25 July 2002 Edition

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Comhlámh calls for education and legislation

On Friday, 28 June in Dublin, Comhlámh, Development Workers in Global Solidarity: Ireland launched a booklet entitled Understanding Female Genital Mutilation (also known as Female Circumcision).

At the launch, Comhlámh called on the Dublin government to introduce specific legislation in Ireland against Female Genital Mutilation (FGM), along with a programme of education on the issue.

According to the World Health Organisation, up to 132 million women and girls have undergone FGM worldwide. Now, due to the reality of global migration, there are women living in Ireland who have undergone the practice in other countries. There is also anecdotal evidence that the practice has occurred here in Ireland. Comhlámh, in partnership with some of the women affected by FGM now living in Ireland, is aiming to raise awareness on the harmful consequences of the practice, a harsh reality which affects at least two million girls and women a year around the world. Comhlámh is carrying out this work in the hope the practice will never take hold in Ireland, as it has in some other European countries.

"Any prevention strategy requires an approach that includes legislation aimed specifically against the practice of FGM and education on the complexities of the issue," said Majella Darcy, a Comhlámh member who first came across FGM while working as a development worker in Sudan. "Most importantly, it is essential that those who lead the campaign for change are those most affected by the issue, and therefore those who stand most to benefit by correcting the injustice that is FGM."

The publication is aimed at health professionals, those working as service providers with new communities in Ireland, educators, community workers and all those interested in global justice issues.

For further information, or to talk to a member of the group, please call Morína O'Neill, Development Education Officer, on 00-353-1-4783490/[email protected]. Comhlámh is at 10 Upper Camden Street, Dublin 2. (www.comhlamh.org)


Supermodel highlights barbaric practice


Although the number of mutilated women and girls in Africa and the Middle East is increasing steadily due to population growth, internationally financed population, health and safe motherhood programmes ignore Female genital mutilation and have failed to implement effective preventive education
Appointing Somalian former supermodel Waris Dirie as a Special Ambassador was probably one of the smartest moves made by the UN in recent times, and it certainly has far greater significance and credibility than previous appointments from the world of pop culture.

Gerri Halliwell, the former Spice Girl, hasn't exactly made an impact as UN Special Ambbassador for children, but Dirie has brought an air of autheticity to her role as a Special Ambassador working for the elimination of female genital mutilation (FGM).

Dirie is one of the estimated 150 million women worldwide who have been victims of the barbaric practice. Her life story, published in a new autobiography titled 'Desert Dawn', is compelling.

She was a five-year-old child in the Somali desert when an old woman held her down and circumcised her with a rusty blade, sewing up her wounds with catgut and thorns.

Her account, in a Reuters report by Sinéad O'Hanlon, brings home the brutality of this practice: "I felt my flesh being cut away, I heard the blade sawing back and forth through my skin. The feeling was indescribable. The rock was drenched with blood as if an animal had been slaughtered there."

Dirie says her wounds were sewn so tightly that only a matchstick-sized opening was left, ensuring her virginity for any future husband, but also leading to crippling pain whenever she needed to urinate.

Despite the horrific nature of the mutilation, Dirie does not blame her mother for making her undergo the procedure: "I wanted it. I didn't know what was going to happen but I was happy I was going to be a woman."

However, as she begun to grow up, the former supermodel realised that something was terribly wrong with the treatment of women in her society. When a marriage was arranged for her as a teenager - with a man old enough to be her grandfather - Dirie decided she had had enough and escaped through the Somali desert, braving extreme conditions, lions and vultures. She eventually reached London, where her uncle was the Somalian ambassador, and worked as a servant for his wife for four years before being discovered by a top photographer while sweeping the floor of a McDonald's restaurant.

Now, Dirie, who despite her experiences still loves and yearns for her homeland, has turned her back on the world of glamour to work for the elimination of female genital mutilation (FGM).


Two million girls a year, or 6,000 a day are, according to the World Health Organisation, at risk from FGM, most of them in Africa or the Middle East. More and more trained health personnel in Africa are performing female genital mutilation on children to make extra money.

Justification for such a nonsensical practice derives from tradition and religion. Many believe it is a religious requirement, that it 'purifies' women and girls before marriage. Preservation of virginity, increased sexual pleasure for males and the enhancement of fertility are some of the mythic advantages attached to the practice. FGM's origins are unclear, but it is certainly one of the most deeply misogynist practices conceivable.


The Senior Deputy Director of Kenya's medical services has admitted that the practice has been carried out in the country's health institutions. International charities fund health facilities all over Africa and opponents of FGM are urging donors to always check whether their donations will be promoting mutilation.

Although the number of mutilated women and girls in Africa and the Middle East is increasing steadily due to population growth, internationally financed population, health and safe motherhood programmes ignore FGM and have failed to implement effective preventive education.

FGM is normally carried out on females before they reach puberty. Its short-term implications are severe pain and shock, infection, urine retention, injury to adjacent tissues and sometimes, immediate fatal haemorrhaging. Long-term, the practice can entail extensive damage to the external reproductive system and uterus, vaginal and pelvic infections, cysts and neuromas, increased risk of vesico vaginal fistula, complications in pregnancy and childbirth, psychological damage, sexual dysfunction and difficulties in menstruation. The highest childbirth mortality rates are recorded in areas where FGM is practiced.

Clitoridectomy, or Excision, is the most popular form of the practice. It involves cutting off, without anaesthetic, the clitoris and most of the external genitalia. It is practiced in a broad area from the Red Sea to the Atlantic Coast and constitutes 80% of mutilations performed.

The most dangerous operation - Infibulation or Pharaonic Circumcision - is customary in Sudan, Somalia, North Kenya, parts of Ethiopia and all along the Red Sea Coasts, as well as in West Africa in parts of Mali and adjoining areas. After the clitoris is excised and all the external genitalia are carved away, the bleeding raw edges of the outer labia are held together by thorns or other fastening devices - until a scar forms to close the entrance to the vagina. The legs of the girl are tied together for several weeks until the wound heals, and a tiny opening is created, usually by inserting a splinter of wood, to allow urination. Thus virginity - which is considered especially important by Moslem men - can be proven before the bride price is paid to the father.


Immigrants from Africa and the Middle East continue to perform mutilations on their daughters in Europe, North America or wherever they go. In France, several little girls from West Africa died as a result of mutilations performed in Paris. In Britain and consequently, the Six Counties, special legislation was passed to prohibit FGM and education programmes were publicly funded.

Most European countries have taken steps to prevent FGM, which is classified as criminal child abuse in most of the world and is cited as a human rights violation.

In the 26 Counties, the practice is prohibited under the Non-Fatal Offences Against the Person Act, 1997, though not specifically. Under the Act, "harm" means "harm to body or mind and inculdes pain and unconsciousness"; "serious harm" means "injury which creates a substantial risk of death or which causes serious disfigurement or substantial loss or impairment of the mobility of the body as a whole or of the function of any particular bodily member or organ". A person convicted under the legislation for "harm" shall be liable to "a term not exceeding five years"; those convicted of "serious harm" to "a fine or to imprisonment for life or to both".

As the legislation refers to a wide base of crimes, it cannot be interpreted as discriminatory towards any particular culture, but it offers a great deal of scope to judges in terms of sentencing. Development organisation Comhlámh is seeking the introduction of specific legislation against FGM (see box).

Like other European states, it seems likely that the 26 Counties won't be fully aware of the extent of FGM until it has reached serious levels among the asylum seeking community. Maybe it already has.

Those who oppose specific legislation against FGM worry that it might force the practice deeply underground. Women may not seek medical care in later life for fear their parents may be prosecuted. Nevertheless, some countries, with longer histories than Ireland of refugee intake, have opted for a tough stance.

On 3 Febuary 1999, Hawa Greou went on trial in France on charges of "voluntary bodily injury causing mutilation or permanent disability". She was alleged to have mutilated the genitals of about 50 young girls. Also charged were 27 parents of the victims. The case was triggered by a woman of Malian origin, Mariatou Koita. Both she and her sister were mutilated by Greou. Jean Chavais, the defendant's lawyer, admitted that the mutilations were carried out.

"If the trial can help bring about an end to this custom, then it will be useful," he said. "But punishment is not as effective as education and prevention... This is an African custom that has existed for centuries. It takes a long time to change habits."

Greou, known among the Malian community in Paris as 'Mama Greou', had already received a one-year suspended sentence in 1994 for excising two girls. This time, she was given an eight-year jail sentence. Parents received sentences ranging from a three-year suspended sentence to two years in prison.


Chavais's assertion that punishment is not as effective as education certainly rings through, and is in line with the attitude of the World Health Organisation that "just denouncing the practice can make some of us feel bitter and self-righteous but it certainly does not solve the problem".

However, while FGM is an international problem, this issue poses a serious question to Irish society as to the nature of policy approaches to cultural integration.

Ireland must create a multicultural society, but it must also abide by international standards of human rights. FGM, or even more subtly misogynistic traditional and religious practices (including indigenous ones) cannot be accepted on the basis of some bland, uncritical version of multiculturalism.

It is therefore, time this society began the outreach to new cultures that have come to our shores, and formulated clear policies on what is acceptable or not in Irish society and how those policies can be implemented. Many asylum seekers are being ghettoised or relegated to the margins of society, but they cannot be left alone and we cannot ignore them.

Prosecuting people in ten or twenty years time for FGM would be as much a condemnation of our culture as it would be of theirs.

For more information on this subject:



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