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Opinion: 'It would be easy to dismiss female genital mutilation as something alien to Ireland - but it's not'

Minister Josepha Madigan writes about how she is inspired by Ifra Ahmed and her fight against FGM in Ireland.

Josepha Madigan Fine Gael TD for Dublin Rathdown

IT IS 15 February 2018. I am sitting in the glamorous surroundings of the Mansion House for the Irish Film and TV awards.

The Game of Thrones star Liam Cunningham sits on my right. We are both presenting awards on the evening. To the left of my husband sits a lady whom I will come to know as Ifrah Ahmed. She is the subject of a film called A Girl from Mogadishu.

Over the course of the evening, Ifrah tells me about the film and her role as an international activist determined to eradicate the barbaric practice of Female Genital Mutilation (FGM). Her stories both inspire and traumatise me.

The widespread use of FGM in Ifrah’s home country of Somalia is estimated at 98%. This is despite the United Nations General Assembly adopting a resolution on 20th December 2012 to ban FGM globally.

The concert of nations declared that the mutilation of female genital organs for non-medical purposes is a violation of human rights. 

FGM and Ireland

Ireland: A Girl from Mogadishu - filming in Dublin Ifrah Ahmed (Left) with American actress, Aja Naomi King, who plays her in the film of A Girl from Mogadishu. Source: SIPA USA/PA Images

It would be easy to dismiss female genital mutilation as something alien to Ireland, something that does not impact on our society. Unfortunately, this is not the case. NGOs active in Ireland, including Akidwa, estimate that over 3,780 victims of female genital mutilation currently live in our country. This is a shocking statistic.

FGM has actually been banned in Ireland since the Criminal Justice (Female Genital Mutilation) Act 2012, yet there have been zero prosecutions.

Why?

Because it continues to be a covert practice, girls undergoing this heinous procedure behind closed doors. No one has the courage to tell on another. Therefore the culture continues and thousands of girls, living in 21st century Ireland, endure such an unconscionable cruelty.

No convictions

Technically any resident of Ireland convicted of this crime is subject to punishment by a fine and imprisonment of up to 14 years. However, to date, there have been no convictions for this crime, fear prevailing where bravery should.

The lack of successful prosecutions clearly indicated that more has to be done. Although the 2012 Act was a welcome and necessary step in criminalising female genital mutilation, it loses its deterrent effect if instances of this crime are not prosecuted.

Without convictions perpetrators believe that they can continue to act with impunity while victims do not have confidence that the crime will be effectively prosecuted if they come forward.

The gardaí should be tasked with special intelligence using undercover agents if necessary in order to stamp this out once and for all on this island.

It is true that female genital mutilation cases are not confined to Ireland. Effective prosecuting of this crime has proved difficult across Europe. In January 2015, the European Commission highlighted the need for more effective prosecution as one of its key goals in combating violence against women. There is sadly not a shortage of victims of this horrendous crime in Europe but there is a major shortage of successful prosecutions.

The reasons identified by this failure to prosecute are manifold.

‘FGM is not confined by national borders’

Of central importance appears to be family and community ties between victim and perpetrator. Female genital mutilation is typically organised by the victim’s parents and the “cutter” is typically a person of high standing in their community.

For a victim to come forward, to seek or cooperate with a prosecution, they risk separation from their parents and ostracisation within their community. We must urgently find the supports in Ireland to address this risk.

Health practitioners should be better informed as to their duty to bring cases of suspected female genital mutilation to the authorities. Specialised training should be provided to GPS, nurses, social workers, etc. where necessary.

The reluctance for those providing healthcare (assuming it is sought) is compounded by fears concerning cultural sensitivity, client confidentiality and often by a lack of knowledge about existing legislation.

Female genital mutilation is not confined by national borders. It will also require a collaborative European approach. We must work with our European partners. The European Institute for Gender Equality does important work in compiling information from across European jurisdictions.

It is working towards developing a common understanding of the issue amongst European member states and a common methodology to combat female genital mutilation.

The implementation of the European Victims’ Rights Directive is an important step in developing a common European approach that focuses on the needs of the victims of this crime. The failure to convict those who commit female genital mutilation is not acceptable.

We must work with our European partners to develop best practice and ensure that successful prosecutions can be brought about. The law must provide an effective deterrent. Otherwise, we are failing the victims.

We are failing, in particular, courageous women like Ifrah Ahmed, a worthy winner of the International Person of the Year at the Rehab Group/People of the Year Awards.

She sought asylum in our country, campaigned to have a ban on FGM put on a statutory footing in Ireland and continues to be an activist. The beautiful surroundings of the Mansion House pale beside the beauty of Ifrah Ahmed both inside and out.

Let’s help her stamp out this sick practice for good in Ireland, find the culprits and prosecute them.

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About the author:

Josepha Madigan  / Fine Gael TD for Dublin Rathdown

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