Female genital mutilation affects over 200 million women worldwide, with around 3,780 of those affected living in Ireland. Patrick Kelleher looks at the steps that are being taken to end FGM on a global scale, as well as within Ireland.
On Cathal Brugha Street in Dublin city centre is the Everywoman Centre, a clinic run by the Irish Family Planning Association (IFPA). Among the services offered at the clinic is a female genital mutilation (FGM) treatment service, a free drop-in clinic where women who have experienced FGM can go to receive medical care from doctors and nurses, as well as to receive counselling.
The service is not one that many people know about, because most people don’t need to know about it. Genital mutilation, or cutting, is usually considered to be an African problem. What most people don’t know is that there are estimated to be around 3,780 women living in Ireland who have experienced FGM.
According to the IFPA, “female genital mutilation is any procedure involving the partial or total removal of a woman’s external genital organs or any other injury to a woman’s genital organs. The procedure is carried out for non-medical reasons and has serious health and psychological consequences for women and girls.” If the practice is so damaging, and without cause, why is it that over 200 million women are living with the effects of it worldwide?
“The husband was of the opinion that, they were actually wanting to put their daughters through it out of love… It was really a sense that everyone else from their culture was doing this, and if they don’t do it they’re almost doing them an injustice.”
According to Claudia Hoareau, leader of the AkiDwa organisation (Akina Dada Wa Africa, the Swahili term for sisterhood), the problem is a cultural one, and she is keen to stress that the reasons behind carrying out the practice are rarely rooted in a desire to inflict pain. She recounts a recent experience she had with a couple as a part of her work who were considering putting their daughters through FGM.
“I had been speaking to the woman and she rang her husband to come to talk to us afterwards, and the husband was of the opinion that they were actually wanting to put their daughters through it out of love,” she says. “It was really a sense that everyone else from their culture was doing this, and if they don’t do it they’re almost doing them an injustice. So it’s really about understanding some of the cultures and then talking to people about it, and giving them more information.”
The AkiDwa organisation works with migrant communities in Ireland, with one of their main objectives being to increase awareness about the harm that FGM causes, and to help end it. Practicing FGM was made illegal in Ireland in 2012 with the help of AkiDwa, and they have been campaigning for a number of years to see meaningful legislative changes that would help to end the practice. One of the main problems they consistently encounter is that this is still seen as a distinctly African problem, and many Irish people struggle to relate.
“It’s almost a bit far removed from generalised society,” Hoareau explains. “It’s this thing that people from that country have, or have to deal with… We have partners from other parts of Europe who have really successful programs where they’ve actually been talking to the students themselves just to make sure people are aware of the practice and aware it’s against the law, and the kids are aware as well. And here, we got a lot of resistance to doing something like that, because here there’s a process of getting consent from parents… The feedback from a lot of parents is ‘well, it’s not our issue. It’s not something that our kids are ever going to go through, so we don’t see the need to expose them to it’. So that kind of stuff does come out a lot. Or even in terms of say looking for funding to advance the work on it, you’ll sort of hear, ‘well, it’s only 3,780 women in the country, so that obviously means it’s not a huge issue’.”
One of the big issues that Hoareau points to is the lack of reporting of FGM in Ireland. There’s a great deal of stigma attached to the practice, so for many women suffering with the effects, they don’t know what to do. She says that one of their main goals is to “try and decrease or eradicate a lot of the stigma that exists around reporting. That’s a difficult area for us at the moment, because there’s a huge amount of stigma about reporting anything amongst the migrant community, and that is again going back to misconceptions. People often feel that if they report even domestic violence, a lot of people don’t want to report, because they think that somehow it’ll affect their status here, or they might have their kids taken away from them. And a lot of those misconceptions, to be fair, are based on one or two situations that have happened to people, and people hear about them, and it just puts the fear into people about reporting.”
UNICEF estimates that there are over 200 million women across 30 countries that have been through FGM. Countries with the highest incidences include Somalia, Guinea and Djibouti, with most girls being cut before they were five years old. On a European level, the End FGM Network is attempting to stop the practice. Their goal is, as the name suggests, to bring about an end to the practice of FGM worldwide. Natalie Kontoulis, an Advocacy and Communications Officer with the network, acknowledges that the goal is not an easy one.
“We know this is a big goal, but we see ourselves as the European focal point in the global movement to end FGM,” she says. “We can only achieve this if we pull together across continents to do so.”
For the End FGM Network, the key is in prevention. “We believe in a holistic approach to ending FGM, comprising, prevention, protection, prosecution and integrated policies. We place a lot of importance on the first two, prevention and protection. FGM has life long consequences physically and psychologically, so it is best to prevent it happening if at all possible. Reaching out to communities and engaging with them directly is crucial to this.”
Kontoulis explains that there are 500,000 women and girls living in Europe who are affected by FGM, with 180,000 at risk of being cut each year. “We actually think the true figure in Europe is much higher than this,” she says. “As the European member states all collect data in different ways (and some don’t collect it at all), it is hard to truly know how many women and girls in Europe are affected by FGM. In any case, we think it is more than 500,000.”
FGM is a huge problem globally, and while its origins are in African countries, Ireland is not removed from the problem. With roughly 3,780 women living in Ireland with the effects of FGM, there is clearly a great deal of work to be done. The second national action plan for FGM is due to be launched in May, made by a steering committee made up of 15 organisations. It is not yet known what will be laid out in the plan, but what is clear is that FGM is nowhere near having ended yet. To protect women and girls globally, awareness must continue to be spread and governments must continue to work to make these practices illegal, and punishable by law.