States with girls who’d already undergone the procedure, the bill, which mandates reporting to authorities by health care providers and others, could discourage doctor visits.

The bill requires Minnesota’s health commissioner to provide outreach and education about the dangers of female genital mutilation (FGM) in immigrant communities — and to seek private funds to do that. The lack of designated funding for education, including for law enforcement and mandated reporters, is an issue for Ann Hill in the state’s Office of the Ombudsperson for Families, which has also raised concerns about the bill.

Brikti Hiwet, an Ethiopian-American elder and reproductive health lecturer at the University of Minnesota and St. Catherine University who attended Monday’s hearing, said she felt lawmakers had a “knee-jerk reaction” to the issue. She says existing state and federal laws prohibiting the practice are effective.

“How can you protect children when you take them away from their families and put them in foster care?” she said.

Hodan Hassan, a mental health clinician, also argues for a less punitive approach.

“When I read the bill, my heart sank,” Hassan said. “It criminalizes parents who don’t understand the legality of their actions and don’t have the ability to advocate for themselves.”

Hassan says lawmakers should not scrap the bill but should revisit and revise it.

Weli says she worries the House discussion framed the issue as a Somali community problem when almost a dozen immigrant communities in Minnesota hail from countries that practice genital cutting. At least one of the Minnesota girls whose parents took them to a Michigan doctor now charged with performing the procedure — the case that inspired the House bill — was not Somali, according to child protection documents.

“All our mothers went through this. Some of our sisters who grew up in Africa went through this. Our daughters won’t go through this because so much has changed,” said Abdullah Kiatamba, a West African community leader.

Aim is to protect girls

Franson says the bill’s intent is clear: protecting girls. So is the language in the bill that limits penalties to those who live in the United States when the practice takes place. She says loss of custody must be a consequence of a procedure that causes girls lifelong harm.

“America is the land of the brave and the home of the free,” she said. “Little girls who moved here from other countries have the right to be free from the oppression of female genital mutilation.”

She pointed to an event the nonprofit Voice of East African Women planned to hold Thursday evening as evidence that immigrant supporters of the bill have already taken on the task of educating communities about it.

But Housley, who met with Weli and Kaade Wallace of the Council for Minnesotans of African Heritage, said she wants to ensure senators get broad input and consider unintended consequences before they act — and time is running out this session.

“When laws get made this quickly, that’s when mistakes get made,” she said.

Kiatamba says the bill’s passage seems to have sparked an open conversation on a rarely discussed issue.

“Something dramatic needs to happen and bring this issue out of the shadows,” he said.

mila.koumpilova@startribune.com 612-673-4781 faiza.mahamud@startribune.com 612-673-4203

Health

Somalia, UN seek to vaccinate over 700,000 children against polio

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XINHUA — Somalia’s health ministry and two United Nations agencies on Sunday launched a three-day oral polio vaccination campaign, targeting 726,699 children under five years of age in two districts.

A joint statement issued in Mogadishu said the campaign backed by the World Health Organization (WHO) and UNICEF is taking place in Banadir and Lower and Middle Shabelle regions.

Ghulam Popal, WHO Representative for Somalia said the campaign will be conducted in two rounds through house-to-house visits by vaccination teams, noting that no cases of polio have been detected in Somalia since August 2014.

“However, as a preventative measure; it is imperative that all children under five years of age in targeted locations, whether previously immunized or not, receive two drops of oral polio vaccine,” Popal said.

Banadir region reported the highest number of wild poliovirus cases in Somalia (72 out of 199) during the Horn of Africa outbreak in 2013-2014.

“We urge all families to get their children vaccinated to protect them against this dangerous disease,” he added.

The UN health agencies said the first and second round will involve the use of oral polio vaccine for children under five years of age.

Inactivated polio vaccine (IPV) will be used in the third round to boost immunity among children between 2 and 23 months of age.

According to the UN, conflict and insecurity in South and Central Somalia especially has continued to hinder access to children during polio immunization campaigns in 2017, with about 240,000 children under five years of age reported as not accessible for more than a year.

“This campaign has been carefully planned to make sure that all children in the chosen areas, particularly those who have been missed in previous vaccination campaigns, are reached this time,” said UNICEF Somalia Representative Steven Lauwerier.

The UN agencies said over 4,400 vaccinators and monitors, and around 800,000 doses of vaccine have been mobilized to conduct the activity.

The Horn of Africa nation has been polio free since August 2014, when the last case of polio was reported from Hobyo district of Mudug region.

The declaration by WHO two years ago keeps Somalia outside the last group of countries which still record cased of polio in the world.

WHO has however warned Somalia remains at risk of importation of the virus from these countries.

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Can your blood not be moved for Somalia?

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On Oct. 14, I was participating in “Somali Studies in Canada: Resilience and Resistance,” a multidisciplinary colloquium held at Carleton University.

It was the first of its kind in Canada, and more than 50 brilliant, bright and eager academics, artists, frontline workers, and grassroots activists from Ontario and Quebec gathered to discuss the Somali diaspora’s resilience and resistance over the past 30 years in Canada.

But that was abruptly interrupted as attendees began to hear news of a massive explosion in Mogadishu, Somalia. Two hundred casualties were immediately reported; in just a few hours, more than 300 people were believed to be dead. It is being described as the deadliest attack to take place in the region.

Just two weeks later, on Oct. 28, a car bomb detonated in front of a busy hotel and restaurant as gunmen took hostages inside; later that day, a vehicle carrying government troops triggered a roadside bomb planted by the militant group al-Shabaab. In the end, at least 23 people were declared dead in Mogadishu.

For those of us in Canada who arrived in the early 1990s and who left family and people behind, stories of death and violence have become achingly familiar.

Families that have made difficult decisions to leave loved ones and a homeland behind are constantly forced to relive them in the immediate moments after horrific events have taken place.
It felt like I had barely been given a moment to breathe before I began to call family members and friends to make sure everyone was accounted for. This in-between place—of frantic calls, racing hearts, guilt for the relief that everyone is just fine, frustration, anger and fatigue—was eerily familiar.

Since the explosion, the question at the top of the general public’s mind is: “will your community mobilize?”

To me, the question isn’t worth asking. Over the summer, thousands in Somalia were displaced and put at risk of starvation due to a rapidly escalating drought. According to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, Somalia is facing a humanitarian crisis and is at risk of a severe famine—all of this coming just six years after the last deadly drought.

They note that between November 2016 and May 2017, an estimated 739,000 people were displaced by the drought; more than 480,000 of the displaced, or 65 per cent, are younger than 18.

Shortly after learning this information, a vast majority of the Somalis I knew in Canada mobilized. Elders added extra remittance payments to their monthly spends; young people coordinated events and fundraised money. Even those who could not give money retweeted, shared statuses and ensured the public was aware of the dangerous situation Somalia was in. Young Somalis became #FamineResistors with many in our city doing the work to garner attention, collect donations and forward to the appropriate hands in Somalia.

The question, then, is not whether we will mobilize. The question is: will you?

On Oct. 8, just six days before the horror in Mogadishu, 16-year-old Zakariye Ali was killed in a Toronto junior high school parking lot; three days before that, 29-year-old Abdulkadir Bihi was shot to death in Etobicoke: Allahu naxariisto. Mustafa Mattan, 28, was fatally shot through the door of his apartment building on Feb. 9, 2015; no killer has been apprehended.

He is just one of at least 100 young Somali men between Toronto and Alberta whose deaths continue to go unsolved by local police despite active work by community members and agencies such as Positive Change that have worked to address the lack of information provided by RCMP and other authorities. Somalis continue to be deported by the Canadian government by Immigration Minister Ahmed Hussen. Despite Hussen’s identification as Somali, it’s important to remember that representation does not always mean we are allowed to stay.

On top of this, Somalis continue to face negative media depictions that work to present the general public with correlations to terrorism, piracy, and gangsters. Media narratives like Vice’s documentary This is Dixon and the now-discontinued CBC drama Shoot the Messenger which looked to fictionalize the Rob Ford crack scandal.

This scandal saw “Project Traveller” come to a head in June 2013 when police stormed an apartment building on Dixon Road in pre-dawn raids that resulted in more than 60 arrests of primarily young Somali men. When the Canadian public and media only know us through the analysis of violence and terror—a characterization all too frequently and easily deployed—there is only attention granted to us in our deaths.
Why do you only want us when we are dead?

In early October 2017, our mothers cried on camera for the kids they raise here. In July 2017, they wept while they watched Abdirahman Abdi be brutally murdered by police. This week, they weep silently for the family they have lost back home. This middle place they’ve come to reminds them they are not wanted—and still, all everyone offers is prayer.
What happens when the prayers are not enough?

After every death, every drought, every instance of violence, I am hard-pressed to feel grateful that Somalis are granted prayers. We did not get here all by ourselves. We get up and face the onslaught: “Your community again? But how are you feeling?” The answer does not change, and the emotions are the same each time: grief, relief guilt, fatigue, rage, frustration.

We will pray for Somalia, politicians tell us; we will not forget you. But you can not forget those you do not remember. The City of Toronto may light the Toronto sign blue and white, but Mayor John Tory rarely makes commitments to address the violence that lies at the doorsteps of Somali communities.

Somali-British poet Warsan Shire reminds us that “in Somali, when we see injustice, we say ‘dhiiga kuma dhaqaaqo?’ which translates into ‘does your blood not move?’ ”

Can your blood not be moved?

For those of you who are willing to pray and willing to gather in vigil, try something different. Call out false narratives of terror and deficit when you see them. Ask the Ontario Ministry of Children and Youth Services what specific long-term and sustainable services they are allocating to Somali youth in Ontario. Pressure the Toronto Police Services, Ontario Provincial Police and the RCMP to appropriately investigate the deaths of young Somali men.

Stand in the streets when we tell you the Minister of Immigration has deported us. Pay attention to the counter violent extremism programs that criminalize Somali youth that are being funded by Public Safety and Emergency Preparedness Canada.
Prayer is an act of empathy; action is an act of solidarity. We need both if any of us are to survive.

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Somalia Opens First Forensic Lab Dedicated to Rape Investigation

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Somalia has opened its first forensic laboratory to process rape kits. Sexual assault is widespread in the country, according to human rights groups, but few victims come forward and few perpetrators are punished. The new forensic lab in Somalia’s Puntland region has been hailed as a step in the right direction, but a long road remains to end impunity for gender-based violence. Neha Wadekar reports for VOA from Garowe, Somalia.

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