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Thursday, April 22, 2010

The Female Genital Mutilation Act 2010?

April 21, 2010
By Human Rights in Ireland - Irish perspective on human rights

Today, Senator Ivana Bacik of Labour will be introducing a Bill to prohibit Female Genital Mutilation in the Seanad during the Labour Party’s private members’ time.  The Bill and its Explanatory Memorandum are available here. The Minister for Health and Children has welcomed the Bill, indicating that it will be read a second time in a year or so. Labour’s press release notes that FGM Bills were introduced by Labour TDs Liz McManus (see Bill here) and Jan O’Sullivan (see Bill here) in the Dail in 2009 and 2001. Senator Bacik has said:
We urgently need a law specifically criminalising this barbaric practice which has destroyed the lives of so many girls and women world-wide. I welcome the Minister’s commitment to address this issue, but there has already been a great deal of work done on developing a legal framework, and delaying the introduction of this legislation by another year is unacceptable.
Senator Bacik’s Bill would:
  • Introduce an offence of performing female genital mutilation on a woman or girl (note the gender-specific nature of the offence), the penalty for which shall be a fine or a term of imprisonment up to 14 years or both.
  • Have extra-territorial effect so that an Irish citizen or resident who performs FGM outside of Ireland still falls within the terms of the Act.
  • Rule out any defence of parental consent in the case of a minor.
  • Allow a medical defence where the procedure was performed by a registered medical practitioner who ‘honestly believed, on reasonable grounds, that the operation was necessary to safeguard the life or health of the woman or girl concerned or to correct a genital abnormality or malformation’.
The Bill appears, to some extent, to take its cue from the UK Female Genital Mutilation Act 2003. In that jurisdiction, the legislation has fallen at the prosecution hurdle, and thus appears to have largely symbolic and perhaps deterrant value. For open-access articles which critique the UK legislation see this study by Sadiya Mohammad on the legislation’s efficacy and this article by Moira Dustin and Anne Phillips which considers the legislation in the broader context of UK law-making in the general area of women + gender + culture.

The Government takes a firm position agains FGM in African countries which receive Irish state aid, but has been much slower to acknowledge FGM as a domestic issue. There is a growing awareness – largely due to the work of  the organisation AkiDwA – that FGM is an issue for Ireland. They estimate that at least 2,500 women living here have been circumcised. A number of medical practitioners have drawn attention to the problems which occur when women who have been subjected to FGM give birth. The threat of return to African countries for the purposes of FGM has also been a recurring motif in asylum cases, such as that of Pamela Izevbekhai, which we blogged about here. For further detail on FGM and Ireland you can read the literature review which the Women’s Health Council has published here, the Childrens’ Rights Alliance briefing on FGM and children’s rights here, AkiDwA’s FGM legislation campaign page here and their article in Translocations here.

In 2001, the Government’s approach was to encourage prosecution of those who performed genital cutting on girls in Ireland. So far no such prosecutions have been reported. In any event, those campaigning for a ban on FGM in Ireland argue that while existing criminal legislation may be adequate to ground the prosecution of a person who cuts a child’s genitals, specific legislation is needed to take account of the cultural and social significance of these types of practice (see more on the arguments for specific legislation from AkiDwA here). In 2008, the Irish Family Planning Association began the process of  developing  a national plan of action – encompassing criminal legislation, the asylum process, development aid, community work and health work – to address FGM. You can read the Plan and its Executive summary here at the website of Amnesty International (Ireland).

We will be following the progress of this Bill and hope to have further commentary on it in due course.