Call for Ban on FGM in Ireland

According to a report in the Irish Times, a number of participants at an event held by the National Steering Committee on Female Genital Mutilation to mark International Day of Zero Tolerance to FGM called for a stepping up of the campaign for a new law banning the practice of FGM in Ireland.

During the event, serious concerns were expressed about whether the current legal framework in Ireland served as an effective tool for addressing the practise of FGM. While Government advice has indicated that female genital mutilation constitutes an offence under assault laws, speakers at the seminar said distinct legislation was needed.

According to the Irish Times report, a spokesman for Minister for Health Mary Harney said: “The question of introducing specific legislation to ban female genital mutilation remains under review. However, we cannot be specific on a timeframe for this review at this stage.”

The Irish Steering Committee came together in early 2008 to develop the Plan of Action to address Female Genital Mutilation, which was finalised in late 2008. The report is a valuable source of information on the practise of FGM in Ireland and elsewhere. The document highlights that ‘a proactive and coordinated response is required to prevent the establishment of the practice [of FGM] in Ireland and to provide care for women and girls living in Ireland who have already undergone FGM in their country of origin’. It identifies a number of strategies ‘as being essential to addressing FGM in Ireland and in other countries through Irish development policies’, focusing on actions under 5 strategy headings: legal, asylum, health, community and development aid. From a legal perspective, the report quotes earlier research carried out by the Women’s Health Council which, amongst other things, highlighted the shortcomings and the inappropriateness of existing legislation in terms of prosecuting FGM.

According to the Plan of Action and the Women’s Health Council, both the levels of prevalence and incidence of FGM in Ireland are relatively low. However, it is highly regrettable that steps are not being taken at this stage so as to proactively prevent future cases of FGM in Ireland, rather than waiting until the state may find itself in a ‘reactive position of having to deal with the more problematic eradication of a practice already established in a new context’ (Women’s Health Council).

There is no question that law can, in and of itself, serve as an absolute deterrent to or panacea for FGM. Indeed, international experience demonstrates that the legal prohibition of FGM unaccompanied by community-based initiatives focussing on health and education will not result in a significant reduction in the practice. However, it is arguable that bringing about the legal prohibition of FGM is relatively easy and can certainly be achieved more quickly than the changes in societal attitudes and other factors affecting practitioner communities that are necessary for the practice to be discontinued. In addition, a strong legal framework can strengthen the ability of agencies to protect children at risk and provide them with appropriate care (‘Plan of Action’), as well as providing support to members of communities who are under pressure to subject their children FGM and are reluctant to do so. Given the egregious impact that FGM has on the human rights of girl children, a failure to take the step of establishing an effective and watertight legal prohibition on the practise is inexcusable.

In 2001, the Council of Europe Parliamentary Assembly passed Resolution 1247 calling on the governments of member states (including Ireland) ‘to introduce specific legislation prohibiting genital mutilation and declaring genital mutilation to be a violation of human rights and bodily integrity’. It remains to see when Ireland will respond to this call.

In January of this year, Viviane Reding, EU Commissioner-Designate for Justice, Fundamental Rights and Citizenship declared her commitment to taking “concrete action on FGM” and outlined a series of steps that she would take, including working with the with Commissioner-Designate for Home Affairs to harmonise criminal offences and sanctions in criminal law.

There is thus a growing awareness and concern about FGM throughout Europe – a fact that is reflected in the development of the END FGM European Campaign. This Campaign is run by Amnesty International Ireland, in partnership with non-governmental organisations across the European Union. A new document was launched at yesterday’s seminar entitled, “ENDING FEMALE GENITAL MUTILATION: A Strategy for the European Union Institutions” as part of that campaign.

While developments at the EU level are to be welcomed and encouraged, they do not serve to absolve Ireland of its obligations to take measures to address FGM under Article 24 CRC, Article 3 ECHR and the UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (for more, see the statements of the Committee responsible for monitoring CEDAW here, here and here). It is therefore incumbent on Ireland to take action now to provide support to current victims of FGM and to prevent the creation of new ones.

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