Wednesday, 13 July 2011
Criminal Justice (Female Genital Mutilation) Bill [Seanad]: Second Stage
I move: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."
I am pleased to have the opportunity to introduce this Bill to the House. I would also like to thank Senator Ivana Bacik for raising this issue in the Seanad last April and encouraging the Government of the day to commence the preparation of the Criminal Justice (Female Genital Mutilation) Bill 2011.
Female genital mutilation, FGM, is a gross violation of women's human rights and legislation to expressly prohibit it is the first step in ensuring this practice does not take hold in Ireland. The Bill has benefited from consultation with national and international experts in this field and will bring Ireland in line with international best practice as well as providing indisputable legal clarity on the issue. I bring the Bill before the House on the basis that we all share a desire to see an end to this practice worldwide and to prevent it from occurring in our country.
I propose to give some background on the practice of female genital mutilation and the main policy provisions of the Bill. Female genital mutilation is a harmful traditional practice and a form of violence that directly infringes upon women's and children's rights to physical, psychological and social health. FGM is recognised internationally as a gross violation of human rights for girls and women and a form of gender-based violence. The World Health Organisation, WHO, defines FGM as any procedure involving partial or total removal of the external female genitalia or other injury to the female genital organs for non-medical reasons. The WHO estimates that between 100 and 140 million girls and women worldwide have been subjected to some form of FGM and a further 3 million girls are at risk each year. This equates to 6,000 women and girls undergoing FGM daily in the world and there are over 3,000 women living in Ireland who have undergone FGM.
The prevalence, type and age at which FGM is performed varies between and within countries and regions, with ethnicity as the most decisive factor. FGM is known to be performed in at least 28 African, Middle Eastern and Asian countries. Prevalence ranges from nearly 90% or higher in Egypt, Eritrea, Somalia and Sudan, to less than 50% in the Central African Republic and Cote d'Ivoire, to 5% in the Democratic Republic of Congo and Uganda. Increased immigration to Europe has meant that a cultural practice previously associated with the developing world has become an issue, indeed a problem that needs to be overcome in a culturally sensitive manner in European societies, including Ireland. In many cases, families and communities will attempt to continue to practise FGM after moving to Europe as a way of upholding traditional customs.
The rationale for the continuance of FGM varies across regions, countries and cultures. However, in every society in which it is practised, FGM is an expression of gender inequality. In many instances, parents want their daughters to undergo FGM to avoid stigmatisation or social exclusion by the rest of the community. In practising communities, it is strongly believed that a girl is not marriageable if she has not undergone FGM. However, FGM has no health benefits. It involves removing and-or damaging healthy and normal tissue and interferes with the natural function of girls' and women's bodies. Immediate health consequences of FGM can include severe pain, shock, haemorrhage, difficulty passing urine, infection, psychological trauma and sepsis, which can lead to death. Long-term complications include chronic urinary and menstrual problems, chronic pain, pelvic inflammatory disease, cysts, infection, increased risk of HIV transmission and infertility.
FGM also has serious and adverse consequences for mothers and children during childbirth. A WHO study found significant associations between FGM and various types of obstetric complications. The risk to women's and girls' health is invariably aggravated by the use of unsterile equipment, unsanitary environments, lack of any anaesthetic and by the procedure being carried out by unskilled members of the community. In addition to physical health consequences, women who have undergone FGM also report negative psychological and emotional effects.
The main purpose of the Bill is to prohibit FGM, along with providing for related offences, some of which apply to certain extra-territorial jurisdictions. I will set out the specific measures in the Bill, in greater detail, later in this statement. Having a specific Bill prohibiting this practice will bring legal clarity and certainty to the issue. It is likely that female genital mutilation already constituted an offence under the Non-Fatal Offences against the Person Act 1997. However, this Bill leaves no room for doubt and sends the message loud and clear that FGM will not be tolerated in Ireland. Having specific legislation on FGM will also aid social and health care personnel working with practising communities, as they will be able to point to this proposed legislation and the serious punishment for offences relating to FGM in their efforts to prevent the continuation of this custom.
Moreover, we know from NGOs and public health services working with practising communities that the most significant risk of FGM being carried out on girl children living in Ireland arises during visits to countries where FGM is commonly practised. Parents are coming under pressure to have FGM carried out on their daughters upon visiting their country of origin. This Bill aims to address this risk by creating an offence of removing a girl or woman from the State for the purpose of FGM and by introducing an extra-territorial element to its provisions. In addition, the Bill explicitly addresses the cultural imperative of FGM. We all know how important culture can be for a sense of identity and how important being able to share cultural traditions can be, especially among migrant communities. Nevertheless, the freedom to practise one's traditions and beliefs may not supersede the protection of fundamental human rights and freedoms. The Bill stems from a human rights perspective and stipulates that the right to practise cultural traditions cannot be evoked to justify FGM. Finally, the Bill includes several provisions to ensure that victims of this crime are protected during legal proceedings. These provisions reflect the fact that many victims might be minors and proceedings are likely to be against members of their own family.
The Bill was the subject of consideration and discussion in the Seanad. During that debate, I introduced an amendment to the Bill to state explicitly that a victim impact evidence provision would apply to offences set out in the Bill in accordance with the Criminal Justice Act 1993. This provision is reflected in section 13 of the Bill. Two other technical amendments were made in the Seanad to update and reflect changes in the official names of the two State Departments mentioned in section 12(1)(a) and (b) as set out in Statutory Instruments Nos. 246 and 138 of 2011. Furthermore, I have published a supplementary explanatory memorandum that explicitly states that the Bill stems from a human rights perspective and recognises the practice of FGM as a violation of human rights and a form of gender-based violence. In addition, the supplementary memorandum includes the WHO's definition of FGM used in the Bill and stipulates that the right to practice one's cultural traditions and beliefs cannot be used to justify FGM.
Following the Seanad debate I undertook to seek additional advice on the requirement in the Bill for dual criminality. This issue has been considered in some detail by my officials and the Attorney General's Office. The advice confirms that in general, where provision is made for extraterritorial jurisdiction, dual criminality is necessary to satisfy the principal of legality, that is that someone should not be punished for an offence which was not an offence in the jurisdiction in which it took place. Only in exceptional cases are extra territorial offences provided for without a requirement of dual criminality.
Under Article 29.8 of the Constitution, the State may exercise extra-territorial jurisdiction in accordance with the generally recognised principles of international law. Under international law, only offences jus cogens, against the conscience of the world, such as piracy, war crimes and terrorist acts, carry universal jurisdiction. At present, FGM when carried out by a private party is not an international crime and, therefore, dual criminality is required for the exercise of extraterritorial jurisdiction. However, in order to ensure that we would be in a position to prosecute a person who takes a girl to a country where FGM is legal, that is, a case which could not be prosecuted under section 4 because of the requirement of dual criminality, the Bill provides an innovative offence in section 3 - the offence of removal from the State of a girl for the purpose of FGM - to cover such conduct so that the offence provisions in sections 3 and 4, when read together, should cover all of the conduct which ought to be criminalised in relation to FGM. The Bill also meets Ireland's obligations under the Constitution and international law in regard to FGM and dual criminality.
I will now turn to the details of the Bill, as passed by Seanad Éireann. The Bill contains 16 sections. Section 1, the interpretation section, provides for the definition of female genital mutilation and certain other terms used in the Bill. Section 2 criminalises the act of performing female genital mutilation and provides for the offence of attempting to perform an act of female genital mutilation. The offences of aiding, abetting, counselling, or procuring the commission of female genital mutilation are already provided for in the general criminal law Acts on the grounds that a person is liable to be tried and punished where he or she aids, abets, counsels or procures the commission of an indictable offence. Section 5 provides that performing or attempting to perform female genital mutilation is an indictable offence. In a similar vein, the offence of conspiring with another person to perform female genital mutilation is covered by the same general criminal law.
The Bill makes provision for various exemptions to the offence of female genital mutilation. These exemptions are aimed at avoiding the criminalisation of surgical operations required for the protection of the physical or mental health of a girl or woman, or those necessary to assist a woman in labour or after she has just given birth. With respect to this exemption, it is provided that any type of mutilation that is equivalent to female genital mutilation following delivery, such as reinfibulation, also constitutes an offence under these provisions, even where it is done at the woman's request.
A further exemption is made for a girl or woman who self-mutilates, although a person who aids and abets such a girl or woman to perform female genital mutilation on herself may be tried for an offence under the general criminal law. A person is exempt when performing an act on a woman who is over 18 years of age and where there is no resultant permanent bodily harm. Given that we have used the broad World Health Organisation definition of what constitutes female genital mutilation, this final exemption is to avoid making certain forms of genital piercing and cosmetic surgery for aesthetic purposes a criminal act. Section 2(3) precludes the possibility of invoking reasons of custom or ritual – or the consent of the girl or woman herself or her parent or guardian – in any defence to proceedings for the commission of the general offence of performing or attempting to perform an act of female genital mutilation.
Section 3 contains offences that relate to removing a girl or woman from the State for the purposes of performing female genital mutilation on her. This provision reflects the fact that, as mentioned earlier, the greatest risk to female children living in this State arises during visits to their family's country of origin. Subsection (1) makes it an offence for a person to take a woman or girl from the State where one of the purposes of taking her is to perform female genital mutilation on her. A similar offence for attempting to remove her is also created.
Subsection (3) provides that where it can be reasonably inferred that an accused person took a girl or woman out of the country for, among other reasons, the purpose of having female genital mutilation carried out on her and that an act of female genital mutilation was subsequently done to her when she was abroad, there shall be a presumption, unless the contrary is shown, that the accused took the girl or woman out of the State in order to have female genital mutilation performed on her.
Section 4 adds an extra-territorial dimension to the Bill. It provides that if an Irish citizen or a person ordinarily resident in the State commits an offence of performing or attempting to perform female genital mutilation outside the State in a country where it is also illegal, he or she is guilty of an offence. As I have mentioned, this dual criminality provision is included to comply with the requirements of Article 29.8 of the Constitution and with the general principles of international law. Only in exceptional circumstances are extra-territorial offences in criminal law provided for without dual criminality, for example, in the case of war crimes or terrorist offences. The expression "ordinarily resident in the State" is defined as a person who has had his or her principal residence in the State for the period of 12 months preceding the alleged commission of the offence.
Section 5 sets out the penalties for offences committed under sections 2, 3 and 4. It provides for penalties for both a summary conviction and a conviction on indictment. Section 6 provides that proceedings for an offence under the Bill may only be commenced either by or with the consent of the Director of Public Prosecutions. Section 7 is a standard provision of double jeopardy under which a person cannot be proceeded against for an offence under the Bill if he or she has been acquitted or convicted of a similar offence in another country.
Sections 8, 9, 10 and 11 set out measures to protect the privacy of the victim and of the accused person. For this purpose, the Bill incorporates the extensive provisions in the Criminal Law (Rape) (Amendment) Act 1990 with respect to the exclusion of the public from hearings and the measures in the earlier Criminal Law (Rape) Act 1981 with respect to safeguarding the anonymity of the victim.
Section 12 provides for evidentiary matters relating to a person being deemed to be an Irish citizen at the time an offence is alleged to have been committed in any proceedings which refer to an offence under section 4(1)(c) of the Bill, that is, the extra-territorial measures. It also allows for evidence by certificate. Section 13 amends the Criminal Justice Act 1993. This provision allows a victim of a female genital mutilation offence or her representative to make an oral statement, commonly called a victim impact statement, at a sentencing hearing. This amendment is in line with current provisions in regard to other serious crimes against the person.
Section 14 amends the Schedule to the Bail Act 1997. The Schedule lists the offences that are defined as "serious offences" and section 2 of the Bail Act provides for the circumstances in which bail may be refused for such offences. As a result of this amendment, the offences in this Bill that relate to sections 2, 3, and 4 will be added to the Schedule of the Bail Act. I intend to bring forward a technical amendment on Committee Stage to update and correct the sequence number of the reference to this Bill.
Section 15 amends Schedule 1 to the Children Act 2001, inserting the offences relating to female genital mutilation at sections 2, 3, and 4 of the Bill into that Schedule. Finally, section 16 contains the Short Title of the Bill. A standard technical amendment to this section will be introduced on Committee Stage in regard to the timing of the commencement of the Bill.
We in Ireland are in the fortunate position of being able to take a preventative and proactive approach to the prevention of female genital mutilation. We have the opportunity and the duty to protect girls and women in practising communities currently living in Ireland from undergoing this procedure. While legislation alone is never sufficient to tackle a problem of this gravity, the enactment of legislation specifically prohibiting female genital mutilation and including extra-territorial provisions is a vital step in preventing the practice from taking hold in this country. The Bill, if enacted, will act as a powerful deterrent and will potentially empower practising communities living in Ireland to resist pressure from their country of origin to preserve the custom. I commend the Bill to the House and look forward to the debate.
I welcome the Minister's commitment to the enactment of this legislation. Female genital mutilation is an internationally recognised human rights violation of women and girls. The practice has been strongly denounced by the World Health Organisation, the United Nations Population Fund and other international medical and health organisations as a violation of numerous human rights treaties and contrary to medical ethics. Female genital mutilation is a major child protection and women's health issue with serious implications for children and women throughout the world. The issue has arisen in Ireland as a consequence of our changing demographics.
The relevant population data from the 2006 census were used by AkiDwA, a national organisation for African women living in Ireland, to collate the preliminary estimate of almost 2,500 women, calculated by country of origin and age group, resident in Ireland and living with female genital mutilation. The origins of female genital mutilation are largely unknown but the practice predates contemporary world religions. Local and cultural factors and traditions are likely to be the main reasons for the development and continuation of the practice over time.
One of the reasons put forward for the practice of female genital mutilation is social convention, with social pressure to conform with what others are doing being a strong motivation to perpetrate the practice. Many communities may not even question the practice or have long forgotten the reasons for it. Female genital mutilation is often considered a necessary part of raising a girl properly and a way to prepare her for adulthood and marriage. It is often motivated by beliefs about what is considered proper sexual behaviour, linking procedures to premarital virginity and marital fidelity.
There is a belief that female genital mutilation reduces a woman's libido and will help her to resist casual or illicit sexual encounters. Religious leaders take varying positions with regard to female genital mutilation. Some promote it, some consider it irrelevant to religion and others contribute to its elimination. Local structures of power and authority such as community and religious leaders, genital cutters and even some medical personnel can contribute to the upholding of the practice itself. In most societies female genital mutilation is considered a cultural tradition which is often used as an argument for its continuation. In some societies the recent adoption of practice is linked to copying the traditions of neighbouring and more dominant groups and sometimes it is part of the wider religious or traditional revival of movements.
The World Health Organisation estimates that between 100 million and 140 million women and girls worldwide have undergone female genital mutilation. Most of these women and girls are resident in one of 28 countries, almost all in Africa, although there are reported cases of female genital mutilation in some countries in the Middle East and Asia. Practising countries include Benin, Burkina, Faso, Cameroon, Central African Republic, Chad, Cote d'Ivoire, Djibouti, Egypt, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Gambia, Ghana, Guinea-Bissau, Guinea, Kenya, Liberia, Mali, Mauritania, Niger, Nigeria, Senegal, Sierra Leone, Somalia, Sudan, Uganda, United Republic of Tanzania, Togo and Yemen. The age at which girls undergo female genital mutilation varies by community and region and the most common age for the performance of FGM is between four and ten years of age, although this can vary from birth up until first pregnancy.
Female genital mutilation is defined as a partial or total removal of the external female genitalia or any practice which purportedly alters or injures the female genital organs for non-medical reasons. Typically it is performed by an older woman in the community who has had no medical training. The use of anaesthetics and antiseptics is uncommon, instruments used to perform female genital mutilation include razor blades, knives, piece of glass, scissors and scalpels. In some instances several girls will be cut using the same instrument, heightening the risk for potential spread of infections, including HIV.
Female genital mutilation has no health benefits and involves removing or damaging healthy and normal body tissue. The short-term complications of the procedure can include death, haemorrhage, infection and failure of the wound to heal, injury or trauma to adjoining areas such as the urethra or the anus and shock from severe pain and bleeding, tetanus and transmission of HIV and other viruses.
The longer term complications for FGM can include decrease or loss of sexual sensation, difficult and complicated childbirth, increase in maternal and child mortality, incontinence and difficulty urinating, pelvic inflammatory disease and fertility and psychological trauma, including post traumatic stress disorder, depression and anxiety. Other symptoms include scarring and hardening of vaginal tissue causing constant pain around the genital area and subcutaneous cyst development. A major World Health Organisation study published in 2006 found a significant increase in poor obstetric outcomes including the death of the baby for women who had undergone female genital mutilation.
The current legislative position in Ireland on FGM is based on legal advice which the then Minister for Health and Children received from the Office of the Attorney General in October 2004 and again in 2009, which indicated that while the issue remains to be clarified and determined by the courts, it was strongly of the opinion that female genital mutilation would constitute an offence under the Non-fatal Offences Against the Person Act 1997. The Attorney General advised in 2004 that it would appear the practice is not lawful in Ireland. He stated that the mutilations that are typically performed during acts of female genital mutilation would probably meet the definition of serious harm contained in the Act. It is therefore likely that for a person to perform an act of female genital mutilation would comprise an intentional act which causes serious harm and would thus be an offence under section 4 of the Act.
The then Attorney General further advised that the consent of a parent would not be a defence under section 4(4) and the 1997 Act does not provide for a defence of consent in regard to an offence under section 4. In the event that in particular circumstances an act of female genital mutilation was found not to have resulted in serious harm, it would still be open to the Garda to prosecute for the similar but less serious offence provided by section 3 of the Act which criminalises a person who assaults another, causing him or her harm.
Female genital mutilation is recognised internationally as a gross violation of human rights for girls and women. It is a denial of their right to physical and mental integrity, their right to freedom from violence and discrimination and, in the most extreme cases, their lives. A resolution of the Council of Europe expresses concern at the fact that female genital mutilation is practised in the Council of Europe member states and denounces clearly a position of cultural relativism. It further declares that "genital mutilation should be regarded as inhuman and degrading treatment within the meaning of Article 3 of the European Convention on Human Rights, even if carried out under hygienic conditions by competent personnel". It specifies the measure requested from member states with refugee status, education and awareness raising and ratification of international treaties, the Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women and the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, without reservations. This has been confirmed by a decision of the European Court of Human Rights which states that "it is not in dispute that subjecting a woman to female genital mutilation amounts to ill-treatment contrary to Article 3 of the Convention".
The European Parliament resolution on combatting FGM in the EU on 24 March 2009 calls on EU member states to regard any form of female genital mutilation as a crime, irrespective of whether the woman concerned has given any form of consent and to punish anybody who helps, encourages, advises or procures support for anybody to carry out any of these acts on the body of a woman or girl; to pursue, prosecute and punish any resident who has committed the crime of female genital mutilation, even if the offence was committed outside their borders, and to adopt legislative measures to allow judges or public prosecutors to take precautionary and preventive measures if they are aware of cases of women or girls at risk of being mutilated. Later in 2009, the European Parliament adopted a Resolution on the Elimination of Violence against Women that calls on member states, "to implement specific legal provisions on female genital mutilation or to adopt such laws and prosecute all persons who conduct genital mutilation".
Female genital mutilation breaches Article 19 of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child which places an obligation on the state to protect children from all forms of maltreatment including physical violence, injury or abuse. It also breaches Article 24(3) on the abolition of traditional harmful practices and Article 37(a) on the right to freedom from torture or other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment. Ireland ratified the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child in 1992.
The National Plan of Action to address FGM was launched in 2008 by a national steering committee comprising governmental and non-governmental organisations. These included AkiDwA, Amnesty International Ireland, Barnados, Cairde, the Children's Rights Alliance, Christian Aid, Comhlamh, the HSE, Integrating Ireland, Integration of African Children in Ireland, Irish Aid, the Irish Family Planning Association, the National Women's Council of Ireland, the Refugee Information Services, the Somali Community in Ireland, the Somali Community Youth Group, UNICEF and the Women's Health Council.
The plan was partly funded by the European Commission through EuroNet Female Genital Mutilation, a European network dedicated to the prevention and eradication of harmful traditional practices that affect the health of woman and children. Fifteen EU countries participated in this project and all launched their respective national actions plan on 25 November 2008, International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women. The plan of action is intended to build the capacity of all sectors in this area and to lay the foundation for future plans of actions. It is set out over a period of three years, from 2008 to 2011 and has two main goals. The first it to prevent the practice of female genital mutilation while the second is to provide high quality, appropriate health care and support to women and girls who have undergone female genital mutilation.
It is critically important when discussing this issue that we accept and acknowledge that individuals with traditions in communities believe that FGM is a part of the tradition, culture and family values. We must ensure that all legislative provision is made available to ensure that this does not happen. For women or girls who have had female genital mutilation, the danger is that if we stigmatise it too much, we could discourage them from seeking help or attending their local general practice doctor or for accessing health care in Ireland. It is critically important that when we are speaking about female genital mutilation, we clearly state that we object and have legislation in place and will pursue those who are involved in female genital mutilation. We must also clearly state that those who have had genital mutilation carried out on them are in no way to blame or could be prosecuted as it could discourage women who have had this procedure from seeking medical attention. This in itself could have profound implication for the health of themselves or their unborn child.
A number of the objectives are listed under each goal and the second goal has four objectives - to develop professional support for those involved in providing care and support for women and girls who have undergone FGM; to assist professional capacity building in the provision of health care and support services for women presenting with female genital mutilation; to address the physical, psychological and emotional health care needs of women and girls living in Ireland with female genital mutilation; and to improve data collection of women with female genital mutilation presenting to maternity hospitals. Regarding legislation, the plan aims for the enactment of legislation specifically to prohibit female genital mutilation in Ireland, including the principle of extraterritoriality as an extension of national legislative protection.
The HSE plays a key role in the prevention of FGM and the delivery of care to women who have undergone the practice. The health needs of women who have undergone female genital mutilation have been acknowledged in the HSE inter-cultural health strategy, 2007-12. The principles and recommendations of the strategy align strongly with the objectives of the national action plan to address female genital mutilation. The HSE was represented on the steering committee developing the plan and continues to support ongoing work with the group established to progress its implementation. In this regard, and in line with the principles of the national intercultural health strategy concerning partnership and cross sectoral collaboration, the HSE national social inclusion unit has made funding available to AkiDwA from March 2009 in order to progress the health-related objectives of the national action plan for female genital mutilation. These aim to provide high quality, appropriate health care and support women and girls who have undergone female genital mutilation.
The HSE's initial work has prioritised those aspects of awareness raising and provision of information to health professionals. One outcome is the development of professional supports for those involved in providing care and support for women and girls who have undergone female genital mutilation. Another is the development and dissemination of information for health care professionals working in Ireland on FGM, through a document entitled Female Genital Mutilation: Information for Health Care Professionals Working in Ireland. This pack was developed by AkiDwA in collaboration with the Royal College of Surgeons and was launched by the then Minister of State with responsibility for integration, Mr. Conor Lenihan. Ongoing demand by health professionals for this resource, both for use in practical situations and in training events, has led to the HSE supporting funding of additional copies.
I do not know the updated position with regard to funding from the HSE in support of this but I urge the Minister, in the context of the legislative enactment of this Bill, to provide funding to raise awareness of prevention and of the fact that there is legislation in place to discourage, prosecute and criminalise those involved directly or in aiding and abetting those who carry out female genital mutilation in the State or outside. I suggest the provision of funding for an awareness campaign to inform migrant committees, who are already vulnerable and are at one remove from the system. These campaigns should make them aware there is medical and psychological help available to those who have had the procedure carried out on them.
The HSE has stated that while initial work in the area of female genital mutilation in Ireland has focused on addressing health care needs of women who have undergone this procedure, ongoing awareness raising, confidential disclosures by women in focus groups, anecdotal information has led to a concern for children and young girls, particularly in respect of issues around prevention of female genital mutilation. The procedure has real implications for children living in Ireland. The steering committee to address it in Ireland has expressed concerns that there are girls living here at risk of undergoing the procedure because they are born into families that practise female genital mutilation.
There are two risks. The first is that FGM could potentially take place in Ireland although no known case has taken place. I find that hard to believe because legislation criminalising female genital mutilation has been in place for years in the UK. There is anecdotal evidence that it is carried out there and one can assume it has been carried out in this State. We must ensure we send out a strong message that we are not merely passing legislation but ensuring follow-up by the Garda Síochána and the DPP where information is presented to them.
I remember a Somali girl, Waris Dirie, who wrote the book "Desert Flower", discussing this on "The Late Late Show". Ireland was then a homogenous society and this was all new to us. She had been a model for the top agencies around the world and subsequently devoted her time to highlighting this issue. She became an ambassador to the UN to promote the need for strong legislative action to encourage outlawing this practice.
I mentioned countries where this is carried out. The Maputu Accord and various conventions were signed by many of the countries where large percentages of the female population have undergone female genital mutilation yet no convictions have taken place. I urge us to use every opportunity, through the UN, the WHO and other summits to indicate that this is a fundamental breach of basic human rights, including the right to dignity and integrity of the body. We cannot pass legislation and leave it at that. As a Parliament, as a people and as a society we must advocate in the strongest possible terms that this is a gross infringement on basics dignity and human rights.
I acknowledge the NGOs and voluntary organisations throughout the world who have consistently advocated the abolition of this gross practice. They also highlight the damage it does to the individual, physically and psychologically, and the threat it carries to women throughout their lives in respect of maternity and obstetrics. I commend the Minister for introducing this Bill.
In April 2010 the then Minister for Health and Children, Mary Harney, made a commitment to introduce new legislation to explicitly prohibit the barbaric practice of FGM. This is an important issue that must be dealt with in law and in society. Female genital mutilation is a barbaric practice that has no place here. The Criminal Justice (Female Genital Mutilation) Bill was published on 20 January 2011, shortly before the Dáil was dissolved. A national action plan to address female genital mutilation, drawn up by non-governmental organisations and statutory organisations including the HSE, was launched in 2008.
The Minister alluded to the fact that up to 3,000 people who have undergone female genital mutilation may be residing in the State. This is of great concern because many people see it as normal and it could continue and evolve in some of the traditions on this island. We must be vigilant and understand that some see this as normal and that some communities and families embrace it. This legislation provides a strong template and takes into account the views of the UN, the WHO, the European Parliament, the European Commission and various human rights treaties and protocols we have signed, which call on us to criminalise female genital mutilation and ensure strong legislative powers are available.
Our immigrant communities are often vulnerable and may not have the language or knowledge of available services and support. We do not want to stigmatise or discourage people who may have had this carried out on them from seeking medical help and assistance or going to a health facility or a local GP.
All information and education should be in the context of understanding that there are victims of this barbaric practice in our communities.
I thank the Minister for bringing the Bill to the floor of this House and congratulate those, including Senator Ivana Bacik who was mentioned and others, who have been supportive of this legislation being brought before the Houses of the Oireachtas and enacted as quickly as possible. We must ensure that this society sends out a strong message that this is an unacceptable practice that will not be allowed to be carried out in this country and that we will use whatever resources we have available in the context of prosecuting those who may aid and abet or carry out the practice in other jurisdictions also. For all those reasons I commend the Bill to the House.
Female genital mutilation is associated in most people's minds with African countries. It is rightly seen as a reprehensible practice but also something more from the past than the present and very distant from Ireland. It will come as a surprise to many people, therefore, to learn that it is estimated that more than 3,000 women in Ireland are living with female genital mutilation. These are women who were subjected to FGM as children and are now living in this country, and some may have been subjected to FGM as children here. This Bill, therefore, is a welcome and essential measure. I have called on many occasions for this legislation to be introduced and I commend the Minister and the Government on bringing it forward.
Female genital mutilation may already be punishable in this State under the Non-Fatal Offences Against the Person Act. I would like the Minister to address that when responding to Second Stage contributions. However, that law, the Non-Fatal Offences Against the Person Act, may not be sufficient to address every type of female genital mutilation procedure, nor does it have extra-territorial effect. Furthermore, there is a defence in that Act that the assault was "generally acceptable in the ordinary conduct of daily life" which could allow for a defence based on culture but certainly not the culture of this country.
A defence of consent might also be possible under the Non-Fatal Offences Against the Person Act, even though "consent" in such cases is usually given in the context of significant family and peer pressure. Legislation specifically addressing those issues was needed to fill those gaps, and therefore I will be supporting the passage of the Bill now before us.
Although female genital mutilation is a significant problem in many parts of the world, it is unknown how big a problem it is in Ireland. In 2008, the migrant women's organisation AkiDwA estimated that there were 2,585 women resident in the State who had undergone the procedure at that time. It calculated this number based on the 2006 census figures for women from countries where female genital mutilation is commonly practised, and the estimated prevalence of FGM in those countries. Clearly, the exercise is not an exact science, and I wonder if the Minister has any more up to date information even arising from the more recent 2011 census. As of last year AkiDwA had revised the number upward to 3,170. AkiDwA stresses that these figures are likely to be an underestimate. Undoubtedly, there are thousands of women in Ireland who have undergone the procedure and many of them are still suffering the consequences for their physical, psychological, reproductive and sexual health.
This Bill alone cannot address their needs, but we hope that it will prevent girls and women resident in Ireland from falling victim to the practice. It will create penalties not only for carrying out an act of female genital mutilation but for bringing a girl or woman outside the State for that purpose. It may be difficult to enforce the extraterritorial aspect of the Bill but we have an obligation to have the law in place, as a deterrent and as a means of dealing with the cases that arise, and they do and they will. Most immigrants are law-abiding people who understand the need to respect the laws of their adopted country, but there will be those who will not.
The Bill will also assist those who do not want their daughters to undergo female genital mutilation but who may be facing pressure from members of their family or from within their own community. A number of cases of that have been highlighted here in recent years. Whereas previously they may have only been able to say "I do not want this to be done" or "I object to my daughter or my younger sibling being subjected to this procedure", they will now be able to say, on the passage of this legislation, "I cannot allow this to be done to her because it is illegal here in Ireland". Make no mistake about it. They will be strengthened by the further point they can make that there is a term of imprisonment of up to 14 years consequent on the action, the association or being an accomplice to such a procedure being performed in this State.
It must be made clear that the law will be enforced, which is not the case in many countries where female genital mutilation is technically illegal but goes on with no real interference from the authorities. Enforcement will be vital, and there must be a clear statement of intent in that regard. It is not enough to have the legislation on the Statute Book. There must be a clear intent on the part of the Minister and the Government, and that must be signalled to those whose responsibility it is to enforce the law of the land.
It must be stressed that the law is only one part of the solution to the problem of female genital mutilation. Ultimately, what is needed is a cultural change to ensure that female genital mutilation is recognised as the human rights violation that it clearly is.
There is a need for sensitivity in the way that is approached. Some of those who are trying to end the practice within their culture and respective communities have said that the language used by westerners, including us, in condemning it is unhelpful and may only strengthen the resolve of those who defend the practice. We must listen to what those people are saying. Some have argued against the use of the word "mutilation" for that reason and prefer the term "female genital cutting" instead. It is believed by many in those communities that the west, including Ireland, is motivated less by concern for the girls and the women than by a desire to "Europeanise" their culture. We must try to avoid giving that impression, as it impedes efforts to eradicate the practice. We must also recognise that some in our midst will become even more trenchant in their views and utilise our language as a reason to continue practices we find absolutely abhorrent.
Female genital mutilation occurs in many cultures and for many reasons. It is essentially an attempt to suppress female sexuality. However, that is not always the conscious motivation. Many in the practising cultures, including women, believe women benefit from the practice. This belief must be challenged, but it must be challenged effectively, which requires understanding the role that female genital mutilation plays in a community's social order. This is difficult for outsiders to achieve.
It is now widely acknowledged that campaigns to end the practice must be led in the first instance from within the community that carries it out. We, as a country, must support organisations, inside the State and abroad, that are based in communities where female genital mutilation is practised and which are working to eradicate it among themselves.
It is important that we do not send out mixed messages by condemning female genital mutilation in one context and tolerating it in another. Our policies must be consistent, and this includes our asylum policy. Five years ago, the then Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform, Mr. Michael McDowell, stated female genital mutilation was a cultural practice and not a ground for asylum. Fortunately, the courts do not agree with him, at least on principle. In practice, however, the bar for proving there is a risk of FGM is set very high and asylum claims based on FGM are often refused. Nigerian applicants, in particular, are often told they can simply relocate to a part of their country where female genital mutilation is not practised. This may be easier said than done, particularly for very young women and girls.
World Health Organisation figures suggest that approximately 20% of girls and women in Nigeria are still subject to female genital mutilation. If one in five young men were suffering from a debilitating injury to their sexual organs, would the risk be taken so lightly? I ask this question in all seriousness.
We must also look at improving the way we address the health care needs of those who have undergone female genital mutilation. AkiDwa has produced a comprehensive information booklet and provided training and seminars for health care professionals, and these have been very well received. It is important that all general practitioners, nurses and other health and social care professionals be properly trained to provide appropriate care to women and girls affected by female genital mutilation. The Minister might address this in his concluding remarks.
The failings in our health care system may have a particular impact on the affected women, especially those living under direct provision in the asylum system. They are reliant on the services available to medical card holders and are subject to long waiting lists if they need specialist care. Going private is not an option for someone dependent on an income of €19 per week.
There is irrefutable evidence that the direct provision system exacerbates mental health problems, from which many of those who have undergone female genital mutilation will suffer. These are all issues that will need to be addressed if we are truly concerned about the human rights implications of female genital mutilation.
Those campaigning against female genital mutilation speak of the need for an holistic approach to ending the practice. We, too, need to take an holistic approach. We need to prevent female genital mutilation occurring in this country, protect those who seek refuge here from it and support those working to eradicate the concept from the hearts and minds of their own people not only in Ireland, but globally.
This Bill is an important step but it is but one step. There have been suggestions that the Government should address the budget deficit by cutting overseas aid. Some of that aid goes to organisations working to end female genital mutilation. We cannot have it both ways. It would be a tragic irony if a policy aimed at preventing female genital mutilation in Ireland were accompanied by a policy that only helped to sustain it abroad. That is the type of short-term, disjointed thinking that Fianna Fail turned into a trademark, as the Minister and I have often pointed out. I appeal to the current coalition not to repeat their mistakes, at least in this area.
I welcome this Bill because female genital mutilation has no place in modern Irish society. While legislation is important in the drive to eliminate this practice, it is only one part of the necessary action. Legislative change should be accompanied by prevention, education and awareness-raising measures among communities where female genital mutilation is likely to be practised and among relevant service providers, such as medical personnel, gardaí, social workers and teachers.
In 2006, the report on Ireland of the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child expressed concern that some immigrant communities in Ireland continued to practise FGM. While there are no known cases of FGM in Ireland, there is anecdotal evidence of girls being taken abroad for it to be carried out. The problem, in so far as it arises in Ireland, affects girls and women who are at risk of having female genital mutilation carried out on them, and those who live in Ireland who have already experienced it. The Children's Rights Alliance identifies possible risks in regard to female genital mutilation in Ireland. It states girls may be at risk because they are born into families that practise female genital mutilation. The alliance cites two scenarios: the procedure could take place in Ireland, or girls could be brought from Ireland to their parents' country of origin to have it performed. Families from female genital mutilation-practising regions have reported serious pressure from overseas families to bring daughters back to those regions to have the procedure carried out.
Some societies view female genital mutilation as a way of preserving and communicating a set of value systems upon which communities are organised. Rituals and symbols associated with FGM are designed to teach girls about their roles as mothers and wives within their society and to instil a sense of belonging within their culture. Criticisms of FGM can be interpreted as criticisms of an entire cultural identity.
In many societies, women's innate sexuality is perceived as a potential danger to social order. Women's sexual behaviour is often interpreted as a reflection of the values and morals of the families to which they belong. Female genital mutilation is carried out to inhibit women's and girls' sexual desires as a way of preventing sexual behaviour which is considered deviant, securing virginity upon marriage and finally ensuring marital fidelity.
Understanding the reasons families may continue to practice female genital mutilation is essential to developing sensitive and effective intervention strategies to support parents to abandon the practice because criticisms of female genital mutilation can be interpreted as criticisms of an entire cultural identity. Girls who have undergone the female genital mutilation procedure will require a range of supports, including medical and, in some cases, psychological, supports. Legal measures, culturally sensitive interventions and the development of a national capacity to stop the practice are vital steps towards ending it.
The women's health council called for the establishment of an intergovernmental working group to tackle the issue and to co-ordinate the response. It stated any strategy tackling an issue such as FGM must take the dual approach of legislating against the practice at a national and international level, and empowering and educating people at the local level so as to bring about the extinction of this practice.
In an Irish context perhaps the most important task, after establishing an adequate legislative framework, is to ensure the practice does not become established among migrant ethnic communities. Those charged with service provision, in particular in the health system, must be equipped with the appropriate training and information to deal with FGM if and when they encounter it. How this can be achieved in the current economic climate and with the cuts in the HSE will be challenging for the Department but, along with the legislative framework, it is necessary.
The provision in the Bill for prosecutions in other jurisdictions is very important. It introduces an offence of the removal of a girl or a woman from the State for the purpose of FGM. It also clarifies that parental consent or ritual or customary reasons are not defences to charges under this Bill. Experience in other jurisdictions indicates it may be difficult to effectively implement the legislation against FGM taking place in foreign countries as prosecution rates are low. However, it is a very important provision because it states that we in Ireland as a society believe this practice should not continue.
The Bill defines female genital mutilation for the first time in Irish law and recognises it as a distinct serious offence against girls and women. For this reason I welcome the Bill and I will support it. It is also important that the Department puts in place strategies on education and supports for women who have undergone FGM so any potential medical and psychological damage can be assessed and treated to make it easier for them to live with it. Education programmes should also be put in place for new immigrants to ensure they are aware our society does not support the practice of female genital mutilation.
I thank the Government for bringing forward this legislation. Most people will be very supportive of it. I also thank Senator Ivana Bacik who has been raising this issue for a considerable time. This affects migrant women and young girls and it is good to see a specific offence being created. It is also very good to see it will be illegal to take a child abroad and return after the procedure has been carried out. It is appalling that the average age of the people affected is between four and 14 years.
The Minister will hear much repetition because we will all reinforce the same points. The Oireachtas Library and Research Service has put together a very good document which many Members will use as well as their notes.
It is extraordinary that it has taken until now to fulfil an international obligation. It is important that we are dealing with it so early in the term of the Government because we cannot be out of line with our European neighbours, including the United Kingdom. The international community generally condemns the practice and as the Minister stated, there are no health benefits whatsoever to the practice and it is very traumatic for the children. I welcome that as a country we are making a statement on this issue.
I have a number of questions. I understand the HSE has put together an action plan or pilot scheme. Has any information been obtained from this? Work has been ongoing on this for the past number of years and it would be quite useful to know how we can be helpful. Deputy Ó Caoláin made the point that we should be sensitive to the type of language used so as not to reinforce a problem which is perceived to be a cultural difference between an African country and a European one. It would be useful to hear from people with direct experience of how we can be helpful in education or in using our role in the World Health Organisation or other such mechanisms to make a difference. It is one thing to introduce legislation but it is another to prevent something from taking place. Female genital mutilation mainly happens in countries outside of Ireland, if not exclusively outside of Ireland, so we will have a limited impact although it is important to make a statement in our own right.
I believe an information pack has been put together and it is important that health care professionals are fully apprised so they can be helpful to people. I believe this is the first time protection will be provided to prevent someone being removed from the State. I have listened to much of what has been stated and I will not go over the same issues. I am very supportive of what has been stated and of the Bill.
I welcome the Bill and I congratulate the Minister on giving it priority in what I know is a busy schedule of urgently required legislation. I am sure like many of my colleagues I never thought an Irish Parliament would have to confront an issue such as FGM but confront it we must because we are such a multicultural society, and have become one almost overnight.
As an island country we are always in danger of becoming inbred and insular, both literally and figuratively, so we should welcome a new influx of people to our shores improving and diversifying our gene pool, as we welcomed to varying degrees waves of population which came to us in the past from the Danes on. Ultimately, they all intermingled with Irish society and their customs and practices were integrated into local customs.
Culture clash is inevitable with a large influx of people into a population and issues will arise regarding integration and assimilation. I am sure many practices and beliefs of our new visitors seem strange to us as, I am sure, some of our practices seem inexplicable to them and probably defy any rational explanation. By and large, our experience of immigration has been positive. Our visitors have taken to Irish life, enriched our experience and have brought colour and diversity to our practices with their celebrations, songs and dances. However, we find to be anathema certain practices which some of our visitors have brought and we totally reject them and their validity, even when they are defended as cultural expression. Some cultural expressions are just plain wrong and the context, location or cultural background do not wash as an excuse. They are as wrong now as they were in the past. Slavery was wrong then and is wrong now; it does not matter whether it is part of one's culture or not. Slavery, polygamy and FGM are wrong and must be seen as such.
I appreciate we have been asked to be sensitive to a practice which some regard as an important social and cultural expression and Deputy Ó Caoláin mentioned this. However, to be frank if being sensitive to it in any way tries to mitigate its horror or to imply tolerance of FGM then I cannot be sensitive.
Female genital mutilation is a completely unacceptable practice and I am pleased this is reflected in the legislation. We must be unequivocal in our rejection of a practice that is an affront to any semi-civilised society and every right-thinking person. It is an utterly barbaric practice visited on small, female children which does not have any health benefits. On the contrary, many children do not survive the mutilation and those who do suffer lifelong physical and psychological damage. The health consequences of FGM have been well documented and include pain, shock, haemorrhage, infection and sepsis in the immediate aftermath of the procedure. In the long term victims suffer chronic pain and disease and the practice has serious consequences for mothers at childbirth later.
The mutilation is carried out in the most barbaric manner, often in appallingly unhygienic conditions. It is typically performed by older women in the community using razor blades, scissors and pieces of glass. In some countries where FGM is practised moves are afoot to try to improve the safety of the procedure by having it performed in a hospital or clinical setting. Irrespective of whether it is performed in a clinical or hygienic setting, female genital mutilation remains an egregious assault of the most brutal proportions perpetrated on a child. No self-respecting medic would have anything to do with the practice. After all, medics are dedicated to the precept that they must first do no harm. As such, performing such a procedure clearly runs contrary to that precept.
That female genital mutilation is often performed by women who are related to the child victim is sometimes advanced as proof that the practice is somehow an accepted and socially approved and culturally embedded practice. That is not the case. It should not come as a surprise that women in the male dominated societies where the practice is performed believe they must conform. They have little choice, having been themselves victims of female genital mutilation and given that their only hope of economic security is marriage, for which female genital mutilation is regarded as a prerequisite. It is a brutal device aimed at subjugating and controlling women by mutilating them at an early age. It is gender based violence dressed up as an expression of culture.
While no one knows if FGM is taking place in Ireland, there is at least anecdotal evidence that Irish born children are being taken abroad to have the procedure performed. Although it is difficult to enforce legislation which prohibits removing children from the State for this purpose, I am pleased the Bill attempts to address this issue. It is vital that all those who are is in contact with people from countries where female genital mutilation is practised make clear that merciless enforcement measures will be taken against anybody involved in the removal of children for the purposes of female genital mutilation.
I am concerned by the section which excludes women aged over 18 years from the measures of the Bill. I understand this has been done to ensure cosmetic surgery does not become a crime. In societies where men establish the mores and set the rules not only children but all women can be coerced into accepting or even volunteering for mutilation. I am concerned that this could be dressed up as voluntary participation in cosmetic surgery.
Concerns have also been voiced about limiting the offence of removal from the State for the purposes of female genital mutilation to countries where the practice is illegal. I ask the Minister to examine ways of making the relevant measures more comprehensive. I do not understand the reason the legality of female genital mutilation, or the lack thereof, should influence the efforts we our making. As other speakers have noted, legislation is only one of the changes required if we are to achieve the abandonment of the practice of female genital mutilation. However small the contribution of Ireland, we should seek to maximise all opportunities to bring pressure to bear.
Notwithstanding that FGM is a control mechanism of one gender by and for its benefit, the practice has become so embedded in culture and belief systems that uncut women are shamed and alienated in their own eyes as well as in the eyes of society. While legislation alone will not change this position, it can change attitudes, albeit not quickly enough. What is required, as other Deputies noted, is a multi-pronged approach which goes beyond punitive measures. In their dealings abroad with communities which practise female genital mutilation all Ministers and our entire diplomatic corps must first press for prohibiting legislation and, subsequently, seek the enforcement of all such legislation. As has been noted, in some countries where the practice has been made illegal, evidence suggests the relevant law was passed for international consumption and legislators continue to baulk at enforcing it.
No opportunity should be lost, either at diplomatic or European Union level or through the offices of Irish Aid, to reinforce the message that this gross violation of human rights is unacceptable. Irish and EU aid should be made conditional on a clear commitment from the relevant governments that they will do everything possible to stamp out the practice of female genital mutilation. The abandonment of the practice will only be brought about through education, especially of girls. Recent studies of aid effectiveness show that real and lasting improvements are achieved in underdeveloped countries when resources are devoted specifically to young girls. Girls are forced into accepting FGM primarily as a result of their economic dependence on men owing to a lack of alternatives or means of support other than marriage. Hence, they are vulnerable to any practice deemed necessary to make them attractive or even acceptable for marriage. Education is the key to female genital mutilation being abandoned in future. For this reason, one of the core values of Irish Aid must be that it concentrates resources on young girls. Investment in their health and education helps them stay at school longer, avoid early and multiple pregnancies and female genital mutilation and ensures better outcome for them, their children and society. Most of all, it gives them a choice beyond self-mutilation or acceptance of mutilation for their future economic security.
I welcome the opportunity to speak on this important legislation which will have a positive impact on the rights of women vulnerable to female genital mutilation. The Bill aims to better protect girls and women from female genital mutilation, defines acts of female genital mutilation, makes acts of female genital mutilation a specific criminal offence and allows for acts of female genital mutilation carried out in other jurisdictions to be prosecuted in Ireland in certain circumstances. It also makes it an offence to remove a girl or woman from the State for the purpose of carrying out an act of female genital mutilation.
The publication of the Bill, which establishes FGM as a distinct offence, will enhance awareness of what the practice involves, where it takes place and what are its health effects. Female genital mutilation is defined by the World Health Organisation as the partial or total removal of the external female genitalia or any practice which purposely alters or injures the female genital organs for non-medical reasons. It is a violent act perpetrated against women and does not have any health benefits.
According to the World Heath Organisation, between 100 million and 140 million girls and women worldwide have undergone female genital mutilation. The practice is most commonly carried out on girls between the ages of four and ten years. While it has been reported to occur in all parts of the world, it is most prevalent in western, eastern and north-eastern regions of Africa, some countries in Asia and the Middle East. It also occurs among certain immigrant communities in North America, Australia and Europe. It is important to note, however, that FGM is a cultural rather than religious tradition. The association of the practice with Islam has been refuted by many Muslim scholars and theologians and it is not practised in many countries with predominantly Muslim populations, such as Saudi Arabia. While people may be rightfully outraged by FGM, anger must not be misdirected towards one religious group or organisation.
Female genital mutilation is carried out for a number of reasons, none of which is concerned with medical issues. The reasons depend on the ethnicity of the child and where she lives. The decision to carry out FGM is usually taken by members of the family and extended family. One of the reasons given for the practice is that a woman's sexuality is perceived as a potential danger to the society in which she lives. This idea is dangerous, anti-woman and has no place in civilised society.
Some cultures believe it is inappropriate for a man to marry a woman who has not undergone FGM. A woman's purity and ability to carry out her role as wife and mother is somehow dictated by having had FGM carried out. Other reasons given for the practice include tradition, religion and aesthetics.
I welcome this Bill and its publication by the Department of Health. It is very important in that it better protects the rights of girls and women in Ireland from the violent, unnecessary and abhorrent practice of female genital mutilation. Female genital mutilation is a gross violation of the rights of the child and of the rights of the woman.
In Ireland, girls and women are at risk of having FGM carried out on them and many have already experienced FGM. Girls tend to be at risk if they are born into families that practise FGM. The procedure could take place in Ireland but some girls may be brought from Ireland to their parents' countries of origin to have FGM performed.
According to the migrant women's health project AkiDwA, 2,565 women in Ireland between the ages of 15 and 24 have undergone FGM. These women come from countries such as Nigeria, Somalia, Northern Sudan, Egypt and Kenya.
Female genital mutilation is a medically unnecessary and irreversible procedure that injures the health of millions of girls and women worldwide. There are serious implications on physical health, sexual and psychosexual health and mental and emotional health.
In 2008 Ireland's national plan of action to address FGM was launched by a steering committee comprising of governmental and non-governmental organisations. I thank and commend this group for the work they have done in ensuring the publication of this Bill. The national steering committee included AkiDwA, Amnesty International Ireland, Barnardos, Cairde, the Children's Rights Alliance, Christian Aid, Comhlámh, the HSE, Integrating Ireland, Integration of African Children in Ireland, Irish Aid, the Irish Family Planning Association, the National Women's Council of Ireland, the Refugee Information Service, the Somali Community in Ireland, the Somali Community Youth Group and UNICEF. I also acknowledge the work undertaken by the Department of Health and the Minister.
Under current criminal law, it is possible to prosecute someone for carrying out an act of FGM in Ireland. This could be under the Non-Fatal Offences Against the Person Act 1997 or the Criminal Justice Act 2000.
This new Bill has been advocated, as current legislation does not have extraterritorial effect and does not make it an offence to remove someone from the State to carry out FGM in another state. An act of FGM is not defined in Irish law and concerns have been raised about whether it is possible to use a defence of culture or of parental consent to an act of FGM. The Bill makes FGM a distinct separate offence rather than an assault under current legislation. FGM is recognised as a specific serious crime against girls and women. It is an offence under this Bill to carry out an act of FGM in Ireland and also for an Irish person or someone who is ordinarily resident here to carry out an act of FGM abroad.
Extraterritoriality is introduced in section 4. This means that acts of FGM or attempts to carry out acts of FGM in another jurisdiction will be treated as if they were carried out in Ireland.
My main concern with this Bill is the provision that FGM must be an offence in the country in which it is carried out in order for it to be prosecuted. This provision is in contrast to UK legislation which does not limit the extraterritorial effect to countries where FGM is illegal.
I strongly support the argument of the Children's Rights Alliance that along with these legislative changes there should also be education, prevention and awareness-raising measures among communities where FGM may be practised. This can be done through medical personnel, gardaí, social workers and teachers. Support services should be available for girls who have suffered FGM. This may be in the form of medical and psychological support. Cultural sensitivity and understanding is vital. Criticism of FGM practices should not turn into criticism of an entire cultural identity or group.
I take this opportunity to ask the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs to include a reference to FGM in the Children First National Guidelines for Protection and Welfare of Children so child protection rules can be affirmed. I also suggest that we give due consideration to the methods undertaken in France to convict those who carry out FGM. France has the highest conviction rate in Europe and their process should be examined.
The Bill does not limit the definition of FGM to the most invasive forms of FGM performed and would include all the actions identified in the World Health Organisation classification. Female genital mutilation violates health rights, security rights and the physical integrity of a child or woman and flies directly in the face of basic human rights. We need to speak out on behalf of vulnerable young women who are unable to stand up for or speak for themselves. This Bill brings the opportunity to improve the lives of women.
I commend the Minister.
With the permission of the House, I will share time with Deputies Anne Ferris and Joe Costello.
The Criminal Justice (Female Genital Mutilation) Bill 2011 is most welcome. Legislation banning female genital mutilation is long overdue in Ireland. In Britain, FGM legislation was passed in 1985. I must say that Ireland has been very slow in catching up.
Senator Ivana Bacik introduced legislation on behalf of the Labour Party to the Seanad on the issue in April 2010. That legislation had support from all the political parties and Senator Bacik is to be commended for pursuing the issue. The Government has now adopted the Bill so that, at last, Ireland will have specific legislation prohibiting female genital mutilation.
International research shows the enormous dangers to the health of women and girls represented by the barbaric practice of female genital mutilation. The NGO AkiDwA estimates that over 3,000 women living in Ireland have undergone FGM, so it is very clear this is a pressing issue, particularly for migrant women and girls and their families.
Female genital mutilation is recognised internationally as a violation of the human rights of girls and women. It reflects deep-rooted inequality between the sexes and constitutes an extreme form of discrimination against women. It is nearly always carried out on minors and is a violation of the rights of children. The practice also violates a person's rights to health, security and physical integrity, the right to be free from torture and cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment and the right to life, when the procedure results in death.
The WHO says that between 100 million and 140 million girls and women worldwide are living with the consequences of FGM. In Africa, about 92 million girls aged ten years and above are estimated to have undergone FGM. In 1997, the World Health Organisation issued a joint statement with the United Nations Children's Fund, UNICEF, and the United Nations Population Fund, UNFPA, against the practice of FGM. A new statement, with wider UN support, was then issued in February 2008 to support increased advocacy for the abandonment of FGM.
The 2008 statement documents new evidence collected over the past decade about the practice. It highlights the increased recognition of the human rights and legal dimensions of the problem and provides current data on the frequency and scope of FGM. It also summarises research about why FGM continues, how to stop it and its damaging effects on the health of women, girls and newborn babies.
In February 2010, a study by Pharos, a Dutch group that gathers information on health care for refugees and migrants, found that many women who have undergone FGM in Holland suffer psychiatric problems. This was the first study into the psychiatric and social complaints associated with this practice. In the study, 66 Dutch African women, who had been subjected to the practice, were found to be "stressed, anxious and aggressive". It also found that they were more likely to have relationship problems or, in some cases, had fears of establishing a relationship. Given all of this, I am delighted that Ireland will have legislation specifically prohibiting the practice here and ensuring that anyone resident in Ireland who takes a girl abroad to have FGM performed there will be subject to prosecution in Ireland. This practice is damaging to women and its prohibition is the correct step forward.
I welcome the Bill. It is important not only because of the legislative provisions that will make FGM a criminal offence, but also because of the message it sends out that Ireland will not tolerate a violation of a woman or girl in this manner. The legislation was first mooted several years ago and Senator Ivana Bacik has pursued it with great commitment and energy. I commend her on her work.
Before discussing the Bill's provisions, it is important to note exactly how widespread is the practice of female genital mutilation. The WHO believes that between 100 million and 140 million girls and women are affected by some form of FGM. The reasons this practice is prevalent are manifold. They include issues relating to religious practices, tradition, sexuality, marriageability, economics and aesthetic reasons. None of these issues can justify allowing it to continue and the risk of it happening to females from Ireland is addressed by the legislation.
We need to be careful with our language in discussing this issue. It is worth bearing in mind that because so many people are affected by this practice, a note of caution ought to be sounded on the use of overly emotive words, for fear of hurting further those who have undergone the process. The Bill's provisions are comprehensive. It addresses a number of key areas, not least of which is the creation of a distinct separate offence of FGM, the definition of which is broadly defined. The extra-territoriality of the legislation makes it an offence to carry out or attempt to carry out acts of FGM in other countries, subject to conditions. Concerns about the relevant section have been expressed by some people and interested groups. In seeking to clarify this, I contacted officials in the Department of Health who were amenable to answering my queries and I commend them on the extensive work they carried out on this Bill.
Individuals and groups sought to broaden the effect of this legislation. They wanted the replacement of the dual criminal requirement in the Bill with one of a crime of universal jurisdiction. Dual criminality requires that an act of FGM must constitute an offence in the place where it is done in order for the perpetrator to be guilty of an offence. Only in exceptional cases are extra-territorial offences in criminal law provided for without a dual criminality requirement. Under Article 29.8 of the Constitution, the State may exercise extra-territorial jurisdiction in accordance with the generally recognised principles of international law. Where FGM is carried out privately, it is not an international crime. However, the general principles of international law are evolving all the time and, as a result, FGM may become an offence where universal jurisdiction could arise under jus cogens principles.
This matter was referred to the previous Attorney General and it has also been submitted to the current Attorney General. The advice received on both occasions deems that the requirement of dual criminality be present. Section 3 details the offences that would be committed if a girl or woman was removed from the State. In view of this I call for greater development in this area in international law in order that universal jurisdiction in making this an offence could be contemplated in the near future.
With that in mind, l have tabled a parliamentary question to the Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade asking at what stage the State is in ratifying the Council of Europe's convention on preventing and combating violence against women and domestic violence. The convention, which was only opened for signature on 11 May, still requires eight member states to ratify it before it may enter into force. Currently, 14 states that have signed up but none of them has ratified it yet. My understanding is that Ireland will sign and ratify this important convention. For this to occur, though, the convention, which covers a wide number of areas, must be examined to ascertain whether any of them contravenes Irish law. This treaty does explicitly state that the practice of FGM is condemned and I am advised that it provides that there should not be a dual criminality requirement.
However, this legislation is comprehensive in its outlook and I am, therefore, more than happy that it has been introduced. I hope that it will be enacted fully this year. We cannot allow the damaging health effects of this practice to continue. It is medically unnecessary and an irreversible procedure.
I wholeheartedly welcome the Bill. It is ten years since my former party colleague, Liz McManus, introduced a Private Member's FGM Bill in the House. Unfortunately, the Government of the day refused to accept it. Subsequently, similar legislation was introduced by Senator Ivana Bacik in the Upper House but that was also declined. Numerous requests were made of recent Governments but, in the dying days of the previous Dáil, the then Government finally produced the legislation on 18 January 2011 when it was obvious there was not a hope in hell of getting the legislation through the House. This was a cynical exercise in politics and it militated against the protection of girls and women living in Ireland from mutilation of their bodies and serious injury to their health. For an entire decade, these vulnerable young people were without the protection of domestic law by irresponsible and uncaring Governments, despite numerous requests from all sides of the House to introduce the necessary legislation.
Thankfully, the Government, in the first few months of its existence, introduced the Bill in the Seanad where it was passed and, hopefully, we will finally pass it in this House before the summer recess. The practice of FGM, as previous speakers said, is widespread. More than 3,000 women living in Ireland have undergone FGM while more than 500,000 women and girls living in Europe and in excess of 100 million women and girls in countries all over the world have also undergone FGM. It is a serious worldwide problem. It is a horrific, brutal attack on the bodily integrity and the human rights of women, which cannot be justified on religious or moral grounds because it is wrong, dangerous and inhumane.
Last autumn when the United Youth of Ireland was organising its annual conference, Sheikh Shaheed, the Muslim president of Ireland, stated that FGM had no place in any religion and, particularly, in Islam, and that parents must be responsible for their daughters' bodily integrity.
In particular, I congratulate a young Somali woman, Ifrah Ahmed, who suffered FGM in her country, and who is with us today in the Visitors Gallery. She has led the campaign to eradicate the practice in this country once and for all. She has campaigned courageously despite hostility and opposition from many people in her community. She is responsible for the introduction of the legislation, which will criminalise the practice of female genital mutilation in this country. She must be acknowledged for that. I also acknowledge the good work that has been done by other organisations, particularly Amnesty International. Many of the organisations have been mentioned already which have campaigned strongly for some time against FGM.
It is important that FGM is criminalised and carries a substantial penalty - a maximum of 14 years imprisonment. Rightly, the consent of the girl or woman herself or her parents or guardians or the assertion that FGM is a custom or ritual cannot be permitted as a defence by anyone. Equally, it is important that a woman or girl may not be taken from the State for the purpose of performing FGM on her. Once the Bill is enacted, aiding, abetting, counselling, attempting or procuring the commission of FGM are automatically crimes under existing Irish law.
Now that the legislation is in place the next step is to ensure adequate, widespread awareness of it and the fact that the State roundly condemns, forbids and criminalises FGM as a practice. That must be done among the immigrant and migrant population in this country. There is a need to enforce the law. There is not much sense in law being on the books if it is not strongly enforced. That will be the responsibility of the police authority.
I referred to the event I attended early this year, the fashion show, dance and conference. It was an amazing event in the Gresham Hotel at which Dr. Shaheed spoke. I spoke at the conference and on that occasion I stated that next week's event would be a celebration of the passage of the legislation. That will now be the case.
I am grateful to Deputy Costello and my other colleagues for sharing their time with me. I am pleased the Minister, Deputy Reilly, is present for this important debate. I welcome the opportunity to contribute on the Bill. I spoke on it in the other House in April when the Labour Party introduced a Private Members' Bill on the issue. The Bill is based largely on the work that was done in the Seanad in the past session. I pay tribute to my former colleague in the Seanad, Senator Ivana Bacik, on her determination to ensure this practice is made illegal in this country.
Female genital mutilation is an appalling abuse of the human body. According to figures from Amnesty International approximately 3,000 women and young girls in this country have had this abuse performed on them. It is a practice that they neither sought nor asked for. It is carried out on them by their elders who are making a life-altering decision on their behalf. I refer not only to the physical dangers but also to the lifelong psychological distress.
It is important that we pass a law banning FGM in Ireland but it is also crucial that we support campaigns in countries where this practice is still widely carried out. I visited Tanzania a couple of years ago as a member of the overseas development committee where I saw at first hand how the Irish Aid programme is working to eradicate the practice. We help train ex-practitioners to educate people on the dangers of the practice and try to convince people to move away from it. While there, I spoke with the Prime Minister of Tanzania, Mr. Pinda, and tried to impress upon him the need to ensure that politicians lead from the front in this respect in countries such as Tanzania. I also stressed to him the importance of community and political leaders openly condemning the practice and calling for it to be stopped.
This political commitment has been happening across Europe and Africa but more pressure is required. In 2005 the African Union passed the Protocol to the African Charter on Human and Peoples' Rights on the Rights of Women in Africa in 2005. Article 5 of the protocol bans FGM but to date only 28 of the 53 countries in the African Union have ratified it. I urge both the Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade, the Minister of State with responsibility for trade and development and the Minister for Health to ensure that we put pressure on the remaining countries to ratify the protocol as soon as possible.
I note from the Report Stage debate in the Seanad the concern over the dual criminality clause. Section 4(1)(c) provides that a person is guilty of an offence but only if it is done or attempted to be done, "by a person who is a citizen of Ireland or is ordinarily resident in the State, and would constitute an offence in the place in which it is done." In practice, this means that for a person to be convicted in this country of having performed FGM on a young girl then it must also be a crime in the country where the abuse first happened. That is not the position with the UK legislation, under which the person can be prosecuted if the procedure is carried out in a country where it is not illegal. I invite the Minister to address this when he concludes this debate. In the other House he said that an amendment would be introduced to the Bill in the Dáil so that we can prosecute people in this country who are involved in this atrocious practice, regardless of the law in their own countries. I hope the change can be incorporated in the Bill.
I welcome the Bill. I congratulate the Minister, his staff and outside agencies which have been involved in ensuring the Bill reached the floor of the House.
I welcome the legislation and congratulate the Minister on bringing it forward as a priority. Female genital mutilation or female genital cutting is carried out for non-medical reasons on children and women worldwide from infancy onwards. Amnesty International estimates that 2 million girls across the world undergo this procedure annually with 135 million women worldwide having had some form of genital cutting carried out on them. The lack of consent of the girls, children and even babies, the concerns about the safety of the procedure and its long-term consequences is of great concern to many countries. The World Health Organisation has made 6 February International Day of Zero Tolerance to FGM in an attempt to end the practice.
The many reasons given for its use are cultural, religious and social factors within families and communities. Even if mothers or grandmothers oppose the practice they are under pressure from their local community, religion and some medical practitioners to conform as they could become social outcasts otherwise. It is critical that we in this country oppose FGM, a brutal act from the perspective of both health and human rights. The negative physical and mental outcomes have been well documented and referred to already in the debate so I will not go into the deeply upsetting effects again. It is a violence against women and children, it is a form of torture and it violates bodily integrity.
I welcome the Bill in its aims to provide protection for girls and women by making it an offence to remove a girl or woman from the State to carry out FGM. Making FGM a distinct offence and enabling prosecution for carrying out or enabling FGM in other jurisdictions is a welcome facet of the Bill.
We must protect women at risk of FGM. AkiDwA has suggested that more than 2, 500 people in this country have already undergone FGM. One is one too many. It is deplorable to think that this act could have taken place on Irish citizens. I commend the advocates to date who have pursued the introduction of the law which will protect vulnerable women and children from this brutal crime which highlights inequality between the sexes and discriminates against women. I commend the Minister and his staff on the introduction of the Bill, which I sincerely welcome.
I commend the Minister for Health on bringing this important legislation before the house to prohibit the practice of female genital mutilation on women and girls of migrant families in this country. This Bill gives us an opportunity to highlight women's rights and health as well as children's rights, both of which are transgressed by FGM. As a woman, I am delighted that this legislation has been introduced in line with 12 other industrialised and developed countries which have enacted criminal legislation preventing this practice. The Bill sends out the message that we as a country will not accept any violation of women or children. Deputy Costello has outlined to Deputies how difficult it was to try to get the Bill to this stage in the House.
The Bill criminalises the procedure of FGM, so that anyone removing a child or women from this State for the purpose of performing such a practice will be prosecuted. It is hard to believe that many women and girls are transported to their countries of birth to endure a barbaric procedure reminiscent of practices in the Dark Ages. The fact that this procedure is performed on young girls barely out of infancy, with the most common age being between four and ten years old, is appalling. FGM is sometimes performed on infants less than a year old. This is a fundamental violation of their human rights and a form of discrimination against women, which contributes to the repression of women in general. It is a manifestation of gender-based human rights violation which aims to control women's sexuality and autonomy over their own bodies.
Female genital mutilation is a primitive practice imposed upon women and girls which has no known health benefits but does have adverse effects of a physical and psychological nature, including the effects of mental torture, which can affect development throughout the course of a person's life. One of the most shocking outcomes of FGM is that it significantly increases the victim's risk of contracting HIV. The origin of this practise is largely undocumented and seems to be based more on culture and tradition than on religion. In some of the countries where FGM is performed, there is a spurious belief that it is a religious requirement, even though no religious scripts prescribe the practise. To us, who are fortunate to live in a democratic developed society, this seems archaic.
More than 135 million women and girls have experienced some form of FGM, including approximately 2,500 women in Ireland alone. The World Health Organisation estimates that over 3 million people in Africa alone are at risk of FGM annually. While we respect other cultures, this does not mean we should ignore practices that are harmful and that abuse the most basic human rights, including the right of women not to be discriminated against because of their gender and, in particular, the right of children to enjoy their childhood and to the enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of health, as laid down in Article 24 of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child.
One omission in this Bill is a provision to deal with asylum law in this country. This should take into account the risk of mutilation should an asylum seeker or her female children be returned to their country of origin, for example to parts of the Horn of Africa, where the risk of FGM is 90%. Female genital mutilation is not a surgical operation but a barbaric practice inflicted upon women and girls against their will. Since the 1990s, Canada and Sweden have granted families asylum on the grounds that their female members were at risk of FGM should they be returned to their country of origin. I recognise that this goes beyond the scope of the Bill but perhaps the Minister could consider these concerns.
We need to send a strong message that the practice of FGM is wholly unacceptable. We cannot leave the matter to be decided by personal preference, culture or custom. FGM is harmful, and the Bill is just a starting point. There is much more to be done to educate communities and provide women with the support they need to oppose this primitive practice openly. Health care professionals in this country must be provided with the skills and support to deal with FGM cases.
I am pleased the Bill has received such cross-party support since its introduction by my colleague Senator Ivana Bacik a number of weeks ago. I thank her for her persistence in bringing this legislation to the House.
I thank the Deputies for their contributions and note that there is broad support overall for the Bill.
As indicated earlier, the main purpose of the Bill is to prohibit FGM along with providing for related offences, some of which apply to certain extra-territorial jurisdictions. Having a specific Bill prohibiting this practice will bring legal clarity and certainty to the issue and, I hope, act as a powerful deterrent for practising communities. Equally, it sends a loud message that although FGM is already illegal in this country, we take it extremely seriously and do not intend to tolerate it in any form, whether it is carried out here or on our citizens or residents outside this country.
In drafting the Bill, my officials have been able to learn from international experience in this field and call upon experts to ensure the proposals are evidence-based and in line with best practice. Indeed, as I have said on many occasions, the hallmark of our health policy is that it will be evidence-based.
Deputy Ó Caoláin stated that FGM was likely to already constitute a crime under the Non-Fatal Offences Against the Person Act 1997. However, this Bill brings indisputable clarity to the issue. I agree with the Deputies that sensitivity and appropriate language must be used in dealing with this issue. For the purpose of the legislation we decided to adopt the language used by the WHO as being the most appropriate for this purpose.
With regard to the number of women living in Ireland who have undergone FGM, the number quoted in the AkiDwA study of 3,183 is the most up-to-date available. However, enhancement of data collection and application is a key pillar of the HSE national inter-cultural health strategy, and efforts regarding the roll-out of ethnic identifiers into core data sets are ongoing in pilot projects in the Rotunda Hospital and Temple Street Children's University Hospital. They provide encouraging figures on the progress being made in collecting this information.
Some of the Deputies raised the issue of dual criminality and the fact that in the UK a person can be prosecuted for carrying out female genital mutilation on children removed from the State, whether the practice is legal or illegal in the country in question. Our difficulty in this regard is that we have a Constitution.
The issue of permanent bodily harm is a complex one that posed some challenges. While the Government was clear that FGM in all its forms must be criminalised, it was not our intention to criminalise certain forms of genital piercing and cosmetic surgery for aesthetic purposes. In our deliberations we were conscious that the rights of all women living in Ireland had to be balanced and therefore the Government decided to use the broad WHO definition of what constitutes FGM, which includes type IV FGM. This category subsumes all other practices not included in types I, II and III and usually refers to pricking, piercing, incising, scraping or cauterisation. This decision was made to ensure that all forms of FGM are covered by the Bill.
An exemption was added to protect freedom of choice with regard to cosmetic and other procedures that do not violate women's human rights. This approach was chosen following extensive consultation with the Office of the Attorney General and the Office of the Director of Public Prosecutions. Under this exemption, no offence is committed if an act of FGM is committed against a woman of 18 years or over where no permanent bodily harm is done. That is a key point. The term "harm" is defined in jurisprudence as an interference with the health or comfort of an individual. However, if no consent was given for this act it would still constitute assault and be covered by the Non-Fatal Offences Against the Person Act 1997.
This issue has also been considered in some detail by my officials and by the Attorney General's office. Following a further review and additional advice sought from the Attorney General, the current provision of dual criminality stands. However, Ireland is involved in a draft Council of Europe convention on preventing and combating violence against women. Under the terms of this convention, the practice of FGM is condemned and it provides there should not be a dual criminality requirement. The removal of dual criminality from FGM legislation could be re-visited if the convention is ratified.
Many countries in which FGM is commonly practised have criminalised it. However, enforcement is lacking for a variety of reasons including the force of tradition and lack of resources. As of 2009, a total of 20 African countries enacted laws criminalising FGM.
The reason why the UK's Female Genital Mutilation Act 2003 does not include a dual criminality requirement is that its government is not bound by the requirements of a constitution that demands it. This Bill, however, does provide offences that relate to removing a girl or woman from the State for the purposes of doing FGM to her and this section mitigates the need for the dual criminality requirement.
The Health Service Executive is awaiting the enactment of the Bill to progress with the printing of information leaflets on FGM. Moreover, the HSE has engaged in significant steps to raise awareness and train health and social care professionals in this area by progressing the health related objectives of the national action plan against female genital mutilation over the past several years.
I thank Deputies for their contributions on Second Stage. If Members feel their issues were not addressed comprehensively, we can revisit them on Committee Stage. I thank Members for their co-operation and broad support for this important initiative for protecting the well-being of women.