Female genital mutilation occurring in Ireland

  • Joanne McCarthy

More than 2,500 women and girls living in Ireland are estimated to have undergone female genital mutilation (FGM), according to new research by AkiDwA, a national network of African women living in Ireland.

The number was described as a ‘conservative estimate’ by Sudha Patel of Duke University, North Carolina, who conducted the research. It is feared that the figure is in fact much higher.

FGM involves the partial or total removal of the external female genitalia for culture or other non-therapeutic reasons. It is common practice in at least 28 countries, most of which are in Africa. In some countries, such as Egypt, Somalia, Sudan and Ethiopia, up to 99% of women have had FGM.

The continuance of FGM out of respect for culture and tradition has been rejected at international level as an unacceptable motivation. FGM is considered an act of violence against women and children because of the physical damage it causes. It can cause irreparable harm to female genitalia and reproductive organs. A huge number of people die needlessly both as a direct result of FGM, and from related infections and complications.

It is estimated that approximately 135 million women and girls worldwide are living with FGM. Increased immigration into Ireland from countries that practice FGM has meant that it has become an issue here, with a number of instances of it having taken place having been unofficially reported.

Proof of its prevalence has mainly been based on anecdotal evidence from healthcare workers, with no cases to date believed to have been reported to the Gardai.

Because FGM is not medically available in Ireland, the Women’s Health Council (WHC), a statutory body which advises the Minister for Health on all aspects of women’s health, has stressed that FGM could be practised in private, remaining hidden from the health system and authorities.

AkiDwA and the WHC have called for legislation to be introduced to specifically ban and criminalise the practice of FGM in Ireland. At present, it would appear that FGM would be covered by the Non-Fatal Offences Against the Person Act 1997. However, there are a number of loopholes that could preclude perpetrators from being prosecuted.

Furthermore, the only comparable case in this country was when a 29-day-old baby boy died in Waterford after a botched domestic circumcision was carried out with a razor blade. The man responsible was cleared of any wrongdoing after the judge directed the jury to apply different standards to the legislation because of cultural differences.

The WHC fears that this case may have set a precedent for cases concerning the genital mutilation of girls, if they were to come before a court.

There are a number of different types of FGM, and the methods used and reasons for it vary from region to region. It is usually performed between the ages of five and 12 by the child’s female relatives, but sometimes takes place just before a woman marries or gives birth for the first time.

FGM is usually performed without the use of anaesthetic or hygienic surgical tools. Instruments known to be used include sharp rocks, razor blades, kitchen knives, broken glass, or even the use of the circumcisers’ teeth, according to the WHC.

FGM practices took place as far back as 5,000 years ago, predating both Islam and Christianity. Historically, women were sometimes perceived as being predisposed to promiscuous behaviour, and this belief persists in many countries where FGM is common, the WHC has stated.

One of the main reasons for it is to reduce a woman’s ability to feel sexual pleasure by removing her external sexual organs and making sex painful. Thus, it is used as a tool to preserve virginity, prevent immorality and control a woman’s sexual power.

FGM is also associated with notions of beauty, cleanliness and femininity in some cultures, where genitals are seen as unclean and ugly, or even a sign of infertility. Another reason is to protect the girl against rape.

According to Comfort Momoh, an FGM consultant who has received an MBE for her extensive work in campaigning to eradicate the mutilation of female genitalia, FGM doubles the risk of a mother dying during childbirth, and makes it three or four times more likely that her child will be born dead.

Short and long-term problems associated with FGM include haemorrhaging, shock from the pain and level of violence, frequent urinary tract infections, urinary retention and abscess formation, septicaemia, increased pain during menstruation, and the development of scar tissue. Post-traumatic stress disorder and other psychiatric symptoms have also been widely documented. Furthermore, use of the same equipment on different girls means that the transmission of HIV/AIDS is facilitated.

In spite of this, lack of education means that FGM persists in being an accepted and expected practice in many parts of the world, with eight girls being mutilated every minute.

Eradication of female genital mutilation will require work at both grass roots level as well as at international level, Ms Momoh believes.

Some countries have enacted legislation prohibiting FGM. In 2003, in addition to enacting such laws, Britain made it an offence to help a child procure FGM. This essentially makes it illegal for people to take children back to their country of origin to practice FGM. There is now a 14-year prison sentence imposed on a person who commits FGM.

There is considerable anecdotal evidence to suggest that the practice of bringing a child to another country from Ireland to commit FGM is occurring here. Cork GP Dr Claire McCarthy has encountered such instances in her practice on a number of occasions.

“Some of the women are terrified of bringing their daughters back to their native country as they are scared that the child’s grandparents or other relatives will perform FGM on them, as happened to them when they were young.”

FGM is relatively new to Ireland, and health professionals are in the early stages of learning how to deal with it. AkiDwA is currently undertaking a year-long project, funded by the Office of the Minister for Integration, aimed at increasing knowledge among healthcare workers about treating women who have undergone FGM.

Salome Mbugua, national director of AkiDwA, has been trying since 2001 to get a debate going about FGM in Ireland:

“FGM is not just in Africa. FGM is not just in Egypt. FGM is here.”

For more information on AkiDwA, see www.akidwa.ie.


annsixtyish - 23/10/2008 18:40

What about the mutilation caused by episiotomy +vaginal hysterectomy =subsequent pelvic floor prolapse repairs?????

Rebecca - 24/10/2008 11:48

Oh my God, how utterly horrific. In my ignorance I only realised this horrific brutal and barbaric practice existed when I learned of it at Uni. There is no more serious form of child abuse than this - short of actually directly killing a child of course and thousands do die as a direct result of it every year and thousands and those who survive such horror are condemned to live in misery. It no surprise that people can bomb and main one another when we live in a world where people can commit such horrors against their own daughters. But to think that a such a horrific act of violence takes place in Ireland to today - words fail me for adjectives to describe it. This is something that should be known about publicly. Legislation to specifically ban and criminalise the practice of FGM in Ireland is absolutely mandatory if we are to consider ourselves anthig but a nation which tolerates barbarity.

Anonymous - 24/10/2008 11:48

I know that there are certain rare medical conditions where circumcision in boys is called for and this is done in hospital under aseptic condition with appropriate aneasthesia but this was not one of them and while certain rare conditions call for circumcision of boys there is no medical or any other sort of justification for F.GM. or for circumcision of boys outside of medical grounds - M.G.M. "Another reason is to protect the girl against rape" I cannot believe the sick attempts at jusification that I am reading. Another result of this, can be the woman having an obstructed labour which eventually kills both her and child. The British law which makes it illegal for people to take children back to their country of origin to practice FGM is absolutely excellent. I woiuld hope that any medical professional encountering F.G.M in a minor would both treat the minor to restore them to health and would report the fatt hey have been so horrifically abused so that action could be taken to to a) protect them and b) find and punish the aggressor.

Anonymous - 24/10/2008 11:49

My best friend gave birth to my godson a few months back and the same happened to her. Even though her labour was coming along fine, they induced and performed an episiotomy which was totally unnecessary, just to speed things along. It's a disgrace. She had to sit on an ice pack for 2 days.

Rebecca - 24/10/2008 12:51

I don't understand the anomaly where a 29-day-old baby boy died after a botched domestic circumcision - effectively MGM, or male genital mutilaiton and the man responsible was cleared of any wrongdoing. If you illegally mutilate someone - and this as carried out for non-medical reasons, and they die, death as a result of an illegal act is murder. If a victim dies as a result of an illegal act, it is murder To apply different standards to the legislation because of cultural differences is utterly SICKENING in my view. It's as tho if you have a culture which calls for such horrific acts - then different standards apply to the legislation for you. Either we are country with ONE law for ALL or we are not. If cultural difference applied to F.G.M. or arranged marriages of children, I sincerely hope that wouldn't that be ok as well? Ann, I take your point completely, However, in some cases when labour is protracted and the childs life is being endangered as a result, an episiotomy is a rare neccessity. It should never be practised as routine of course. Equally with vaginal hysterectomy, if a hystectomy is required for reason of severe non-responding prolapse, a vaginal hysterectomy is often preferred by the patient and may be easier to recover from. In the case of prolapse, a pelvic floor prolapse repairs may be necessary to prevent hysterectomy and they are sometime carried out following hysterecomy to repair the damage from the prolapse F.G.M. is by its nature carried out with no medical reason whatsover on non-consenting girl in spetic condition where they are often held down and their genitalia are cut away with no anaesthesia used. Some convulse and break their bones as a reult of the extreme agony, many faint from pain shock and bloodloss, and the after effects are listed above. Reading the accounts of this barbarity would bring tears to the eyes of anyone - if they could stomach them.

Anonymous - 24/10/2008 15:32

We cannot compare episiotomy and vaginal hysterectomy to this. They are done for medical reasons whether we agree/accept it. What is happening to these women and children is completely barbaric. It goes beyond belief that it is happening in the world today.

Anonymous - 28/10/2008 09:01

yes anon it is barbaric, but just because something is LESS barbaric doesnt make it right. My friend, her fiance and a present health professional did not feel it was the right course of action and shouldn't she have the final say? It IS her body, and as it was, the baby was born too suddenly and ended up traumatised by it. What is the point in rushing something along when it is going at its own natural pace. oh I know - to get more women in and out in an increasingly overcrowded meternity hospital thats why!

Nollaig32 - 30/10/2008 14:47

FGM must be outlawed in Ireland immediately and anyone assisting the practice here (or abroad) be punished. The UK has it right.

Anonymous - 30/10/2008 16:51

This practice is absolutely appalling, barbaric controlling and pathetic . So it's fine for a male to keep sexual feelings ? These poor females have to endure a lifetime of sexual contact without the joy of a fulfilling sexual relationship with their husbands .

Paddy - 30/10/2008 19:54

Barbaric, is the appropriate, and perhaps the only, word to describe this desecration of the child. Outlaw it with a very substantial mandatory prison sentence. Get on to your politicans. Now that we know it is happening in Ireland the law should be introduced immediately also to apply to anyone travelling to do so. No statute of limitations to apply

Louise(EXH72940) - 31/10/2008 10:56

I know this is veering off topic so forgive me, but on the subject of crimes against women, did anyone else hear of that poor woman in Somalia who was stoned to death recently for committing adultery? Not only that but when her relatives rushed over to her aid, a row broke out and police officers opened fire, killing an innocent child. I was absolutely disgusted but unfortunately not too surprised to hear about it. There are certain countries who believe that it is justifiable to treat women like this; the same countries where FGM is par for the course. Something NEEDS to be done to let the authorities know that the rest of the world will not stand by and let this happen. They should be held accountable for their actions. I would love to raise some sort of awareness campaign to highlight this, and to try to take steps towards bringing about an end to this barbaric treatment.

Paddy - 31/10/2008 13:36

Louise, I completely agree with your post. That was horrifying. The thought of the awful INDESCRIBABLE sufferings of that poor girl and then turning on her family when they tried to help her. The Irish Government should use every opportunity to make these Governments aware that barbaric actions such as FGM and all forms of ill treatment, even killing of women such as that, will not be tolerated by the rest of the world. Their Governments should be pressured into taking immediate action to educate their populations and introducing laws that all forms of cruelty against the person is outlawed with severe penalties imposed against those who commit these crimes. Now that we are aware that children could be mutilated in Ireland and taken abroad to have these savage acts performed on them emergency legislation should immediately be enacted in Ireland to STOP THIS HAPPENING WITHIN OUR CONTROL. No further excuses like that judge sending messages that their cultural practices get them off the hook when the little boy died as a result of a botched domestic circumcision.

Patricia(GMC11099) - 31/10/2008 14:43

I agree totally with you Rebecca. Such practices should be outlawed, everywhere in the world, because they amount to assault on the person. What culture could possibly be called "culture" which would condone such barbarous practices? It is uncivilised and savage. P

50 - 31/10/2008 16:31

There are many forms of inhumanity and cruelty practised in many countries around the world of which FGM might be the most hideous. In most cases this "inhumanity" is both legal and culturally acceptable in the specific country concerned. Execution and abortion are both legal and acceptable in most countries. Torture, child-labour and child abuse are widely practised. Indeed in our own country domestic abuse is still widespread. We should urge and encourage our politicians to copperfasten our laws to prevent all unacceptable practices which might be "culturally acceptable" elsewhere. What goes on in other countries is outside our control and again, we should encourage our politicians to protest against such inhumanity wherever it may occur.

Rebecca - 03/11/2008 13:25

It is not simply a lifetime of sexual contact without the joy of a fulfilling sexual relationship that these women have to endure,it is life of agony, repeated infections and the very real risk of death in chidbirth. I would encourage all to read the report from the group quoted in the above article it is on their website. Paddy and Nollaig I agree of course, and it is not just children this is happening. it is right from babies up to teens and young women. Louise, I am right behind you on this, I wil be contacting the group quoted above and altho it is for African women and I am not African I will be doing what I can to help. Thankfully in our own country, domestic abuse is illegal as is execution and torture.

nocircni - 22/12/2008 20:22

As someone who has worked in this area for many years, the parents do not know they are harming their children as male and female genital mutilation runs in families. if the father is circumcisied then its more likely his son will be and if the mother is circumcisied then its more likely she will circumcise her child. Those who have been harmed particularly when they are very young rationalise these practices and the practices continue with many people unwillining to accept they have been harmed. We cannot discriminate on the grounds of sex in protecting only female children males must be protected too as the Waterford case clearly demonstrates. Gender neutral legislation and education is required to protect all children in ireland.

Anonymous - 23/12/2008 11:38

"the parents do not know they are harming their children" - in the case of F.G.M. - if you see your daughter writhing in excrutiating agony, covulsing, haemorhaging, passing out from shock and blood loss and sometimes breaking hr own bones in an attempt to get away and know how it felt for this to be doine to you - HOW CAN YOU NOT KNOW. I am sorry but it is an excuse and and appalling one. In the case of M.G.M where it is performed on an infant I would say similar - except of course oin cases where it is performed ina hospital setting and then yes, parents may not know the harm they are doing to their sons and yes, rationalisation can occur if the child victim has been very very young.  s. Gender neutral legislation and education - YES, far more edication is required to protect all children in ireland.

If you are part of the nocirc organisation, well done on the work and may you be blessed with the strength and means to continue it.

Lou - 23/12/2008 11:53

"male and female genital mutilation runs in families." you make it sound like some form of genetic predisposition! Just because your ancestors had it done, does not justify and ceratinly does not make you exempt from the pain and dangers associated. regards

nocircni - 23/12/2008 11:57

Hi anonymous I recently went to conference on FGM in london and an old lady who had been subjected to this practice in the way you describe and she said publicly  that it had not harmed her because she could not remember it, that's how strong the power of rationalisation is even among those who work to end it.  Most women who have been genitally mutilated accept is as do most men and that is why it continues.

Lou - 23/12/2008 13:36

nocircni you talk about fgm continuing because "men and women accept it" but the children that this is carried out on do not accept it. They are FORCED to. Of course we can all look back at a tragic or painful event and say "well I am ok now so it mustnt have been that bad" or "ah sure I cant even remember it so whats the big deal?" the point is, it IS a big deal, and it DOES matter to the child, at the time when it is being carried out. lots of things happen to us that we do not remember. My first proper memory of anything is probably from when I was about 3. But that does not mean that if someone hurt me before that age that I didnt feel the pain. Just because we cannot remember the pain as an adult doesnt mean we didnt feel it as a child.

nocircni - 27/12/2008 15:18

Hi lou

Of course he child does not accept it what I was saying is that those who I know who have been damaged often rationalise it because they don't know what it would have been like to have not had it done.  I speak for many survivors in this area who are too ashamed to speak for themselves my comments were observationional.

Demonising all parents does not work in eradication efforts nationally or internationally as many of those both male and female who have been harmed as children know that their parents did not know any better and still love their parents and understand the power of cultural forces in the continuation of these practices.  Which is why that despite legislation in the Uk and elsewhere to protect the girls the boys are not protected because people in western countries find it easier to make a judgment about female genital mutilation than they do about their own mutilations.  It is often said for example that their are medical reasons for male crcumcision when there simply are not and medical reasons are also cited in those countries were females are operated.

Many of us are extremely angry that is happened to us or any members of our families just as I am and that is why we educate in this area. Many of us also have damaged children or are damaged ourselves we do not accept this which is why we work to bring about a deeper understanding of the dynamics which continue to allow these things to happen and are seeking both gender neutral legislation and educational initiatives globally to end this barbarism.

Anonymous - 05/01/2009 10:31

Nocirc, anyone excusing their their parents as they "did not know any better" is a complete cop out. How can anyone watch their own daughter writhing in excrutiating agony while they are being mutilated and risking and enduring all sorts of horrors claim to "not know any better".Just because one understands the power of cultural forces does not make such mutiliation acceptable. Actually nocorc you are wrong and in fact on another thread, some posters provided valid, albeit quite rare meidcal circumstances where the male circumcision operation is required treatment. It is universally medically recognised in every even half-civilised country around the world that there are no medical reasons - NONE - fOR F.G.M (the use of the word mutilation should give you a clue) and hence the "reasons" (unjustifiable excuses) for such barbarity in the countires where they are practised are entirely "cultural" or to put it more accurately, for the subjection of females and female sexuality.

In terms of M.G.M (Male genital mutilation of children as distinct from medically neccessary circumcision surgery) your anger is perfectly justified and your attempts to educate are entirely positive and commendable.

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