AkiDwA welcomes the opportunity to present to the committee today. This morning I am joined by AkiDwA representatives Ms Uruemu Adejinmi, chairperson, and Dr. Caroline Munyi, co-ordinator of migrant women’s health. Our organisation welcomes the establishment of this Oireachtas Joint Committee on Gender Equality and views it as an opportunity to advance gender equality in Ireland.
Akina Dada wa Africa, or AkiDwA, which is Swahili for sisterhood, is a national network of migrant women living in Ireland. Established in 2001, AkiDwA’s mission is to promote equality and justice for migrant women, with a vision for a just society where there is equal opportunity and access to resources in all aspects of society: social; cultural; economic; civic; and political.
For AkiDwA, the term "migrant women" includes not only recent immigrants, asylum seekers and refugees, but also migrant workers, spouses of Irish and EU citizens, students, trafficked and undocumented women. It also includes those who have acquired Irish citizenship but who still consider themselves to be outside the mainstream society in terms of their linguistic, racial or cultural backgrounds and who therefore still define themselves as migrants.
Today our presentation is focused on recommendations 37 to 41, inclusive, made by the Citizens' Assembly and mainly on how AkiDwA believes they can be advanced.
Domestic violence happens in families in all regions and from all social, cultural and ethnic backgrounds, regardless of age or disability. However, some members of society face additional barriers in accessing services and getting to safety. Migrant women indeed have certain vulnerabilities which need to be taken into account, which characterise the abuse that they suffer and their pathways to safety. Ireland’s response to domestic violence needs to be aware of these vulnerabilities and build cultural sensitivity into this framework.
Since the beginning of the pandemic, rates of domestic violence have increased substantially in Ireland. In AkiDwA between 2020 and 2021, we dealt with 123 cases and our office remained open to support women. As noted by the Immigrant Council of Ireland, the number of domestic violence cases experienced by migrant women increased to 12% in 2021 compared to the previous year. According to Women’s Aid's 2020 report, 941 women who called its helpline said that they were members of a minority group. Some 93% of these were migrant women.
AkiDwA asserts that domestic abuse of migrant women in Ireland is an expression of power and control, which can further be aggravated by issues of culture, tradition and immigration. It can be made worse for migrant women living in Ireland because they are far away from their home countries. Most have no extended family support, due sometimes to family reunification barriers. Some face difficult residency status situations that could be contingent on a husband’s residency, cultural or religious factors, isolation from support networks and discrimination, and others may have language barriers affecting their access to services.
Recommendation 37 states that all Government action to prevent and counter domestic, sexual and gender-based violence should be co-ordinated by a Cabinet Minister with direct responsibility for immediate implementation of the national strategy. AkiDwA supports this recommendation and additionally highlights the importance of including all forms of domestic, sexual and gender-based violence, DSGBV, including female genital mutilation, FGM, early and forced marriages and trafficking in the national strategy to reflect diversity and lived experiences of women living in Ireland today.
According to AkiDwA's research and reports, there are 5,975 women who have been subjected to FGM living in Ireland.
Some 6,000 girls under 15 years old who are born or are living in Ireland but who originate from FGM-affected countries are at risk of female genital mutilation. AkiDwA and those who have been following the news know that Ireland witnessed the first FGM prosecution in January 2020. This case reaffirms the need to address this issue fully to ensure children from affected communities are fully protected. I will return to this issue later.
While the issue of early and forced marriage is under-researched in Ireland, it has been happening. According to a report by thejournal.ie in October 2016, over 400 minors were married in Ireland between 2004 and 2015. The report pointed out that the Garda National Immigration Bureau was investigating several cases of forced marriage involving migrant children as young as 12 years old where the girls were typically trafficked into the country and coerced into marrying older men. In 2019, the Irish Examiner reported a case of a father who supported his 16-year-old daughter's marriage to a 29-year-old man against her wishes.
Trafficking of women for sexual exploitation and prostitution remains a major issue globally and in Ireland. According to a Ruhama report on its provision of support in 2018, out of the 251 women supported by the organisation, 201 were migrant women. We recommend that the national strategy include all forms of domestic, sexual and gender-based violence, including FGM, early and forced marriages and trafficking, to reflect diversity and the lived experiences of women living in Ireland today. FGM as a form of gender-based violence should be included in all the goals of the national strategy on DSGBV and should be highlighted in awareness-raising, training and education. The Ministry or agency working towards the implementation of the national strategy with the Minister should have advisory members with representation from diverse backgrounds.
With regard to recommendation 38, time and again we hear from migrant women, particularly women applying for international protection, that they hesitate to report domestic violence out of fear that involving the authorities would make them be seen as troublemakers and that it would negatively affect their application for international protection or citizenship. It is therefore imperative that a positive initiative is taken to educate migrant and refugee women on their rights in targeted information campaigns on recognising the signs of domestic violence and assurances that protection from domestic violence is available to all and will not affect immigration status. Article 13 of the Istanbul Convention provides that states shall promote or conduct, on a regular basis and at all levels, awareness-raising campaigns or programmes, including in co-operation with national human rights institutions and equality bodies, civil society and non-governmental organisations, especially women’s organisations where appropriate, to increase awareness and understanding among the public of the different manifestations of all forms of violence covered by the scope of the convention. Under Article 19, states are to take necessary legislative or other measures to ensure that victims receive adequate and timely information on available support services and legal measures in a language they understand.
The impacts and harms caused by domestic violence are many for those involved, including the children. For example, in the area of female genital mutilation, survivors are left with psychological, physical, social and sexual consequences. Current supports available to victims and survivors of FGM are not sufficient, as there is currently only one clinic targeting this cohort of migrants. Supports can be considered in the following areas. Regarding physical supports, the impact of FGM on women range from being unable to do or enjoy intimate activities with their significant others to difficult labour and childbirth, among others. In terms of psychological supports, one of the adverse impacts of FGM is on women’s psychological health. This group needs culturally appropriate services to help them cope with the trauma caused by the mutilation. We also need wrap-around supports. The need for these supports is essential and long overdue. We would be failing if we say that women suffering from FGM are not victims of other forms of violence such as domestic violence. Due to the difficulty to engage in intimacy, women who have undergone FGM suffer domestic violence in their homes and many times they have no one to whom they can disclose what they are going through. I can offer an example of a woman who has gone through that. However, due to time I will move to recommendation 39, to support justice for victims and survivors.
While other women have a choice of whether to avail of the safety and protections in place, migrant women often find themselves trapped by laws, policies and administrative decisions. Immigration legislation impacts greatly on the lives and choices of migrant women, increasing their physical vulnerability and distress in situations of domestic violence and severely curtailing their options, particularly when social welfare restrictions apply. Although the introduction of independent residence permissions was and still remains a welcome feature and a positive development in the work of combating domestic violence among the migrant community, there still remain gaps in the protection of migrant women. Neither the domestic violence guidelines nor the policy document on non-EEA family reunification has a legislative footing. Instead, access to independent status is based on ministerial discretion. A more forward-looking approach is contained in Article 59 of the Istanbul Convention. That article introduces the possibility of granting migrant women an autonomous residence permit if they are trapped in an abusive relationship because their residency status depends on that of their abusive spouse or partner.
There remain administrative barriers that hinder victims to fully exercise their rights and to avail of the current avenues in place, given that the domestic violence guidelines set out that the immigration status granted under the arrangements would be "at the same level as that which was previously held as a dependant", normally stamp 3 holders. This would not enable women to become economically self-sufficient and could act as a disincentive to women seeking independent status. While it is known to service providers that it can be possible to obtain a stamp 4 with permission to work, this information is not stated in the policy. Second, in cases of non-EEA migrant women, they are required to register or re-register with the Garda National Immigration Bureau. Following a successful application for the independent status, a fee of €300 has to be settled before one can be issued with a certificate of registration. This registration fee may prove prohibitive for women in situations where they are highly financially dependent on the perpetrator and not in receipt of any other payment.
Ireland should opt-in to the EU directive on family reunification and introduce implementing legislation which provides for autonomous residence permits. In addition to this, the protection of undocumented women from domestic violence should also be regarded as a priority in immigration reform. We must place the Irish Naturalisation and Immigration Service, INIS, guidelines on victims of domestic violence on a statutory footing, removing ministerial discretion and replacing it with a clear legal framework and a process. We must clarify the position on stamp 3 permission to work, with clear guidelines for holders and employers. Where granting independent status to a recognised victim of domestic violence, consider granting full access to the labour market to allow her to work to support herself and her family.
I will go to reviewing and reforming the courts system. AkiDwA welcomes this recommendation because it is badly needed. Front-line services and other service providers need to take up training, in particular on cultural competence, which AkiDwA has produced, to empower professionals and front-line staff who are working in this area. AkiDwA agrees with introducing tougher sentences and with providing specialised, confidential healthcare. AkiDwA emphasises the importance of language support, translation and access to legal support, which have been major barriers. Most women do not understand the system in Ireland at all. Ireland only has one clinic specialising in FGM, as I mentioned earlier. There is a lack of specialised domestic violence refuges and support services for migrant victims of intimate partner violence. Women’s Aid has an interpretation service available for women presenting at its services. However, in most services, especially in rural communities, there is a lack of resourcing for the general population, which has a knock-on effect on migrant women. AkiDwA also agrees with recommendation 39(e).
I will proceed to recommendation 40.
Although the immigration guideline is a welcome feature that enables victims to apply for independent immigration status — I mentioned this area — migrant women may experience additional barriers to accessing support and safety in circumstances of domestic violence, especially where their immigration status is a problem. I deal with this in my submission where I refer to the habitual residence condition.
The habitual residence condition is a qualifying condition for social welfare payments that was introduced in 2004. Women who leave their partner because of violence and who do not satisfy the habitual residence condition may find themselves and their children destitute. Even if they check into a refuge, given that its service is temporary and that those availing of it are not entitled to any payment while there, the chance of them or their children, or all of them, remaining there is quite slim. In most cases, victims find their way back home to the perpetrator. We ask that the habitual residency policy be examined, along with its impact on the lives of women.
Recommendation 41 relates to the area in which AkiDwA specialises: female genital mutilation, FGM. FGM is a form of gender-based violence that affects women and girls in Ireland today. Almost 6,000 women living in Ireland have undergone FGM, although the actual number may be higher because we did not get statistics from the CSO on some of the relevant countries. AkiDwA produced the statistics from UNICEF 2016 and World Health Organization guidelines. We have repeatedly called on the Government to establish an interdepartmental working group to co-ordinate the response to FGM to prevent it from happening to young girls and to provide adequate support to survivors. In 2020 we saw Ireland's first case concerning this human rights abuse. This sends a strong message that FGM will not be tolerated in Ireland, but we need to take steps to prevent girls from being cut. We have outlined key policy steps that the Government should take to prevent such a crime from happening again. These include the establishment of an intergovernmental working group that includes the relevant Departments, civil society, front-line services and representatives from affected communities; the development of a national action plan on FGM outlining and co-ordinating the response of Government agencies, with funding to support anti-FGM programmes and key targets and indicators to measure progress on elimination; and the establishment of funding for a network of community health ambassadors who would work with affected communities, including youth, religious groups and men, to change attitudes to FGM at a grassroots level.
AkiDwA welcomes recommendation 41 wholeheartedly. AkiDwA has called for FGM to be recognised as a ground for asylum many times. It has made attempts that include undertaking research into the gender component of asylum claims made by women in Ireland, particularly in relation to claims of gender-based violence, though without success due to a lack of data. In 2011 and 2012, AkiDwA held meetings with the Office of the Refugee Applications Commissioner, ORAC, on this matter. We have been advocating for gender asylum guidelines, which I will now explain.
The threat of FGM provides strong grounds for claiming asylum, yet many women are not granted protection. According to the 2013 UNHCR report, 29 female applicants in Ireland between the ages of 14 and 64 are likely to be affected by FGM. This is 44.6% of the total number of female applicants from FGM-practising countries of origin. The figure is from 2013, so it may now be higher.
The primary responsibility for protecting women and girls from FGM lies with each country. However, if a woman or girl in genuine fear of being subjected to FGM flees a country where such protection is not provided by the state and arrives in Ireland, it is vital that Ireland fulfils its legal obligations and provides adequate protection. Gender asylum guidelines allow decision-makers to examine women's asylum claims in a way that contextualises their experience and recognises the influence of gender inequality on perceptions of persecution.
In 2009, the UNHCR established guidelines on how to treat claims for refugee status relating specifically to FGM. These state that a girl or woman seeking asylum because she has been compelled to undergo, or is likely to be subjected to, FGM can qualify for refugee status under the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees. Women and girls applying for international protection in the State should be interviewed in a gender-sensitive manner to ensure they have an adequate opportunity to identify the types of harm they fear as relevant to the protection process. The 2013 UNHCR report Beyond Proof: Credibility Assessment in EU Asylum Systems, also known as the CREDO report, notes this. Hence, gender-sensitive interviewing is essential to ensure the facts of a claim are brought to light and can be appropriately assessed by the decision-maker.