I welcome the Minister for Health, Deputy James Reilly, to the House on this his first visit to the 24th Seanad. I hope to see plenty more of him. I also thank the Minister and Senator MacSharry for their kind words. I am very honoured and delighted on behalf of the Government to introduce this important Bill, the Criminal Justice (Female Genital Mutilation) Bill 2011, as the first Bill of the 24th Seanad. I am very proud it is a Bill initiated in this House and, indeed, it originated in a debate on a Private Members' Bill I introduced for the Labour Party in April of last year which had the same purpose of prohibiting specifically as an offence the practice of female genital mutilation. I pay tribute to the former Labour Party Deputy, Liz McManus, who introduced a similar Bill in the Dáil in 2001. I also pay particular tribute to the officials in the Department of Health and Children — the practice is not to name them — some of whom have been very active and proactive behind the scenes in driving this Bill and in ensuring it was carefully crafted in the Department of Health and Children, the Department of Justice and Equality and the Office of the Attorney General. This was following the commitment last April by the former Minister, Mary Harney, to introduce a specific Bill on female genital mutilation as a result of the debate on FGM which I had initiated. This Bill is very much a creature of the Seanad and also a creature of cross-party work. I am delighted the Bill has the support of the Opposition, and parties on all sides of the House have worked on it.
The legislation has also benefited from output from different non-governmental organisations, NGOs. I pay tribute to the many such organisations which I and others have worked with on the issue over many years. AkiDwA is an organisation which represents migrant women living in Ireland and it has been very active, as have Amnesty International, Barnardos, Cairde, the Children's Rights Alliance, the Irish Family Planning Association, Comhlamh, organisations representing the Somali community, the National Women's Council of Ireland, the Refugee Information Service and the Women's Health Council, all of which have worked on this Bill. A great deal of work went into the 2008 national plan of action to address FGM and all the groups I mentioned and others, were represented on a steering committee. In addition, the HSE and Irish Aid put a great deal of work into progressing research on this issue and seeking legislation. Many people have been involved in bringing this issue to the attention of the Legislature.
I wish to mention a person who is in the Visitors Gallery, Ifrah Ahmed, who has been very active and last week organised a fashion show and forum in the Gresham Hotel to highlight the practice of FGM. I pay tribute to her and to the many other women and men living in Ireland who have been active on this issue.
The rationale for the introduction of the Bill is clearly apparent from the very eloquent speech of the Minister on this topic. We should all be aware that FGM is a barbaric practice but it is a practice that is widespread in 28 countries in Africa, the Middle East and Asia. The Minister referred to some countries where as many as 98% of women are subjected to FGM, usually in childhood as very young girls are cut and mutilated in this way, often with unsterilised equipment. Whatever the context, this is a practice that infringes and breaches the human rights of girls and women. It is an issue of children's rights as well as of women's rights. It is an aspect of gender-based violence because FGM, wherever it is practised and whatever the ritual or custom or religious justification offered, is in fact an expression of gender inequality and a breach of the rights of women and children. As we know in Ireland and elsewhere, control over women, their bodies and their sexuality is a key mechanism in sustaining gender inequality and FGM persists in countries where women have the least status and power generally in society.
This is not just a problem for women in developing countries, however. As the Minister has said, an estimated 3,000 or more women live in Ireland on whom FGM has been practised. AkiDwA has estimated that approximately 10,000 women and girls are now living in Ireland who come from countries where FGM is practised and who are therefore at risk of having FGM performed upon them. Clearly, the risk is heightened where women or girls return to countries where FGM is widespread in their communities. This is, therefore, a serious child protection issue for us in Ireland as much as it is an issue in other countries. We are aware that 3 million girls are subjected every year to FGM. It is a barbaric practice and leads to appalling physical and psychological consequences, including death.
There is a very powerful and moving description of FGM in Ayaan Hirsi Ali's autobiography,Infidel. She describes how FGM was practised on her and on her younger sister when they were five and three years old. I have two daughters of that age so it is a particularly moving, powerful and distressing account to read. Anyone who hears at first hand from women on whom FGM has been practised, as I have, or who reads accounts like the one I have described will be aware of how important it is that we take action.
I will explain why this legislation is needed and I will speak briefly about this Bill before commending it to the House. There are very specific reasons for the need to legislate against this practice. First, it is now recognised internationally that all countries, including countries in the EU and countries where FGM would not be routinely practised or widespread, should have specific legislation to prohibit FGM as part of their child protection policies. A total of 12 out of the original EU 15 member states have enacted legislation. Such legislation was enacted in the UK in the 1980s so this Bill is a catch-up in so far as Ireland is concerned. It is a matter for women's rights and also for children's rights. We are injuncted by the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child to legislate for a prohibition on FGM. The strongest reason is there are women and girls living in Ireland who are at risk of having FGM performed upon them or on whom it has been performed, usually before they have come to Ireland. The legislation, therefore, has a very practical purpose which is to act as a symbolic deterrent to assist those communities in Ireland who are fighting against the practice and challenging it in their communities.
The Bill is also of very practical import to doctors, particularly obstetricians and gynaecologists, who are working in Irish hospitals and who may be faced with women who have had FGM and who may be requested to re-infibulate women after childbirth. This legislation is necessary to protect doctors and to prohibit them from carrying out this request, even in cases where the woman requests it. This was made very clear to me at a talk I gave in the Institute of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists last September. The institute has actively participated with the Department of Health and Children with regard to this Bill. Dr. Kenny in Cork University Maternity Hospital spoke very powerfully about the experience of women patients seeking re-infibulation, how difficult it may be for doctors in that scenario and the importance for doctors that legislation is in place to prohibit re-infibulation. I am pleased the Minister addressed this issue in his contribution.
Problems exist with the existing legislation. The Minister mentioned the Non-Fatal Offences against the Person Act 1997 but there have been concerns that this Act may not cover FGM where it is performed with the consent of the woman or girl or with the consent of the parents of a child. This is a difficulty with the current legislation and shows the gap in it. Other issues arise regarding the need for a specific extra-territorial offence where a person brings a girl abroad for the purpose of having FGM performed upon her there. This is not specifically targeted in current legislation. There are very practical reasons we need to have this legislation in place.
I want to deal with some of the specific issues that I know we will discuss in more depth on Committee Stage. Some organisations such as Amnesty International have raised issues with the specific text of the Bill. It is very strong. It has been vetted by several Departments and has taken some time. It was promised last April by the then Minister, Ms Mary Harney, and was finally published on 20 January this year. It went through quite a rigorous drafting process in the meantime. I hope it can be passed and that if improvements can be made during the debates in the Seanad and Dáil they will be made. The Minister has already referred to amendments he proposes to introduce.
On Committee Stage we will discuss section 1 and the definition of "female genital mutilation" in some depth. There are other ways of defining it. The definition we have taken is close to that used in the recent British Act and the 2005 Prohibition of Female Genital Mutilation (Scotland) Act. We can examine other ways of defining it. The key factor is to ensure that it is defined in a broad enough way to cover such practices as reinfibulation. Exemptions must also be provided to protect doctors who perform certain necessary surgical operations.
There are some concerns with the definition, in particular with the exceptions in section 2. Section 2(2)(a) refers to the need to protect the mental health of a girl or woman. Akidwa and Amnesty International have raised the issue of how female genital mutilation can be justified on the basis of the need to protect the mental health of girls or women. There might be concerns that individuals might seek to justify reinfibulation on the basis of reference to mental health. We need to examine whether the phrase “mental health” needs to be in the Bill and we look forward to that debate on Committee Stage.
Another issue raised by Akidwa in regard to section 2 is themens rea for the offence. I am happy that it is dealt with. There is provision in section 1 saying that the purpose or effect of the act of female genital mutilation must be excision, infibulation or other mutilation. That clearly covers intentional or reckless carrying out female genital mutilation. Following the CC judgment in the Supreme Court a person could not be prosecuted on a strict liability basis but the mens rea is fairly clear.
I am glad to see the exception in section 2(2)(c). It is an important aspect of the protection for victims that the Minister mentioned. It is appropriate that a girl or a woman who self mutilates would not be prosecuted. It is also appropriate that section 2(2)(d) provides that consent is not a defence. Some groups have suggested that the exemption for a woman who is over 18 should include a reference to her consent but we need to be clear that consent is no defence and we should not complicate what is already stated in section 2(3) which states that consent shall not be a defence. It is one of the strong aspects of the Bill.
It is also welcome to see that the act cannot be justified on customary or ritual reasons. It is an important proviso which we need in specific legislation. It is very important that when we move through the Bill we examine its extra territorial reach and that there are provisions for anonymity of victims, something which was lacking in earlier versions. There has been some concern about the definition of "permanent bodily harm" and we might examine the issue because clearly there are very different degrees of female genital mutilation, but all of them must be subject to the criminal offence here.
It is great to see cross party support in the House for the Bill. Anyone who makes a critique of it will do so in a constructive manner because we all want to see a strong Bill put before the House. We should remember that this is a real and pressing issue for many women and girls living in Ireland today, as I, the Minister and groups working with people from practising communities are aware. This Bill did not meet with unanimous support across Ireland.
I saw at least one article in a newspaper which quoted members of practising communities as opposing the Bill and suggesting, appallingly, that a distinction could be made between types of female genital mutilation and there was one type, so-called female circumcision, which was not as bad or should not be criminalised. All forms of female genital mutilation, whatever name is given to them, amount to a barbaric practice and a breach of the rights of women, girls and children. I am delighted to see that all forms of female genital mutilation will be criminalised in this very welcome Bill and I commend it to the House.