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.

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