Female Genital Mutilation Bill 2010: Second Stage

I move: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time".

I welcome the Minister of State at the Department of Health and Children, Deputy Áine Brady, and I thank her for her interest in this issue. I am delighted to introduce this important Bill on behalf of the Labour Party. My colleague, Senator Prendergast, will refer to the health implications and definition of female genital mutilation or FGM.

FGM is a practice carried out in certain countries which violates the human rights of girls and women. It involves the cutting of the genitalia and causes long-term physiological, sexual and psychological effects. It has serious and permanent health implications and can cause death. Senator Prendergast will deal more fully with the implications.

I wish to focus on the reasons we should seek to legislate on the issue of FGM, but before I deal with that question and the provisions of the Bill, I record my appreciation for the goodwill shown by the Minister of State, Deputy Áine Brady and the Minister for Health and Children, Deputy Harney, towards legislating on the issue. Senator Feeney will speak on the amendment to which, I believe, a change may be made. I very much appreciate that the Minister and her officials have been heavily involved in working on a legal framework for FGM, about which I will speak more.

On the question of why we need specific legislation, the first point is that there is no specific legislation dealing with the issue of female genital mutilation in this country, although FGM is recognised as a violation of the human rights of women and girls. The United Nations and the European Union have both called on member states to take all measures necessary, including the introduction of specific legislation, to prevent female genital mutilation. Several European Union and African countries have enacted such legislation which is seen as part of their child protection policies. This is not just an issue about women's rights; it is also very much an issue about children's rights and child protection. Ireland has not yet enacted such legislation. Not only is there an obligation on us to respect the rights of women and children by criminalising this specific violation of their rights, but we were also urged by the United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child in 2006 to consider prohibiting FGM in domestic legislation.

A third imperative on us to legislate specifically for FGM stems from recent changes in our demographic make-up and population. It is estimated that approximately 2,500 women living in this country underwent female genital mutilation before they came here. AkiDwA and other organisations estimate that approximately 10,000 women and girls living in Ireland have come from countries in which FGM is practised. It is clear that many of them are at risk of being returned to these countries to have FGM carried out. Female genital mutilation is a serious child protection and women's health issue that has real implications for girls and women living in Ireland. It is not just an issue for girls and women in other countries.

A good deal of work has been done at national level on the need to legislate on the issue of FGM. I pay tribute to the many groups, some of which are represented in the Visitors Gallery, which have been working on the issue. AkiDwA is the organisation which represents women from other countries living in Ireland, especially African women. Other groups include the Irish section of Amnesty International, Barnardos, Cairde, the Children's Rights Alliance, Christian Aid, Comhlámh, Integrating Ireland, Integration of African Children in Ireland, the Irish Family Planning Association which has led the national FGM steering committee, the National Women's Council of Ireland, the Refugee Information Service, the Somali Community in Ireland, the Somali Community Youth Group, UNICEF and the Women's Health Council. In addition, the Health Service Executive and Irish Aid have been very much involved in the steering committee which in 2008 launched a national plan of action to address the issue. That plan, on page 12, included among its principal actions the need to enact legislation to specifically prohibit FGM in Ireland. Material has been circulated to colleagues in this House by some of the NGOs involved in the steering committee. They have also been provided with a copy of the national plan of action which states legislation by itself will not be sufficient to prevent FGM but it can strengthen the ability of agencies to protect children at risk and provide appropriate care. It refers to obligations under international law and human rights treaties such as the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women which calls on signatory governments to take all measures necessary, including legislation, to prevent FMG.

This is not the first time the need to enact legislation on the issue of FGM has been recognised by the Labour Party. In 2001 the then health spokesperson, Deputy McManus, introduced a Bill in the Dáil. I refer to the reply on 22 May 2001 of the then Minister for Health and Children, Deputy Martin, to a question from Deputy McManus. He agreed that female genital mutilation:

. . . is a harmful traditional practice which constitutes an assault which causes serious harm to girls and women on whom it is carried out. Such an act is an offence under the Non-Fatal Offences Against the Person Act 1997. It would, therefore, be a matter for the Garda Síochána to prosecute any person who performed FGM in Ireland. However I am considering whether it may be appropriate to enact legislation specifically prohibiting this practice.

My Department has recently written to the chief executive officers of the health boards, drawing their attention to this issue and requesting that personnel working with immigrant populations take opportunities to educate them about the dangers and unacceptability of female genital mutilation. My Department has also written to the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform asking it to arrange through the Directorate for Asylum Support Services that asylum seekers are made aware of the situation.

As far back as nine years ago the then Minister for Health and Children was considering whether specific legislation might be appropriate to prohibit FGM. In 2009 another Labour Party colleague, Deputy Jan O'Sullivan, introduced an updated version of Deputy McManus's Bill in the Dáil, but, again, it was not accepted by the Minister. The Bill before the Seanad is an updated version of previous Bills. There has been a great deal of consultation at the level of the national steering committee and much input from various NGOs and State agencies with expertise in the area. There is a growing imperative from international and European Union sources on us to legislate.

I wish to deal specifically with the obstacle that was placed in the way of introducing specific legislation in 2001. The point made by the then Minister, Deputy Martin, was that the Non-Fatal Offences Against the Person Act 1997 already covered the issue. A good deal of work has been done in that regard. Our assault law should cover FGM, as it is an assault that causes serious harm. However, there are problems with the 1997 Act in trying to apply it to something as specific as FGM. The problems in applying general assault law were recognised in Britain as far back as 1985 when its first prohibition of FGM Act was passed. The legislation has since been updated in an Act dating from 2003 that applies to the rest of the United Kingdom but not Scotland. The Department of Health and Children is considering the specific Scottish legislation. It has been recognised in our neighbouring common law jurisdiction that the general assault law is simply not specific enough to cover FGM.

The same applies to the 1997 Act. Last year the national steering committee spelled out the four reasons that was the case. First, the Act does not have an extra-territorial element. Specific legislation is needed to prevent children resident in Ireland from being taken out of the country to undergo FGM. This relates to the specific nature of FGM and the specific danger to some of the 10,000 women and children living in Ireland who are from countries in which FGM is practised and, therefore, at risk of being brought back to the countries from which their families originally came and forced to undergo FGM. British legislation now recognises the extra-territorial aspect. That is the first gap in the current law. It is clearly one in child protection legislation, in particular, as FGM is an issue that affects female children. Within the 15 original European Union member states Ireland is one of only three countries in which its legislation covering FGM does not have an extra-territorial element. That is a real problem. There is a discrepancy between the North and South in that respect.

The second problem is presented by the defence of culture. The Non-Fatal Offences Against the Person Act contains a definition of assault that includes a defence where a crime has been committed in circumstances deemed generally acceptable in the ordinary conduct of daily life. The problem is that this defence could be used as a cultural defence to prevent a successful prosecution for practising FGM. The steering committee has highlighted this difficulty.

The third reason is that international best practice requires that we have specific legislation criminalising FGM. We should not rely on the general law of assault.

The fourth reason is that there is a difficulty with the defence of consent. I have written a good deal on this issue because it is a serious problem within the Non-Fatal Offences Against the Person Act 1997. We have dealt with this in the explanatory memorandum. Clearly, FGM should be considered as a serious assault causing harm or serious harm. However, for the section 4 offence in the Act of causing serious harm, consent may not be a defence in Irish law. Following English precedent in the case of Rv. Brown, in which the House of Lords stated consent was no defence in serious assault charges, consent may, of course, be a defence in certain recognised exceptions. The status of consent has never been made absolutely clear in Irish law. However, we know the 1997 Act preserves common law rules around defence. Therefore, there is uncertainty as to whether a person could be prosecuted for practising FGM where the parents had consented to a child undergoing FGM. There was a prosecution that failed relating to a boy child who had died after non-medical circumcision was practised. There is a parallel in this regard. An issue arose from the fact that the parents had consented. This illustrates some of the difficulties we face.

The Bill is very short and clear; it simply defines the terms "medical practitioner" and "woman or girl". It provides in section 2 for the offence of performing FGM and states consent is no defence. It defines FGM and provides in section 3 for extra-territorial effect and in section 4 for the consent of the Director of Public Prosecutions.

When talking about female genital mutilation, FGM, it is important that we recognise there is a clash between culture and medicine. The WHO defines FGM as any procedure involving the partial or total removal of the external female genitalia or other injury to the female genital organs for non-medical reasons. However, the process of globalisation shows that, in the places where these practices most commonly take place, there is a trend towards westernisation. Western media are embraced, as are music, clothes and codes of behaviour. Leaving aside subtle arguments relating primarily to the West, one of the positive aspects of the spread of western popular culture is that it preaches a message of individuality, human rights and tolerance.

Why does FGM persist? The rationale for its continuance varies across regions and cultures. In every society in which it is practised FGM is an expression of gender inequality. Women consistently have less access to power, resources and education than men and are also more vulnerable to sexual and physical violence because of the socially constructed roles assigned to them. Control over women, their bodies and sexuality is a key mechanism in sustaining gender inequality.

The issue of tolerance creates a tension for those who say FGM is an abuse of human rights because it is an abuse of bodily integrity. Opposing FGM and other cultural and religious practices rings of cultural colonisation. However, within those cultures where FGM is practised there is also great resistance among those who value their cultural and religious heritage. The argument ultimately falls when we focus on the central reason for outlawing FGM. We in the West place greater store in science than religion, but in this case the science is medicine. There are few countries or cultures that fail to recognise that one is entitled to one's good health. This is why right-thinking people oppose FGM.

In my professional career I have cared for people who have had the procedure carried out on them and know at first hand the difficulties it presents. The long-term complications include sexual frigidity, genital malformation, delayed menarche, chronic pelvic complications, recurrent urinary retention and infection and an entire range of obstetric complications. It is in respect of obstetric complications that I witnessed at first hand the difficulties women experienced. Special training is required to deal with women who have had the entire procedure carried out.

"Sunna" circumcision consists of the removal of the prepuce or tip of the clitoris. Clitoridectomy, also referred to as excision, consists of the removal of the entire clitoris and adjacent labia. Infibulation is the most extreme form and consists of the removal of the clitoris, the adjacent labia — majora and minora — and the joining of the scraped sides of the vulva across the vagina, where they are secured with thorns or sewn with catgut or thread. A small opening is kept to allow the passage of urine and menstrual blood. An infibulated woman must be cut open to allow intercourse on the wedding night and is closed again afterwards to secure fidelity to the husband. It is the most barbaric of procedures and has no place in our culture. We must accept it has taken place which is why this Bill is so important for women.

FGM is abhorrent not because it is a cultural or religious practice but because it is highly dangerous. The complications from bladder infections alone must be borne in mind. The mutilation is such that women have continuous bladder infections. Leaving aside the other aspects, it is socially restricting in every sense of the word. Women experience real difficulty in achieving and carrying a pregnancy. Difficulties arise due to anatomical distortion resulting from the mutilation of the genitalia. FGM interferes with obstetric procedures when delivering a baby and affects the outcome. There is fear of complications in regard to the baby.

The long-term psychological well-being of the mother is very much affected by FGM. The physiological effects are well documented. If in our society one has a recurrent urinary tract infection, the reason is usually pregnancy. Where there is FGM, it is because of the procedure. Pregnancy presents an additional complication to the women affected. FGM results in their having a very unsatisfactory life in every sense of the word. In the drive to eliminate FGM as a practice anywhere on the planet our conscience is absolutely clear.

I move amendment No. 1:

To delete all words after "That" and substitute the following:

"Seanad Éireann is pleased to note that:—

the Minister for Health and Children is working on the development of a legal framework to explicitly prohibit the practice of female genital mutilation;

the Minister is consulting relevant stakeholders on the proposed legal framework;

efforts are being made with partners to raise awareness of this abhorrent practice and that its terrible consequences will continue; and

resolves that the Female Genital Mutilation Bill 2010 shall be deemed to be read a second time this day 12 months.".

I ask the Cathaoirleach whether he will accept a verbal amendment to the amendment. It reads: "that the Minister for Health and Children resolves to have the heads of a Bill by the summer recess and that the Attorney General shall draft the Bill in order that it can be read a second time within six months from today".

Is that agreed? Agreed.

I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Áine Brady, who is looking very well after all her trips on the high seas. I am delighted to see her back.

Before I deal with the issue of female genital mutilation, I sincerely thank and congratulate Senator Bacik on her wonderful work.

I thank the Senator.

Truly the Bill is a great piece of work. I do not believe there is any opposition to it on any side of the House and I am glad our amendment has been amended to accommodate all sides such that there will not be a fall-out or need for a vote.

I commend my colleague, Senator Deary, on wanting to contribute to the debate on behalf of the Green Party. This is an issue that should not be left to women alone to deal with. It is a worldwide, Continent-wide problem and should be dealt with by both men and women. FGM is practised because of men. It is a case of men disempowering women and controlling them. It is a case of women not having a right to stand up for themselves. It is interesting that the United Nations strongly links FGM with poverty in the countries where it is practised. Everything that has been said by Senator Bacik is so right. It is time that Ireland joined its nearest neighbours in England and Scotland. The UK's 1985 legislation was amended in 2003 to alter the penalty from five to 14 years. The Scottish Government in 2005 implemented the 2005 UK Act. It is not untimely that we should enter modern western society in asking for this.

It is very important that we, as western feminists and western society, are not being seen to push our ideas on African and Middle Eastern women who have a very strong loyalty and tradition in their tribes and customs. It is so important we are not being seen to do that because in the event, we can disempower them by trying to help. It is up to the women in the countries affected by FGM to be able to empower themselves. This can be done through education.

I suggest to the Minister of State that when we are engaging with non-governmental organisations, we should really be looking at particular programmes. Everyone present has visited countries where Irish Aid has programmes. We should be looking at programmes to encourage and educate women in the countries where they are being attacked by FGM. That is what it is — the most barbaric attack on women and young children.

There are 10,000 women living in Ireland from countries that still practise FGM. Senator Bacik is right that we cannot wait any longer. I am glad we are now going to move the heads of a Bill within three months and we shall be back in the House discussing the issue. I hope we will put it to the Leader on the Order of Business tomorrow to give us a date in October, after the summer recess, on which to debate and agree Second Stage of this Bill.

I say that because this is more than a matter of tribal cultural norms. It is not in any religion. It is the practice in neither the Islamic or Christian religion. There is nothing in the Koran to support FGM. That is another reason it has to be eliminated. I was delighted to see the work that Senator Bacik put into this. Obviously, she kept a close eye on legislation that has been carried out elsewhere. I for one, will be keeping a close eye on the Leader. I will be asking him to put this first on the agenda next October.

I remind the House of the reasons FGM is so barbaric. When one reads the explanatory memorandum, one sees the three types of FGM that may be carried out, the third being the most barbaric. That is what makes me say this is a barbaric act instigated by men. It may not be carried out by men, however, because in my research I found that it was being done in many instances by women on other women. None the less, it is instigated by men. How more sickening is it for a woman than to have her entire clitoris removed along with the adjacent labia? Then she is stitched up and sometimes a bed of thorns is placed there as well. She gets married and is cut again for her husband to have his wedding night. Every other time sexual intercourse takes place, the woman has to be surgically opened again. It is sickening to the core that this should be allowed anywhere, but yet I, as a western woman, would not wish to impose any more hardship on women that are living with this, and I therefore say we should look at the bigger picture.

I am sorry I have not time to talk about the national action plan, but Senator Bacik has outlined it already. We should be looking at areas where we can empower African and Middle Eastern women and other women from all over the world where FGM is being practised. Their escape and empowerment has to be through education. I hope to be able to say in the House some day: "Is it not great that we have rid the world of FGM?"

Could I please clarify, Senator, that the text of the amendment is to the effect that the Bill is to be read a Second Time before the summer recess?

I shall explain it to the House again. It says the Minister for Health and Children resolves to have the heads of a Bill by the summer recess and that the Attorney General would be——

Is the Senator deleting the words "12 months"?

The Senator's amendment resolves that the Bill be deemed to be read a Second Time——

Within six months of today.

That is slightly different from what I heard now. It is within six months of today.

That is correct, within six months, and that the heads of a Bill would be ready by the summer recess.

That is clear.

I believe it should say published by the summer recess.

Yes, that is correct. It should say that the heads of the Bill would be published by the summer recess. It is important we ask the Attorney General to draft the Bill so that it can be read a second time within six months.

Normally a substantive amendment would be circulated to the House.

All sides would acknowledge that, and while I apologise for this, I believe there was meaningful contact between Senator Bacik and the Minister this afternoon and we did not have time to draft it.

None the less, we shall have to observe procedure. As there is unanimity among all parties, I am prepared to accept that.

I take it the House has accepted the add-on to the amendment.

Ultimately, the House will make a decision on that.

I welcome the information which has just been made available to the House, namely, that the Government will publish the heads of a Bill on this issue before the summer recess. We in this House must ensure this happens. We have had promises before, and we have to ensure the heads of the Bill come to the Seanad before the summer recess and that we see the Bill within six months.

That is to be welcomed. I congratulate, first of all, Senator Ivana Bacik and the Labour Party on producing this Bill and also the Government for making its announcement in this regard. This legislation is long overdue and is needed. The debate on this first began in Ireland a number of years ago. I have worked on this issue at a European level with the European Women's Lobby and at an Irish level with the National Women's Council of Ireland. At that time it was thought that this was a problem for other countries far away.

It is interesting the manner in which the debate has developed over the years, how our awareness and understanding has grown, how the international and European organisations have worked on the issue, countries have passed legislation and how more aware we have all become. It is important we have legislation in this country in this regard and I fully support the Bill before the House.

Both Senators Prendergast and Bacik have talked about cultural attitudes and issues. I want to say there is no cultural view that makes this practice acceptable. There was a major concern in our earlier understanding of this phenomenon and in debates that somehow we were literally cutting across other people's cultures by saying we thought this should not happen. In fact, as women's voices have been heard in Africa and other continents, it has become clear that women in the countries where this practice takes place are speaking out increasingly strongly against it because of the consequences for themselves, their families and young girls.

The importance of specific legislation is spelt out in the briefing note supplied to Members by the Children's Rights Alliance. I congratulate the members of different organisations who are present for this debate and who have worked on this issue in Ireland. The Children's Rights Alliance states in its briefing note that the importance of specific legislation cannot be overstated. Legislation can strengthen the ability of agencies to protect children at risk and provide appropriate care. It can act as a deterrent to the continuation of the practice. It is a legitimate way for parents to refute family pressure to submit their daughters to the practice. Legislative clarity and firm penalties, both imprisonment and a substantial fine, would act as a strong deterrent to communities practising FGM and deliver a clear preventative message to the public. For those reasons the legislation before the House is very important. It achieves the various objectives I have just mentioned. I do not expect any opposition to this Bill in the House.

We are aware of the dangers of FGM for women. It can cause major pain, not just physical but also psychological. There can be long-term medical complications, including severe problems when giving birth. FGM has become an issue in the western world and in countries such as Ireland as the community has become more multicultural. Medical guidelines in this country do not permit FGM. That means, however, there is potential for the practice to take place underground and in a quiet way, which increases the risks to women. The Children's Rights Alliance estimates there are 2,585 women resident in Ireland who have experienced FGM. That is an enormous number and many of them will need ongoing support and agencies to work with them.

We are aware of the circumstances in which FGM often takes place. This carries extreme medical dangers. The practice is brutal, insulting and an affront to the human rights and dignity of women and female children. That must be stated unequivocally. It is incumbent on us to update legislation in this country to outlaw FGM. There should be no ambiguity about it. Simply dealing with it under the assault provisions of our criminal legislation is not enough as it could lead to ambiguity. It is time to progress legislation on this issue and I am delighted with the news on this from the Government.

According to groups working directly with women, there is evidence that many young girls are still being forced to travel from Ireland to have this procedure carried out in their country of origin. That is a serious concern and raises the question of what we can do about it. The Children's Rights Alliance has suggested three urgent requirements which are very worthwhile. One is obviously legislation which would ban FGM in Ireland and include an extra-territorial element. That will be difficult but it is certainly worth examining. If we had such provision in our legislation, it might be a support to the families who are under pressure to go abroad with their children for this procedure.

The second point made by the alliance is interesting. It has not happened here yet but it should be considered by this House for inclusion in the legislation. The alliance recommends including FGM under the Children First national guidelines on child protection and the welfare of children. There is no reason it should not be included. Again, it would be another protection. The third recommendation is that the Government should assign responsibility for the implementation of Ireland's national plan of action to address FGM to a Department or agency. That should be possible. Perhaps the Minister would address it. I presume the Department of Health and Children would be the relevant Department. If a Department had responsibility for it, the implementation of the national plan would be more likely to happen.

It is good to see the progress being made on this issue. I look forward to seeing the heads of the Government's Bill in three months.

I welcome the Minister. I thank the Irish Family Planning Association for its briefing. I found it extraordinarily helpful over recent days when I was preparing to make my contribution, which I am happy to make on behalf of the Green Party. I support the Bill, as amended, from the Labour Party. When we dealt with the Prohibition of Depleted Uranium Weapons Bill some weeks ago I experienced a sense of pride that we were able to achieve cross-party support for an initiative I feel passionately about, as I do about this Bill although I cannot claim to have had any hand, act or part in initiating it. None the less I am very happy to support it.

The Bill is progressive and clear sighted. The cultural sensitivities are acknowledged but we are not deflected from ensuring that what happens within our jurisdiction is acceptable and that children are protected within our borders. I note that certain African countries have also introduced legislation to outlaw female genital mutilation. It is not a case of Europe or the West simply preaching to Africa, since African countries have made similar moves.

I worked for a number of years with Integration of African Children in Ireland, one of the organisations involved in drawing up the national action plan. The plan identified five pillars of activity, one of which is being addressed today. Senator Prendergast's absolutely horrific description of the reality of female genital mutilation demonstrates that she has had hands-on experience with this problem. I have spoken to mothers and families who are desperate to prevent it happening to the new generation. In many cases that is why they are in this country. It is very important for those people that, having come to Ireland and achieved citizenship, the fear of this practice visiting their households should be eliminated. I thank Senator Prendergast for conveying the reality of the problem and for participating in bringing this Bill forward.

The five pillars of the national action plan on female genital mutilation are legal, asylum, health, community and development aid. Each of these can contribute not just to outlawing the practice but ultimately to reaffirming women who have suffered this appalling degradation. Without the legal provision, however, the other four pillars are somehow less effective. The legislation not only will be a clear statement of our legal position on female genital mutilation but also will add energy and new momentum to the actions under the other four pillars of activity in terms of asylum, addressing the health implications, addressing the issue in the community and how to configure our overseas development aid, ODA, to countries that continue to practise female genital mutilation. It will give Ireland more legitimacy when dealing with countries in receipt of ODA to state that as the practice is outlawed in this country, it must be addressed in the country in question in terms of the provision of our ODA. It is to be hoped strong legislative measures will be in place within the next year or so. I welcome the Government amendment which will shorten the time period involved. I was disappointed this morning that a 12-month timeframe had been suggested, but I am delighted this evening that we have moved on. The five pillars of activity identified as being core in ridding the country of this practice and dealing with its victims in a sensitive and affirming way will be included in the legislation and of assistance to all who work in the area.

It is generally recognised that asylum law works better for men than women. As the only male speaker in the Chamber, that is not acceptable to me. It is not acceptable that asylum regulations seem to favour male applicants over female applicants. I am not sure why this is so, but we need specific guidance on the issue of gender-related persecution when asylum applications are being considered. This guidance has been introduced in the United Kingdom, Canada, the United States and Australia. I understand no publicly available guidelines are currently in use here when applications are being considered. I intend to raise this matter with the Minister of State with responsibility for integration matters, Deputy Mary Alexandra White. Implementation of best practice gender persecution guidelines will lead to improved outcomes for women claiming asylum on issues such as this. It is an important one to be pursued.

I welcome the strong penalties proposed in the Bill. A person found guilty on indictment will face a fine or imprisonment for a term not exceeding 14 years or both. This is appropriate, as it recognises the different types and extremes of this practice, type three being truly horrific. Anyone found guilty of such a crime ought to face a very severe sentence — a sentence not exceeding 14 years will send that message.

I commend the proposers of the Bill which I am happy to support as amended.

When is the Minister of State going to speak? Her speech will not be available until she speaks. I would like to know the position.

It is a matter for the Minister of State to decide when she wishes to speak. She has indicated that she is prepared to listen to a number of speakers first.

The speech is available, but we cannot read it.

It is available and it would be quite easy to have it copied.

We cannot get a copy now.

The Senator will not receive it until the Minister of State speaks. I call Senator Mullen.

Ba bhreá liom fáilte a chur roimh an Aire Stáit. Is deas an rud é mo chomharsa béal dorais, nach mór, a fheiscint sa Teach seo chomh minic agus is féidir.

I wholeheartedly welcome the introduction of the Bill by the Labour Party and congratulate its Senators for bringing it forward. I also welcome the Government's decision to move with dispatch and give a very appropriate and welcome commitment to publishing the heads of a Bill within an early timeframe. This is to be commended and I congratulate the Minister of State for so doing. This debate offers a rare and important opportunity to affirm the vitality and maturity of the legislative branch of our democracy. We see this maturity when the Government accepts proposals for good law, regardless of the source, even when the initiative is taken by an Opposition party.

As of April 2006, 2,585 women resident in Ireland had undergone female genital mutilation. The World Health Organization estimates that between 100 million and 140 million women worldwide have undergone FGM. Other speakers have referred to the detrimental physical, psychological, emotional, spiritual and social effects of this practice. Rights experts are in agreement that it constitutes a violation of fundamental human rights. It seems almost trite to say this, as it is so self-evident.

The primary target as regards FGM is young girls. Therefore, the issues of consent and authentic free will simply do not arise as defences. Even if there were cases where that defence was claimed and if there were cases of women who claimed they wished to undergo this procedure, it simply would not make FGM any more acceptable. The very nature of the practice is anathema to the overall good and wellbeing not just of individual women but also of the human race. It is important to recognise, at a time when many are tempted towards mentalities suggestive of cultural relativism, that there are certain absolutes, that certain things are always wrong, regardless of the time or place. It is important for us to recognise that anything that violates the dignity of a person, whether male or female, a child or an adult, simply has no place in a civilised society.

The purposes and effects of the Bill as proposed are prohibitive, normative and educative. Unless there were good reasons to oppose the Bill, I cannot see why the House would refuse to enact it. I think the Government has accepted the logic behind the Labour Party's proposal. It could be argued that there is not full certainty on whether the Bill will help to reduce the number of instances of FGM, but to my mind this would not be a persuasive argument. We should approach the Bill with a presumption in favour of its applicability and merits. If absolute certainty were to be an issue, the "better safe than sorry" mantra would be appropriate, especially in the light of the grave ethical and welfare issues involved.

Does the fact that this is a Private Members' Bill offer a reason to oppose the Bill? I hope we are mature enough to transcend such a petty attitude towards power. This evening's decision by the Government is the best that can be got. I do not think there is anything wrong with the Bill and do not see why it should not progress. However, the way we do things in this democracy is that sometimes the best we can get is a commitment from the Government to do the same thing within a shorter time. We will accept this and are grateful for that much.

A more legitimate criticism of the Bill might be to the effect that it could perhaps be seen as superfluous since the Non-Fatal Offences Against the Person Act 1997 already criminalises FGM, yet there would be serious problems with such an assertion. First, Article 3 of the Act states a crime has not been committed if "the act is, in the circumstances, such as is generally acceptable in the ordinary conduct of daily life and the defendant does not know or believe that it is in fact unacceptable to the other person". Implicit in such a provision is a form of moral relativism, with cultural relativism being the primary justification given for not criminalising FGM in African societies. Clearly, we should be against cultural relativism if we are to be truly supportive and protective of the dignity of the human person in all circumstances.

Second, the 1997 Act does not have extra-territorial effect, unlike the Labour Party's Bill and in the vast majority of other EU countries with legislation which criminalises FGM. Only Luxembourg, Greece and Ireland have not legislated for the extra-territorial dimension and the possibility that FGM takes place extra-territorially. This is a glaring oversight because including extra-territoriality as part of FGM legislation makes it easier for families and individuals to overcome pressure from relatives abroad who actively seek to repatriate girls to make them undergo this practice.

The third argument against the 1997 Act is that it contains a defence of consent. This relativistic principle, although justifiable in other criminal law circumstances, does not take sufficient account of the nature of FGM or the socio-cultural structures of power involved in the practice. Just as cultural relativism is not appropriate, strict autonomy thinking does not help us to deal with principles such as this. Certain circumstances arise in which we should not be complete masters of our own destiny. For example, it ought not be legal for me to choose to cut off my arm. In the same way, the arguments that consent could ever provide a defence for this dreadful practice simply cannot hold because of wider considerations of human dignity, the needs of the community and the welfare of the person properly construed.

The fourth argument against the 1997 Act is that while common law jurisdictions are usually slower than their civil law counterparts to enact specific criminal statutes owing to their reliance on precedent, as far back as 1985 the UK Parliament legislated directly to deal with FGM. The rationale for its decision was the uncertainty that existed over whether common law would recognise a defence of consent to surgical treatment. In an Irish context one might also wonder whether the courts would falsely appeal to the constitutional protection for freedom of conscience or give credence to analogies with tattoos or cosmetic surgery. Bearing in mind that FGM is addressed in the UK by the updated Female Genital Mutilation Act 2003, which extends to Northern Ireland, in the absence of Irish legislation we run the risk of acting as a safe house in much the same way we do in respect of sex trafficking and prostitution.

The extra-territorial element of the Bill may be objected to as going too far or being devoid of practical effect but a precedent exists in the form of section 3(2)(b) of the Child Trafficking and Pornography Act 1998 which introduces a partial extra-territorial offence where a citizen meets or travels to meet a person outside of the State for the purpose of sexual exploitation. I believe the violation of human dignity and bodily integrity that FGM entails is not substantially different from sexual exploitation.

Positive law alone is not sufficient to dismantle the culture of FGM. Aid workers in Africa have told me that they can have a greater practical effect by promoting alternative cultural practices and rites of passage than they ever could through law reform. We cannot turn our back on the role of ethical norms and the educational force of the law. By specifically targeting FGM, this Bill helps to accomplish both these strategies in a way that a more general criminal statute could not. I congratulate the Labour Party on this timely initiative and commend the Government on responding in an appropriate fashion.

I thank Senator Bacik for raising this important issue and I am pleased to have this opportunity to respond on behalf of the Government. The Department of Health and Children is workingto develop a legal framework that will explicitly prohibit the practice of female genital mutilation.

FGM is a harmful tradition and practice and a form of violence that directly infringes women's and children's rights to physical, psychological and social health. The World Health Organisation 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 million 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 around the world. Prevalence, type and the age at which FGM is performed vary between and within countries and regions, with ethnicity being the most decisive factor.

Increased immigration to Europe has meant that a cultural practice previously associated with the developing world has become 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 practise FGM after moving to Europe as a way of upholding traditional customs. Despite legislative efforts by many countries to stop this practice, several studies have indicated that many girls living in Europe remain at risk from FGM.

The rationale for the continuance of FGM varies across regions, countries and cultures, but in every society in which it is practised it 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 a girl is not marriageable if she has not undergone FGM.

The practice has no health benefits. It involves removing 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, and it 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 septic equipment, unsanitary environments, lack of anaesthetic and 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 trauma for some women subjected to FGM can be reactivated in situations that bring back memories of the mutilation, such as childbirth and vaginal examinations.

Extensive work has taken place on FGM over recent years in Ireland. The relevant Departments and statutory agencies have been supporting the national action plan to address FGM in Ireland, which was launched in 2008 by the national steering committee on FGM. This committee comprised both governmental and non-governmental organisations, including the HSE, the former Women's Health Council and Irish Aid. The HSE has been playing a key role in the prevention of FGM and the delivery of care to women who have already undergone the practice. The health needs of women who undergo FGM have been acknowledged in the HSE intercultural health strategy 2007-12 and the principles and recommendations of the strategy align closely with the objective of the national action plan to address FGM. The HSE was represented on the steering committee that developed the plan and continues to support the ongoing work of the group established to progress its implementation. In this regard and in line with the principles of the intercultural health strategy on partnership working and cross-sectoral collaboration, the HSE national social inclusion unit has made funding available to AkiDwA from March 2009 for progressing the health related objectives of the national action plan for FGM. These aim to provide high quality and appropriate health care and support for women and girls who have undergone FGM.

The HSE's initial work has prioritised those aspects of awareness raising and provision of information to health professionals as identified in the action plan. Outcomes thus far include the development of professional supports for those involved with providing care for women and girls who have undergone FGM; the development and dissemination of information for health care professionals working in Ireland; the delivery of training sessions to up to 500 health professionals working in relevant service provision areas, including midwives, general practitioners, public health nurses and social workers; working towards the integration of routine FGM questions and examinations as part of antenatal care; and agreement with CervicalCheck that appropriate training in cervical smear taking and FGM will be integrated into ongoing training modules around cervical screening. The HSE is continuing to fund AkiDwA to progress these objectives. The HSE has stated that while initial work in the area of FGM in Ireland has focused on addressing health and care needs of women who have undergone this procedure, it is now incorporating prevention and awareness raising into its initiatives.

Another statutory member of the national steering committee was the former Women's Health Council. In June 2008, the council published a literature review on the health implications of FGM and made recommendations on its prevention, the care needs of women affected by it and the necessary legal framework. As the Senators might be aware, the Women's Health Council was subsumed into my Department last October and we now have the benefit of its knowledge and expertise in this area to guide us in our policy review.

Irish Aid has long recognised the detrimental effects of FGM and has contributed financially and programmatically to strategies targeted at community abandonment of FGM in developing countries. In 2008, Irish Aid contributed to the joint UNICEF-UNFPA fund to end FGM.

The Department of Health and Children has taken a number of steps to raise the awareness of health professionals on this matter. Officials wrote to the then health boards in 2001, again in 2004, and to the HSE in 2007 drawing their attention to the issue of female genital mutilation and requesting that personnel working with immigrant populations take opportunities to educate them about the dangers and unacceptability of FGM. Moreover, the Department wrote to the HSE again in 2009 following the launch of the national action plan on progressing the health actions included in it.

The Department also wrote to the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform in 2004 and 2007 about the issue. It asked that staff under the aegis of that Department whose work brings them into contact with persons from regions where female genital mutilation is practised should be made aware of the issue and should educate and inform such communities about the illegality and unacceptability of FGM. The Minister for Health and Children, Deputy Harney, met representatives of the national steering committee for the national action plan on 21 July 2009 and promised to seek further legal advice on the issue.

It is believed that FGM would constitute an offence under the Non-Fatal Offences against the Person Act 1997. The mutilations which are typically performed during acts of FGM would probably meet the definition of "serious harm" contained in the Act. It is likely, therefore, that for a person to perform an act of FGM would comprise an intentional act which causes serious harm and would thus be an offence under section 4 of the Act. The consent of a parent would not be a defence under section 4. In the event that in particular circumstances an act of FGM was found not to have resulted in serious harm, it would still be open to the Garda to prosecute for the similar, though less serious, offence provided for by section 3 of the Act which criminalises a person who "assaults another causing him or her harm". Notwithstanding this situation, from a legal viewpoint a specific offence prohibiting FGM would bring clarity and certainty to this issue, and it is in this context that my Department has been reviewing the legal situation with a view to progressing the drafting of policy proposals for a specific legal framework on FGM.

I thank Senator Bacik, once again, for raising this important issue. Female genital mutilation is an abhorrent practice which is unacceptable in our society. As one can see, there is cross-party and Department of Health and Children agreement with the main sentiment of Senator Bacik's Bill. In saying that, there are some issues which we believe are not included, such as definitions of the approved person to include midwives and trainee doctors, and the inclusion of an offence of aiding, abetting, procuring or inciting a person to commit FGM. Another is a more explicit prohibition of a cultural defence. We also need some time to explore the criminal justice, child protection and travel and immigration issues. There will be consultation with relevant stakeholders which will be an integral part in the development of any legal framework governing the prohibition of FGM. Expertise in gynaecological and obstetric care, child protection measures and criminal proceedings will be paramount in this work. All of these issues need to be tackled in a culturally sensitive way if we are not to alienate the very people we are trying to reach and protect from this practice.

I confirm that the heads of a Bill are to be published before the summer recess and the Minister, Deputy Harney, is agreeable to having the amendment amended to delete the words "this day 12 months" and substitute "this day six months", and this is being followed up.

On an amendment to an amendment on the Order Paper, we must have that circulated to all Members before we agree on it. There was agreement on it, but I want that in print so that it can be given to each person so that he or she can see exactly what we are talking about just in case there is a misrepresentation of the facts. I will have that as quickly as possible in print form for the Members.

There is unanimity in this House that we need to bring forward legislation as quickly as possible to prohibit female genital mutilation. The only issue is that the Minister of State, in the course of her speech, did not seem to hit on the problems preventing this legislation from being passed urgently in the way we expected. She spoke of culturally sensitive issues that we must discuss before we approach this, but the dangers of female genital mutilation are nothing to do with our culture and for many of those involved it is a culture of control of the young women involved. There is a need for us, as a country, to stand up for the equality in which we believe.

Whereas we pay great attention and respect to genuine cultural differences where people are different in the way they live their lives and in what they believe, this is not a genuine cultural issue.

The message must not go out that we are somehow approaching this as a culturally sensitive issue. This is mutilation of young women and it is nothing more than a barbaric practice that must not be accepted in this country. The message must go out from these Houses that it is unacceptable and if there is any reason for a delay in dealing with it, it is because there are some complications with the legal system in this country but it is certainly not because we accept there may be some cultural issue involved.

I had hoped that the Minister of State, in her speech, would focus more on the difficulties she might have in implementing this legislation immediately. They are the sort of matters of which we should speak. For instance, is the problem that one parent in particular pushes this practice on a family or is there a wider community problem that pushes this on a family? Is the problem that if there are complications with this procedure, the young woman involved may not receive adequate medical care or may be afraid to go for adequate medical treatment? If there is one message we must send out, it is that this is an unacceptable practice in this country which will not be tolerated in any way, that the person we consider to be the one to be pursued is not the young woman involved but the person who consents to and carries out this crime, and that such individuals, whether they do it in this country or another, will remain answerable to the laws of this country for carrying out a serious assault.

In any reading of Irish law, mutilating a young woman is a serious crime which cannot be downgraded. We cannot even speak of downgrading this sort of crime by stating that it would somehow be considered in the same way as a brawl outside a pub on a Friday night to which a lesser charge applies. This is far more serious than that and that is how it must be approached. That is the sort of strong language I would expect from the Minister of State on this issue.

We must not treat this as something that is not that serious; it is incredibly serious. We must push for that sort of legislation and for that type of language when we speak about this to show we are taking this very seriously. We need to show we will not tolerate such practices in this country and that we want them stopped. We need to provide for the maximum charges to be brought against an individual who commits this heinous crime against a person who is under the protection of the State, whether in the country or not. We also need to ensure a person who consents to or forces this treatment will also be liable to prosecution, regardless of whether such consent is given in this country or outside of it. If the young woman is under the protection of the State, we must show we will give that sort of protection to her to the best of our ability. We need to speak in such terms to show our seriousness in this matter.

With the agreement of the House, I want to share my time with Senator McDonald.

I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Áine Brady, to the House. Her speech, contrary to Senator Twomey's claim, outlined that female genital mutilation, FGM, is an unacceptable and unjustifiable practice with no benefits. The Minister of State referred to one challenge we face in bringing forward the heads of the Bill on FGM, that is, the provision to take action against anyone who aids or abets the practice. Frequently, we hear how it is not one but several adults involved in this practice. It is essential that legislation would provide for charges to be brought against those complicit in the practice.

I pay tribute to Senators Bacik and Prendergast for introducing this legislation on Private Members' business. I am pleased the Government has proposed an amendment to its amendment to the motion. I pay tribute to those who battle every day against FGM, often voluntarily, and who have worked hard to ensure we as legislators are aware of and take action against it. All research shows this practice is often undertaken against children between the ages of four and ten. FGM is a physical and barbaric assault on a child. It is clearly an act of violence against women, constitutes child abuse and is a criminal act.

The reason behind the introduction of this Private Members' Bill is to put to bed any ambiguity regarding the practice and introduce appropriate actions in response to it. It is important all State agencies treat FGM as a criminal and abusive act even while we are waiting for the Government's legislation. There is an onus on anyone who is aware of the practice taking place in Ireland to come forward to report it. It is unacceptable that any child could be subject to this while the legislation is being prepared.

Shauna Page, a PhD student at the University of Ulster, is researching gender-based violence and its human rights context. She has pointed out that rape is often cited as an act of violence against women but not FGM. We have heard justifications for the practice but none of them stacks up. There is no cultural aspect to it or religious justification for it.

I agree with colleagues that legislation alone is not sufficient. We need to bring about an attitude change in which education will play an important role. It must focus not just on the dangers or the consequences of the practice but the fact that a life sentence is passed on people to live with its consequences. Education programmes and literature would allow people to confirm for themselves the dangers of the practice and not have to take our word on it. There is a role for overseas development aid with the EU as a contributor and consumer being influential in bringing about cultural changes in other countries. I wish the Minister of State well in the drafting of the legislation.

I thank Senator Corrigan for sharing her time with me. I support Senator Bacik's Bill. It is a great example of how useful the Seanad can be in raising important issues and pushing them to the fore. This was seen by Members on this side of the House liaising with the Minister of State to bring about the introduction of the legislation in a shorter timeframe. While I accept the need to get the legislation right, when women's basic human rights and bodily integrity are being violated, even six months is still too long.

Senator Bacik was correct in including a provision on aiding and abetting the practice. Community education and involving the stakeholders is important. There may well be people in this country who will bring their daughters back to their home countries effectively to be mutilated. However, we must be careful not to be seen as being Eurocentric or culturally insensitive to them. None the less, it is a barbaric act which affects the health of the women who undergo the practice. No cultural practice can override health and bodily integrity. That is the message that must be sent from the Seanad.

Before the Easter recess, the Seanad debated domestic violence and child abuse by the Catholic church. Aspects of the closed door approach and failure to prevent these abuses were raised by many Members. It is important we now move as quickly as possible against FGM. If the Government Bill can be introduced in the House before the summer, we would be doing very well. Where there is a will, there is a way.

Senator Bacik has worked hard on many women's issues and she has got support from many of the women on this side of the House. She must be praised for bringing this matter to the fore. I must also praise the other women Members who have spoken on this Bill as well as the gentlemen Senators. These issues are important and affect many women's lives. As I point out when debating other women's issues such as prostitution, how would people feel if it were their sister involved?

I pay tribute to my colleagues, Senators Bacik and Prendergast, for introducing this Bill. As other Members have said, FGM is an appalling abuse of the human body. Up to 130 million women across the world have already being mutilated by the practice. In a recent research paper on obstetrics and gynaecology, the researchers stated instruments used to perform FGM included unsterilised knives, razors, scalpels and pieces of broken glass. The same study reported that the WHO documented numerous cases in countries such as Ethiopia where it was performed on babies as young as seven or eight days old, while in Somalia, Sudan and Egypt it was performed on girls between five and ten years old. It is performed in approximately 30 countries worldwide but 90% of the procedures are performed in African countries such as Mali, Sudan, Egypt, Somalia and Eritrea. The procedure of female genital mutilation is not affiliated to any one particular religion. It is carried out by atheists, Christians and Muslims.

The World Health Organisation department of reproductive health and research states that the physical consequences of female genital mutilation include pain, ulceration, and death due to excess bleeding and toxic shock. Longer-term complications can include urinary problems, chronic infections and chronic pain. The WHO has also pointed out the profound psychological consequences often experienced by mutilated girls, including fear of sexual intercourse, post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety and depression.

A 2005 article inThe European Journal of Contraception & Reproductive Health Care documents an interesting set of findings from the researchers with migrant women of North African origin. They undertook a study of 220 people, almost half of whom had no school education. That is interesting because UNICEF has carried out research that proves a direct correlation between educational attainment and tolerance of female genital mutilation. It is that tolerance and acceptance of the practice that leads to the continuity of the practice through to the next generation. When the researchers asked the women the reason mutilation is performed, 58% of them said it was a religious requirement, 27% said it was a cultural tradition and 21% felt that it increased the chances of marriage. Other studies, numerous non-governmental organisations and global health bodies have also found that the belief system associated with the practice of female genital mutilation has strong social and cultural roots. Breaking the link between the practice of female genital mutilation and cultural and social survival has proven to be very difficult. In 2006, the European Commission noted that the decline of female genital mutilation had been limited despite nearly 27 years of effort.

I commend the efforts of the Irish Aid programme to reduce the practice. I visited some organisations in Tanzania with Senator Ormonde, Deputy Higgins and Deputy Deasy and we saw at first hand how the Irish Aid programme is helping to train ex-practitioners as teachers who will visit schools and try to convince people not to allow this operation to be performed on their children or in their locality. When we met Prime Minister Pinda in Tanzania after that visit we impressed upon him the need for politicians throughout his country to ensure they made their voices heard on how they felt about the practice, and that change could not just come from the bottom up. It had to come from the top down and it had to be stated by community and political leaders that the practice was no longer to be tolerated and had to stop. We believe it is an unacceptable practice. It is abhorrent and should have no legitimacy in the medical, social or political sphere.

In that context, I welcome the simplicity and the lack of ambiguity in Senator Bacik's Bill. It makes it clear that parental or individual consent to such a procedure will provide no legal protection in the Irish courts. I understand that the Swedish law banning female genital mutilation is currently being challenged by a resident of that country who travelled with his daughter to Somalia to allow her undergo female genital mutilation. It is vital our legislation makes it clear from the outset that such endeavours are subject to Irish laws and will be treated on that basis, whether they happen here or abroad.

I wholeheartedly support the Bill introduced by my colleague, Senator Bacik. I was glad to hear the Minister's proposed amendment to the amendment. We can all leave the House safe in the knowledge that a job has been well done. We will support the amendment.

I thank the Minister and congratulate her on spelling out to us what the Health Service Executive, on behalf of the Irish Government, has been doing and its awareness of female genital mutilation. It is only right that what has been happening would be put on the record.

I agree 100% with the points made by Senator Twomey. In the environment in which this practice is carried out, women are second class citizens. They do not have equality with men. It is used to keep them in their place.

I compliment Senator Bacik, supported by Senator Phil Prendergast, on bringing forward the legislation to prevent this practice happening in our own country, but I agree with Senator Twomey. This is not just about culture. It is savage, violent and brutal. It is abuse and should not be tolerated. People who carry out this practice should be reported.

This is about women's lack of education. We have seen in our own country that when women are educated they become self-confident and are able to stand up for themselves.

In a much more benign way this reminds me of the churching of women after the birth of children.

It was done because the Catholic Church believed the woman to be impure after the birth of a child. When my daughter was born almost 39 years ago I was lined up in the church by four other mothers. I asked what this was about and the priest said I was to be churched. I asked why and moved out of the line. There was consternation in the church. Again, it was ignorance and I have to say it was related to sex. One only had a baby because one had sex. It was all tied up with the same ignorance but thanks be to God we have come a long way in Ireland in that regard.

I compliment Senator Bacik, ably supported by Senator Prendergast and Senator Hannigan. It is a great tribute to Seanad Éireann that the work being carried out by the HSE on the prevention of female genital mutilation will be supported here and come through in the Seanad. It is what the Seanad is about.

The bottom line as far as I am concerned is that the more women throughout the world get educated, the more they will become free and stand up for themselves. They will not be forced into taking these cruel, brutal, barbaric and savage measures. I agree with Senator Twomey. It is not about culture. This is about power and the suppression of women.

I believe that in some Third World countries and in some developed African countries, there is a different attitude to the number of wives a man can have. I have a problem with President Zuma of South Africa being feted by the Queen in England. I think he has 20 children. What message does that send out that a man is free to have four wives and 20 children? When I saw President Zuma being feted in Buckingham Palace I wondered about the message he was sending out, namely, that it is all right to produce 20 children by different women. The fact a man can have so many wives is another aspect of it. I believe the King of Swaziland has approximately 30 wives and he gets a new one every year. He was educated in Eton but he still went back to Swaziland.

The bottom line is that this is about the education of women to ensure they have the courage to stand up for themselves and for their children. This is a great day for Seanad Éireann. I congratulate the Minister of State on spelling out to us the Government amendment and what has been happening on the ground as well.

I congratulate Senator Bacik and the Labour Party for tabling this legislation. This Bill is simple, effective and comprehensive. It meets all needs and requirements. I am appalled we cannot have the attitude of accepting that this has been produced by someone of significant legal stature in this country who knows what she is talking about. It is as comprehensive as anything a draftsperson in the Department of Health and Children will produce. People are afraid to take a decision. We talk about transformation of the public sector and this is the kind of transformation we need, where people have the confidence to take decisions. There will not be a better item of legislation to emerge and we could have dealt with this by accepting the Bill. If changes are needed, we could make the changes on Committee Stage. I regret this has not been done. I welcome the Minister of State and I do not take from her good intentions but it is a different issue. When the Government talks about transformation in the public sector, it is referring to decision-making, effectiveness and proper use of resources. This is all seen in what has happened tonight. This legislation has been put together and packaged in a correct and all-encompassing fashion. The Government should be big enough to say "well done" or accept that it is 90% in agreement and make some small changes. The Bill deals with everything.

In complimenting Senator Bacik, I note that the simplicity of the Bill is awesome. I found the Bill absolutely sickening to read, never mind considering what we are dealing with. Female genital mutilation is no less than a barbaric, savage, feudal and sickening act that is offensive. It breaks the existing law in terms of offences against the person.

It is of great importance that we pass this Bill, including for the reasons given by Senator Mary White. We need to educate people. I disagree with those who have suggested education is more important. I am a teacher and I believe in education. Would that education was more transformative than transmissive, as I said many times as a young teacher and as a teachers' leader. Unfortunately, it is not. Some 95% of education transmits the cultural values of one generation to another, much as we may like to change this. This is what each generation demands and it monitors change, as every teacher who has taught a class knows. This can be seen in First Communion, where those who do not go to mass still insist their children go through First Communion and Confirmation, even though they are non-practising. These are the cultural values transmitted from one stage to another. I share the views of Senator Mary White on churching. I always thought it was the dirtiest, most offensive thing that took place within the walls of a church.

I want to back up my point about the relationship between education and legislation. I defended the first teacher to win a case under the employment equality legislation of 1977. Even though everyone agreed with equality at that point, we could not create change in education until it was the law of the land. The same thing happens here.

Until it is the law of the land, people will be abused and controlled, held underfoot and oppressed in this way. People will be told that these are cultural values. We took many bad practices abroad with us, as did those in Chinatown and other groups to countries to which they emigrated. Immigrants in Ireland need the authority from us to say stop and to say they will not agree with a practice that breaks the law. As residents of this country they have a duty to disclose where this practice is happening. This can only be put in place when we pass the appropriate legislation. Attitudinal change will follow legislative change. Would that it were otherwise but it has never been the case.

It is of great importance to articulate our views, as is happening tonight. It is important to hear a convergence of views on the issue. I was in the Seanad when we held the first debates in these Houses on AIDS. It brought a certain focus to the subject and people were not afraid to talk about what was a taboo subject for many people. This issue is the same. I was uncomfortable reading the legislation, never mind visualising what happens to young women and girls in cultures that carry out this practice.

It is also important to tell leaders of cultural groups advocating female genital mutilation that this is wrong and was never right even if it was a practice. It will never be right even if it is within the group's cultural practice. Just because it is something we have done for years does not mean it is correct. The difficulty is that we tend to educate people into thinking that if this is what we always did it must be okay. That is not the case because time moves on. There was a time when hanging was wrong but it was legal. These are the nuances we must examine in giving leadership.

It is a pity the Government could not do the big thing and examine perfectly formed legislation and send out the message that we care about immigrants. Any ordinary Irish person who sits down and listens to what we are talking about will share our views and be equally appalled. It is not that this House is ahead of the population; it is our duty to show direction and leadership on the issues such as this to our immigrant groups. We should say that we welcome them and want them to be part of us but we need them to recognise why we are doing this. We want them to buy into it. This is the law of the land and I fully support the proposal.

Notwithstanding what Senator O'Toole said about the Government not accepting this Bill, days like this make us proud to be in politics. We have agreed a consensus and I pay tribute to the Minister of State and Senator Bacik for dealing with this fluid situation. I am not sure we have secured agreement at this stage. The will of the Seanad is such that all Members are agreed we need to send a clear message that this is in an illegal practice. We must do so before we deal with the education element. It is important we work together. I pay considerable tribute to Senator Bacik for bringing this Bill to the House. We have travelled a long road. Senator Bacik provided the history of women's health, women's sexual health and violence. I pay tribute to the Irish Family Planning Association, which has done much work in this area. We have made progress along the road by Senator Bacik producing this Bill and the Government accepting the need to legislate and to produce a response to the Bill fairly quickly.

I agree with Senator O'Toole that the beauty of this Bill is its simplicity. Notwithstanding the points raised by the Minister of State about the wishes of the Attorney General to strengthen and clarify the Bill, it should not take too long. The Minister of State made reference to the need to address female genital mutilation, which is also referred to in Ireland's national plan of action. This is a question of power. We should make no mistake about that. That is why it happens and why it happens internationally.

The contribution of Senator Mary White struck me and I thought about it when we were talking about cultural issues. I heard about the practice of churching through a colleague three or four years ago. I thought it was horrific yet a number of people in this room have heard of it and perhaps have had it practised on them, their mothers or sisters. That was horrific yet it was a cultural practice we put up with and it was all about power. It was a case of subjecting women to humiliation and that is what is at issue. Senator Hannigan's statistics in regard to people's beliefs in terms of why this happens are accurate. These beliefs are however misguided, a point also made by Senator Mary White. People did not know any better or did not question the practice because it was their cultural tradition. We have had enough of that. It is not fair to speak of this in the context of western traditions or cultural values as opposed to others because many African and other traditions do not buy into this. I do not believe we should set ourselves aside from it. We need to remember the values we all hold in terms of human rights. If we all pay tribute to and defend the human rights of every human being in the world we will never subject anybody to such barbarous behaviour.

I would like to speak a little about the language used in regard to this issue. I have been interested in this issue for some time. Senator O'Toole spoke of how uncomfortable people were when the issue of AIDS was first discussed. The acronym FGM is now common parlance. This was not the case only two years ago. Much progress has been made in this regard owing to the nature of Irish society. There are living in Ireland now people from a number of different cultural backgrounds and we need to deal with the issues they are confronting. I attended a seminar on the subject of FGM approximately one year ago. It was stated at that seminar that the use of terms such as "barbarous practice" is not helpful because people who practise it — the Minister of State made reference to this in her speech — strongly believe a girl is not marriageable if she has not undergone FGM. The sad part of this is that it is very often a girl's mother or grandmother who will insist on her having this done because her "saleability", for want of a better word, as a commodity in terms of her marriageability is considered damaged and totally comprised if she does not have this practice performed on her. Despite that these mothers and grandmothers know how horrific the experience is, they insist on their children and grandchildren having it done to ensure their marriageability. We need to be mindful that when we use language such as "barbaric" and so on we may be causing these people not to speak openly about the issue. Nonetheless, we need to be unambiguous about the fact that FGM is not tolerable. We must consider how we can get through to those women who insist on having this practice performed on their children.

Senator O'Toole was correct when he so eloquently stated that one will only change practice if the law in this regard is clear. Once it is provided on the Statute Book that this practice is illegal much work in terms of education can be done. It is important we are armed with an unambiguous law in regard to where Ireland stands on FGM bearing in mind our reputation internationally in terms of development aid projects. I am aware that the Minister of State, Deputy Conor Lenihan, when Minister of State with responsibility for overseas development aid was examining in particular the issue of gender proofing and all other issues in this area.

There is a long road ahead. This is but one of many issues in regard to women's health. I am glad we have moved forward on this issue. As Senator Feeney stated we must get a commitment from the Leader of the House in regard to a date to move this forward. The Minister for Health and Children, Deputy Harney, stated she does not want this to be an issue that will divide the House. It is not in anybody's interest to have the House divide on this issue when we are all agreed with the principle. I commend Senator Bacik and the Labour Party on bringing forward this Bill and the Minister of State, Deputy Brady, on bringing forward the amendment.

I thank all speakers who contributed to what has been a strong and impassioned debate. I thank my Labour colleagues, Senator Prendergast who seconded the motion and spoke from her extensive experience as a mid-wife and Senator Hannigan who spoke of the experience in developing countries in the fight against FGM and the importance of that fight within aid programmes.

This legislation has been a long time coming. It is nine years since the first Bill was introduced in the Dáil. I have been for some years working with a number of NGOs on this issue, the names of which I outlined to the House earlier. I take this opportunity to again pay tribute to them, in particular AkiDwA, the Irish Family Planning Association, IFPA, the Dublin Rape Crisis Centre and other agencies, representatives of which are in the Visitors Gallery. I thank them for all their work.

Being able to introduce this Bill in Private Members' time is hugely important to me. I am proud to have been able to do so. As stated by Senators O'Malley, Feeney, Mary White and others on this side of the House it is an issue on which there is cross-party support. However, it often takes Private Members' time to put a slight impetus under the Government, even where it is committed to action on an issue. I am glad I have been able to do that. This shows the importance of Private Members' time and how it can be used by the Opposition. I am grateful to the Fine Gael Party, the Independents and the Government side for their support. I am grateful also to the Minister of State, Deputy Brady, and the Minister, Deputy Harney, who has taken a strong personal interest in this issue, for the undertaking that the heads of a Bill will be published before the summer recess and that my Bill will be read again this day six months. However, as stated by Senators O'Malley and Feeney, we need a commitment from the Leader that the Bill will be read again this day six months, although I accept this is provided for in the proposed amendments to the amendment, and that law on this issue will be at least introduced in this House in six months time. I am glad of those commitments.

The Minister of State made some points in regard to my Bill. I regret she did not see fit to accept the Bill as is as I believe it deals with the key issues in that it defines FGM, tackles the issue of the defence of consent, provides for extraterritorial effect and, most important, provides a strong penalty of 14 years, imprisonment. I am aware that in some countries such as Nigeria a low penalty, a €5 or €6 fine, is applicable in this regard and that people often pay the fine in order to carry out the practice. It is important we have a strong penalty for this in our law and that we make provision for the DPP's consent. The other points made by the Minister of State could be easily dealt with. This is a straightforward piece of legislation.

I heard at the day of action in European Parliament House on 4 February, organised by the National Steering Committee, at which I had the honour of speaking and on other dates heard speeches from women living in Ireland upon whom FGM was practised. Their account of the horrific procedure as practised upon them has galvanised me and I know has impassioned others on this issue. As a feminist and a mother of two small girls, I believe passionately that we need to pass this legislation as a matter of urgency. It is of symbolic and practical significance. It is of practical significance if it prevents even one girl living in Ireland having FGM performed upon her. It is of immense symbolic significance because it is a small step in the huge worldwide campaign to stamp out this brutal practice of the abuse of the rights of women and children. As other speakers stated, this is about abuse of power and the powerlessness of women and children in developing countries worldwide. Our commitment to pass this legislation is an important and symbolic step in trying to end the oppression of women and girls worldwide. I believe that is the light in which we all see this. I am glad with the consensus we have achieved tonight. I thank everyone for their support.

Before I put the question, I understand there have been negotiations between the groups on the wording of the verbal amendment moved by Senator Feeney to the amendment to the Second Reading of the Bill. I call on Senator Feeney to clarify how she now wishes to proceed as I understand she wishes to withdraw that verbal amendment.

I wish to withdraw the verbal amendment moved earlier by me to the amendment to the motion for Second Stage of the Bill.

Is that agreed? Agreed.

I move amendment No. 1 to amendment No. 1:

In the 7th line, after "continue," to insert "and the Minister resolves to publish the heads of a Bill before the summer recess;".

Amendment to amendment agreed to.

I move amendment No. 2 to amendment No. 1:

In the last line, to delete "12" and substitute "6".

Amendment to amendment agreed to.
Amendment, as amended, agreed to.

When is it proposed to sit again?

Tomorrow at 10.30 a.m.