It is estimated that some 3,780 women and girls, aged between 15 and 44, in Ireland have been subject to female genital mutilation (FGM).
FGM involves the full or partial removal of a woman’s outer genital organs. There are both short and long term health consequences for women who have endured the procedure.
A recent study from the European Institute for Gender Equality estimates that between up to 11% of the almost 14,600 girls aged under eighteen in Ireland whose parents originate from FGM-practicing countries could be at risk of the procedure
Ireland outlawed FGM in 2012 and although there are no known prosecutions under the law, Aine Travers of the Irish Family Planning Association (IFPA) said that it sends a strong signal.
“The legislation sends a very powerful message, that FGM is a serious crime with serious sanctions, but it’s also a support to parents who may feel under pressure to have the procedure done to their girls,” she said.
“All women who access our specialised service have been aware of the legislation. They’ve all known that it is a serious crime in Ireland.”
According to the latest statistics in the IFPA’s annual report, ten women accessed the FGM treatment service last year, since it first opened in May 2014.
The free service provides medical treatment for affected women, psychological support and it also offers sexual health and reproductive services.
There are both long and short-term risks associated with FGM. Infection, haemorrhage and HIV are among the problems associated with the procedure – which can often be carried out by someone who has no medical training.
Long term, women who have the procedure can be faced with painful periods, infertility, potential trauma during childbirth and psychological trauma.
“Part of our plan is sustained outreach, we’re constantly trying to spread awareness about the clinic to women in communities who are possibly affected by the procedure,” Ms Travers explained.
“They don’t have to be referred through a doctor, they can self-refer. We want to facilitate as many women as possible to access it in a way that is most comfortable for them,” she added.
Meanwhile at a policy level there has been something of a shift recently.
The Government signed the Istanbul Convention on Friday November 5, following extensive lobbying from advocacy groups, including Amnesty International.
The Council of Europe Convention on Preventing and Combating Violence against Women and Domestic Violence (Istanbul Convention) marks the first time that Ireland has agreed to a legally binding instrument in the area of preventing violence against women.
Signing it has now put an onus on the government to ensure that legislation is effective and also that the prevention of violence against women is seriously pursued.
Ireland was, in the words of Amnesty Ireland’s director Colm O’Gorman, “late to the table” in ratifying the convention.
In the intervening months, Mr O’Gorman had called on the government to sign up to the convention to strengthen their position when it came to stamping out FGM in Ireland.
“While we welcome Ireland’s enacting legislation in 2012 to criminalise FGM, legislation alone is not enough. Ireland needs to adopt a domestic FGM action plan. Ratifying the Istanbul Convention would aid Ireland in sharing best practice in effectively preventing FGM,” he said at the time.
Now that it has been signed, Ms Travers points out that only time will tell of its effectiveness.
“While it’s a very positive signal that the government have signed the Istanbul Convention, it’s really too early to say what impact it will have,” she said.
“It does highlight the importance of the area of prevention and protection, as well as prosecution, very clearly and so that would tie in with what we would like to see coming out of our advocacy work.
“For the second National Action Plan we are looking at more systematic training among the relevant professionals (medical staff, teachers, social workers), more awareness raising and education initiatives in communities where FGM is prevalent,” she explained.
“Our colleagues in Akidwa have produced a guide for education professionals looking at how to identify risk of FGM and how to deal with it in a sensitive way,” she added.
The second National Action Plan for tacking FGM is due to be published in 2016.
More information about the free FGM treatment service can be found here.
You can also phone or text 0858771342.