FRANKFORT -- Jennifer was just 5 when her parents told her she was taking an airplane for a "special trip." It turned out it was to a group of strangers who restrained, gagged and cut her -- without the use of anesthesia.
Now an adult, Jennifer used only her first name while testifying about surviving female genital mutilation, often referred to as FGM. She appeared before the Senate Health & Welfare Committee in support of Senate Bill 72, a measure that would ban the practice in Kentucky.
"I'm here today, not just to tell my story, but for the many others who have not found their voices," Jennifer said. "We need to send a strong message that we do not support this practice."
Kentucky is among 15 states where it is still legal, according to information provided to the committee. A federal ban that had been in place for more than two decades was found unconstitutional in 2018.
FGM is any procedure involving the partial or total removal of the external female genitalia or another injury to the female organs for nonmedical purposes, said Amanda Parker of the AHA Foundation, a New York-based nonprofit dedicated to the elimination of the procedure. She said it is typically performed on girls between the ages of 4 and 14 -- often with a razor blade or pair of scissors.
"This is a form of child abuse that is used to control the sexuality of women and girls," said Parker, who also testified in support of SB 72. "It predates all major religions and is not mandated by any major religion. It is something that has been co-opted by patriarchal societies and religious sects."
Senate Majority Caucus Chair Julie Raque Adams, R-Louisville, said 1,845 girls or women are at risk or have undergone FGM -- just in Kentucky, according to the Population Reference Bureau, a Washington D.C.-based nonprofit that promotes evidence-based health and welfare policies.
"As you know, I'm very passionate about child abuse, and this is probably the most egregious form of child abuse against ... young girls that I have recognized," said Adams, who sponsored the legislation along with Sen. Whitney Westerfield, R-Crofton, and Sen. Ralph Alvarado, R-Winchester, who also chaired today's committee meeting.
SB 72 would make performing FGMs on minors a felony, ban trafficking girls across state lines for FGMs and strip the licenses from medical providers convicted of the practice. Another provision would classify FGM in state statutes as a form of child abuse and require mandatory reporting of it. An educational component of SB 7 would provide outreach to communities and professionals likely to encounter FGM cases and mandate training for law enforcement.
The proposed changes in the law would also allow survivors of FGM to file civil lawsuits against their perpetrators up to 10 years after turning 18.
Jennifer said she went public as a survivor, in part, to help prevent the act from happening to other girls. This was her third time testifying before a legislative committee in recent months.
"When you consider this bill, I urge you to think about any other little girl in your life you love and care about," she said. "If someone were to come into her life that believed in this practice and wanted to cut her, would you be able to stand by and not do everything in your power to stop it?"
Sen. Stephen Meredith, R-Leitchfield, said he wished more people dared to speak out when they encounter societal wrongs.
"I want to commend you for your testimony," he said in voting for the measure. "I'm not sure any of us appreciate the courage it takes to get up before a committee like this and talk about something so personal."
Sen. Tom Buford, R-Nicholasville, also voted for SB 72.
"The time has come for Kentucky to stand up ... and say no to this," he said.
SB 72 received committee approval and now goes to the full Senate for consideration.