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'There was no anaesthetic, nothing': Call for urgent action to protect girls in Ireland from FGM

Ireland’s first conviction for female genital mutilation has highlighted how girls are at risk here.

A MARRIED COUPLE last week became the first people in Ireland to be convicted of carrying out female genital mutilation (FGM).

The practice refers to the ritual cutting or removal of some or all of the external female genitalia for non-medical reasons.

The mother and father had denied allowing FGM to be carried out on their daughter, who was just under two years old at the time, in September 2016. 

They had claimed their daughter sustained her injuries after falling onto a toy while not wearing a nappy at the family’s Dublin home. This version of events was disputed by three medical experts who gave evidence.

The couple, who can’t be named for legal reasons, were remanded in custody last week. They will be sentenced by Judge Elma Sheahan on 20 December.

fgm act An excerpt from the FGM Act 2012. Source: IrishStatuteBook.ie

FGM has been illegal in Ireland since 2012 and, upon conviction, carries a maximum sentence of 14 years. 

The verdict of the trial was welcomed by advocates as a signal that Ireland does not tolerate FGM; many hope it will act as a deterrent to people who are considering carrying out the harmful practice.

The trial raised a number of questions about what this country needs to do to prevent FGM from happening here. It’s estimated that 6,000 females living in Ireland have undergone FGM, which is sometimes referred to as cutting, and many more are at risk.

Women who have undergone the practice can experience lifelong physical and psychological effects. 

‘Cruel and degrading’ 

Advocates have said more than legislation is needed to help protect vulnerable girls and women, and have called for a national action plan to be introduced to tackle the problem.

ActionAid Ireland is a member of the National Steering Committee on FGM and has been raising awareness about the practice for many years, holding workshops for migrants and asylum seekers as part of this process.

Siobhán McGee, ActionAid Ireland CEO, said FGM “reflects deep-rooted inequality between the sexes and constitutes an extreme form of discrimination against women and girls”.

“It is nearly always carried out on minors without consent and is a violation of the rights of children.

The practice also violates a person’s rights to health, security and physical integrity, the right to be free from torture and cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment, and the right to life when the procedure results in death.

McGee said she and her colleagues were “deeply saddened” by the recent court case. She said it “represents a failure to prevent the practice taking place in this State” and highlights an “urgent” need for action.

She told TheJournal.ie that while the prospect of prosecution should act as a deterrent, legislation alone is “not enough to address and stop the harmful practice of FGM”.

“It is mostly vulnerable women and girls who are at risk and it is the responsibility of the State to protect them from harm.”

McGee said “a preventative and holistic approach” is needed to eliminate FGM in Ireland.

“This is done by working with women, men, girls and boys from communities where FGM/C is part of their tradition, raising awareness and empowering them to reject the practice.”

She said there is also a need to develop a coordinated programme that will equip frontline service providers, such as the gardaí, social workers, teachers and nurses “with the tools to be able to recognise cases where a child is at risk of FGM/C and to know how best to respond in that instance”. 

‘It’s about controlling women’ 

Fiona Coyle, Director of the End FGM European Network, agrees that more than just legislation is needed. “The law alone will not end FGM,” Coyle said, agreeing that a more holistic approach is needed.

Speaking to TheJournal.ie, Coyle said: “The key thing is community voices, if you don’t invite the very people among whom you’re trying to bring about change, you’re already losing that battle.

You can have all the nice policies and legislation in the world, but if you haven’t begun to consult with people about why it is done, sadly it’s a losing battle.

A lot of women who are living with the physical and psychological effects of FGM say there is “a huge lack of understanding by professionals and the general public about what FGM is”, something Coyle said “can be quite stigmatising for them”.

Coyle agrees that a national action plan is the right approach, noting that similar initiatives in countries such as Finland and Portugal have been successful.

She said FGM is very often placed under a country’s health or justice department, or under a department that deals specifically with women’s issues, if there is one, “but it really does take an overall, holistic approach” involving a number of departments and non-government organisations.

Coyle said effectively dealing with the issue will take a lot of investment as there needs to be long-term community engagement where organisations build up trust over time. 

“You can’t start on the defensive, saying ‘don’t do that, that’s wrong’. You have to understand why FGM is practiced – sometimes it’s for religious reasons, sometimes it’s for social reasons.

This practice predates religion (it dates back thousands of years) and it really is everywhere in the world. It’s about controlling women.

Coyle noted that some women in Ireland and elsewhere were forced to undergo a clitoridectomy – the removal of their clitoris, similar to what’s known as FGM Type 1 – in the 1800s, and in some cases more recently, if they were found to be enjoying sex or ‘caught’ masturbating.

There are four different types of FGM and the age at which females undergo it can vary from newborn to adult, but it usually carried out on young girls. The practice is often seen as a rite of passage into womanhood, with a woman or girl not deemed fit for marriage until she undergoes it; in many cultures it is connected to child marriage. 

FGM is often assumed to reduce a female’s sexual desire and so increase the chance she will remain a virgin until she is married. 

At least 200 million girls and women have undergone FGM in around 30 countries, mainly in Africa, the Middle East and Asia, according to the United Nations. Some Muslims, Christians and members of other religions carry out the practice.

Social norms 

The End FGM European Network comprises 27 organisations across Europe. Members are surveyed each year and Coyle said the second biggest issue they encounter in their work, after lack of funding, is a lack of training of professionals.

She said the UK and France, both wealthy countries with large migrant populations, are probably the “furthest ahead” in terms of initiatives to tackle FGM. There have been a number of FGM convictions in France.

However, despite being outlawed there since 1985, the first conviction in the UK only happened earlier this year after a number of failed cases.

“Every woman has a different experience, there are so many different types of stories. The physical and psychological impact is different for every woman, it’s so important that professionals really understand that,” Coyle said.

“It’s about educating those who are in the country but again in a way that is not going to lead to stigma in one community.”

Training for professionals must dispel common myths about FGM, such as the fact it is only done by people from African countries, Coyle said.

People say things like, ‘That’s barbaric, how can a mother do that to her child?’ But it’s broader than that. Parents do it from a place of love, their child will not be accepted into that society (if they don’t undergo FGM).

While noting that they are very different, Coyle compared carrying out FGM to getting a child baptised – for many people, it’s a tradition that is simply done and not questioned.

“A lot of Irish people baptise their children to get them into schools while they don’t have a faith. There are some ‘done things’ in society that are people just following the norm,” Coyle said.

She noted that many people believe FGM is only carried out in certain African countries.

“It’s not just the African diaspora, Indonesia has one of the highest rates of women who have undergone FGM; it happens in Malaysia, Russia; South Africa; and South America on a smaller scale,” Coyle told us.

‘I was cut four times’

Mehret Yemane underwent four FGM procedures before she was 10 years old while growing up in Sudan. She said the procedure was carried out more than once as the woman doing it claimed it was not done properly on the previous occasions. 

“She kept coming and said, ‘Oh last time, I didn’t do a good job’. The last time I was cut it was with my younger sister. I was around nine and she was three or four. It was painful.

My brothers actually had to hold me down. She used the same blade she used on my sister because we were just side by side. There was no anaesthetic, nothing.

Despite the pain the girl goes through, Yemane said the day the procedure is carried out is treated like a celebration – there was a party and her friends were invited. It was a normal part of growing up that she didn’t really question until she was older.

Yemane moved to Ireland in 2004 and lives in Portarlington, Co Laois, with her two sons. She has been raising awareness about FGM, and the impact it has had on her, for about nine years.

“The law passed in 2012, which was great to see, but now we need to educate to eradicate FGM for good.”

Yemane said it’s “vital” that healthcare workers, crèche workers and teachers are trained about how to deal with FGM cases and, where possible, spot children who are at risk. “Those are the ones who can actually see the kids closely, and they have to know what they are looking for. We are trying to educate them in how to approach it,” she said.

fgm Mehret Yemane pictured at an Akidwa conference in October, where she spoke to TheJournal.ie. Source: Órla Ryan

Yemane said FGM is a form of child abuse and suspected cases should be reported to the gardaí.

She said she has chosen to tell her own story to show other women who have undergone FGM that they can survive it, but that it should never have happened to them in the first place. She said a lot of people expect her to tell a story with “horrifying, gory detail” but adds “it’s not about that, I’m just trying to send a message”.

Yemane said her brothers who held her down while she was cut no longer agree with FGM, partly because of her activism. 

Yemane is a member of Akidwa, a group which focuses on issues affecting migrant women in Ireland and has been working to eradicate FGM for 20 years.

Salome Mbugua, Akidwa’s founder, said: “The hidden nature [of FGM] and the fact that it involves women and girls’ private body parts make it very hard to detect and control.” 

She said last week’s conviction “sent a very strong message to anyone who might be planning to subject their daughter or daughters to FGM in Ireland”.

Mbugua said a national action plan an interagency working group is needed to “ensure effective coordination and monitoring”.

Urgent action needed

Akidwa worked with ActionAid Ireland to deliver workshops about the dangers of FGM at Direct Provision centres in Cork.

Both organisations are members of the National Steering Committee on FGM, a network that has been calling on the government to adopt a coordinated approach across various departments as well as work with civil society groups and survivors.

McGee said the recent court case highlights the “urgent” need for a national plan to be implemented.

“The State must put in place a national coordinated inter-agency response, drawing on expertise of civil society, including relevant public services. The approach design must be survivor-centred, so that survivors are supported. This is badly needed to ensure there isn’t ever a case such as this in the Irish courts again.”

Speaking at Akidwa’s anti-FGM conference in October in Dublin, Aidan O’Driscoll, Secretary-General at the Department of Justice, said FGM is “a key human rights issue” and “one of the most serious forms of gender-based violence”. He said the understanding of FGM in Ireland is “developing” and State services need to work with NGOs, healthcare services, migrants and others to help tackle the issue.

When Tánaiste and Foreign Affairs Minister Simon Coveney was questioned about the topic in the Dáil last month he stated that the government “supports the development of legislation outlawing FGM, funds community and media education initiatives on FGM and provides training to improve healthcare and protection services for those affected”.

Coveney noted that the HSE is working to raise awareness of the health implications of FGM among at-risk communities.

“An FGM resource pack for health professionals and relevant staff in maternity and associated settings has also been disseminated.

“The HSE also provides funding for a national network of immigrant women to facilitate working with target communities around raising awareness of the illegality of FGM and sharing information about the risks of this practice and the supports available for people.

“We are doing a lot but we need to do more,” he stated.

Comments are closed due to ongoing legal proceedings.

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Órla Ryan

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