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'Whenever you talk about female genital mutilation there's a backlash'

About 2,700 girls living in Ireland may be at risk of undergoing the practice.

Marian Deah and Elizabeth Dato Gbah
Marian Deah and Elizabeth Dato Gbah
Image: Órla Ryan/TheJournal.ie

AT LEAST 200 million girls and women in 30 countries worldwide have undergone female genital mutilation (FGM).

FGM refers to the ritual cutting or removal of some or all of the external female genitalia for non-medical reasons. The practice is most common in Africa, Asia and the Middle East, and carried out due to cultural or religious traditions.

Using data from the 2016 Census, it is estimated that 5,790 women and girls living in Ireland have been subjected to the practice, compared with some 3,780 in 2013 – a 53% increase. A further 2,700 girls here may be at risk of undergoing the practice, according to research by ActionAid.

To mark International Day of Zero Tolerance for Female Genital Mutilation, which is happening today, a delegation from Liberia will address a conference in Dublin. Just under half of women and girls in Liberia have undergone FGM.

Elizabeth Dato Gbah is the acting head of Programme and Policy at ActionAid International Liberia (AAIL). She told TheJournal.ie attitudes towards FGM are changing in the country, but that it has been a slow process.

She said a number of journalists and others who publicly spoke out against the practice had to leave the country due to threats and intimidation and, in some cases, physical violence – though some have since returned.

“A few years ago FGM was a taboo subject that could not be discussed.

Whenever you talk about FGM you have a backlash from the community as it is a traditional practice.

Due to the fact FGM has been passed down through many generations, some people view attempts to stop it as culturally disrespectful.

Side effects 

In a bid to ease tensions, AAIL works with community leaders and practitioners to raise awareness about how the practice violates human rights, and can have serious or potentially fatal consequences for women and girls. The organisation also helps practitioners – known as ‘cutters’ – to learn new skills.

Immediate complications from FGM include severe pain, shock, haemorrhaging, tetanus, infection, fever and septicemia.

Long-term consequences include complications during childbirth, anaemia, the formation of cysts and abscesses, urinary incontinence, painful sexual intercourse, hypersensitivity of the genital area and increased risk of HIV transmission, as well as psychological effects.

In January, Liberia imposed a one-year ban on carrying out FGM on females under the age of 18. Last year parliamentarians removed FGM from a domestic violence bill, saying it was a cultural matter.

Marian Deah is the Executive Officer of Women Solidarity Incorporated (WOSI), an ActionAid Liberia partner that works with communities in FGM-practicing areas.

“We inform women and girls about the human rights implications and the health consequences. When doing this, we take along a health practitioner who has undergone the practice and knows the effects of it,” she told us.

FGM in Liberia is closely linked with the Sande secret society, which initiates girls into adulthood by rituals including FGM. About four in 10 women and girls aged 15-49 are members of this society.

Men as decision makers

As well as teaching women and girls about their own rights, WOSI separately speaks to men and boys about the consequences of FGM. Deah said this is extremely important as men traditionally make the decisions in Liberian households.

In Africa, especially in Liberia, the men make most of the decisions. So if the men agree and say ‘My daughter will undergo this practice’, it means it will happen. So if the men are convinced and know that this is harmful, it reduces the practice.

Deah said the prevalence of FGM has reduced from 58% in 2007 to 44% in 2013, showing that their efforts are having an impact.

Many people are still reluctant to report FGM to the police due to the lack of an outright ban and the stigma they may face from their local community.

Threats 

Deah is currently supporting one family who are taking legal action because their daughter was forced to undergo FGM without their knowledge and died about a week later due to complications.

She said the family will need to move to another area when the case begins because they will likely face intimidation and threats.

WOSI and other groups have drafted legislation, with input from community leaders and legal experts, which is expected to be submitted to parliament in the coming months.

If enacted, it would mean a complete ban on FGM in Liberia. Deah said this would be a major boost in terms of stamping out the practice and seeking prosecutions.

Deah and Gbah are among the speakers at an anti-FGM event taking place in the Royal Hibernian Academy in Dublin at 10am today. A public meeting and screening of the documentary Girls From Earth will take place in The Rotunda Foundation in Dublin at 6pm.

ActionAid Ireland supports the AFTER – Against Female Genital Mutilation/Cutting Through Empowerment and Rejection – project, which is funded by the European Union and aims to eliminate FGM.

The organisation recently ran a pilot programme in Cork to raise awareness among migrant women about the dangers of FGM. Participants said the initiative changed their opinion of what they had previously regarded as a normalised practice, and that they now have the confidence to reject it.

Read: ‘I was haunted by the blood I caused by circumcising girls’

Read: Irish project helping to end child marriage in Nepal

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Órla Ryan

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