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'It's a serious form of child abuse': Thousands of girls in Ireland at risk of female genital mutilation

An estimated 6,000 females in Ireland have already undergone the harmful procedure.

File photo of Labour Senator Ivana Bacik
File photo of Labour Senator Ivana Bacik
Image: Sam Boal/RollingNews.ie

THOUSANDS OF GIRLS in Ireland are at risk of undergoing female genital mutilation (FGM) and many families are pressured by relatives to subject their daughters to the practice, experts have warned.

An estimated 6,000 females in Ireland, and 200 million worldwide, have already undergone FGM. The practice refers to the ritual cutting or removal of some or all of the external female genitalia for non-medical reasons.

More than 3,000 girls in Ireland could be at risk of being subjected to FGM, according to research. Survivors suffer from lifelong physical and psychological effects. 

FGM, sometimes referred to as cutting, has been outlawed in Ireland since 2012 but no one has been convicted to date.

Speaking at a conference in Dublin yesterday, Senator Ivana Bacik, who helped produce Irish FGM legislation, said a national anti-FGM action plan is needed. Bacik said the practice should be treated as “a serious form of child abuse”, noting that it has “huge, lifelong consequences for girls and for their families”. 

Bacik said the point of the legislation – which criminalises both people who carry out FGM in Ireland and those who bring their daughters abroad to get cut – was not just to prosecute people but also to use as an advocacy tool and show that the State takes the issue seriously. 

We’re not so much just looking at prosecutions, and number of prosecutions, here in Ireland. We’re also looking at the need to ensure a strong preventative strategy.

Bacik said, while some progress has been made, the lack of a national action plan – something advocates have been requesting for years – is “disappointing”. She said a lack of “coordination at top level” has resulted in considerable gaps in the prevention of FGM.

Aidan O’Driscoll, Secretary-General at the Department of Justice, told the conference 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 NGOs, healthcare services, migrants and others to help tackle the issue.

The event was organised by Akidwa, a network of migrant women in Ireland, which is part of the National Steering Committee on FGM.

Pressure from relatives 

Salome Mbugua, Head of Operations and Strategy at Akidwa, said many parents, often mothers, who live in Ireland but are originally from a country where FGM is common are pressurised by family members to bring their daughters home to be cut.

Two weeks ago, a woman came into Akidwa’s office looking for advice. A relative from her home country had texted her, reminding her that she must soon bring her daughter home to undergo FGM. Mbugua said this scenario is not uncommon.

“What we are hearing now from women is that they believe [FGM] is a harmful practice and they wouldn’t want it to happen to their children, but there is still a lot of pressure.

“They’re being pressurised from where they’re coming from, being told they shouldn’t wait long (to have FGM carried out on their daughter).”

Some people avoid bringing their children to visit relatives abroad for fear they will be secretly cut without their consent, the conference heard.

Training teachers and healthcare workers

In 2012, Nottingham became the first city in the UK to declare a zero-tolerance stance on FGM. Campaigners in Ireland have looked to the city for guidance when developing their approach to preventing FGM and supporting survivors here.

Policy makers in Nottingham work with survivors and affected communities as well as agencies who have a responsibility to safeguard and protect women and children.

The Mojatu Foundation trains healthcare workers, teachers and police so they are better equipped to identify and support those at risk, or already affected by, FGM. The organisation also helps to teach children about their rights in relation to FGM and other issues.

“From an early age you have to engage, but it has to be age-appropriate,” Dr Edith Iheama said, adding: “We want to empower them to be able to disclose to a teacher or to a trusted friend.”

Iheama said there is no correct age to start teaching children about FGM “because we know it could happen at any age, but it has to be age-appropriate, you need to know the audience you are working with”.

Fatima Awil, Advocacy Officer with End FGM European Network, added that including children and young people in the conversation is vital. 

“It’s important that students understand their rights … Even kids as young as in primary school should know what things are appropriate – so teaching them about consent, teaching them about who to come to when they have a problem, teaching students to look out for one another.

“They don’t necessarily have to know the intricate details of FGM but if they see signs that their friend may be going through something they should tell a teacher and that teacher has a duty to take appropriate action,” Awil said. 

Information about support services can be read here

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Órla Ryan

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