Criminal Justice (Female Genital Mutilation) Bill 2011: Second Stage (Resumed)

Question again proposed: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."

I join others in welcoming the Minister, Deputy Reilly, to the House and wish him well in his office. This has been my first opportunity to congratulate him on his appointment since he has taken office. I wish him every success and while Members are present for legislative purposes today, I hope he will be in a position to attend debates in the House in the short term on some of the serious issues that have emerged in recent weeks concerning the fair deal scheme and the overall financing of the health service and not least, on more parochial concerns that Members will have. In my case, my concern is for the Minister's former alma mater in Sligo General Hospital, where the 100 days are counting down and I am sure the Minister of State, Deputy Perry, talks to the Minister regularly about the return to it of cancer services.

The purpose of today's sitting is the Second Stage debate on the Criminal Justice (Female Genital Mutilation) Bill 2011. It would be remiss of me not to pay tribute to my colleague in the last Seanad, Senator Bacik, whose leadership on bringing forward this issue was accepted immediately by the Minister of the day. Following the Bill's preparation, it was published shortly before the dissolution of the previous Dáil. In essence, this captures for me the true worth of the Seanad and what it can contribute. I note for the attention of newer Members or those who have chosen to tune in online, which is the only place one can watch this debate unless one attends the House, that no member of the media is present. Moreover, this debate is likely only to be covered in a token way, perhaps by "Oireachtas Report" much later this evening. This is the great failing in respect of debates that show the Seanad's worth and what it gives to people, even in advance of potential reform. One need only ask the people from the organisations who are sitting in the Visitors' Gallery and who I welcome. They have fed public concern in through leaders in society like Senator Bacik, who have then introduced legislation based on public concern. This happens more often than not in this House but rarely happens in the same way in the Dáil. However, the media will choose to cover matters there, while pontificating on the need to over-scrutinise the €25 million it costs to legislate in this House. I refer to the proof seen today in respect of the Bill under discussion and note the tongue in cheek and token coverage, as well as the empty chairs of the media benches that can be seen today. The coverage of this House is a sad indictment of that profession with respect to the good work being done on this Bill and on other Private Members' Bills which Fianna Fáil Members plan to introduce, as well as those I am sure will be developed and initiated by the Government side, by the two Independent groupings and by colleagues in Sinn Féin to which one may look forward in future.

There is nothing with which to disagree in the context of the Criminal Justice (Female Genital Mutilation) Bill 2011. Quite simply, it is a barbaric act, as described by the then Minister, Ms Harney and by the Minister, Deputy Reilly, subsequently. As a relatively young person, I find it extremely difficult to comprehend that any part of modern society would contemplate inflicting such barbaric acts on girls or women of any age. The introduction of this legislation is appropriate and long overdue. Through the work of others, Members have become better informed regarding the 3,000 women who have suffered in this way. It is of the utmost urgency that this Bill be passed in its entirety. The Minister has outlined in considerable detail the medical aspects and has noted that there are no medical or health benefits to FGM. Having read the research papers made available to Members by the Oireachtas Library and others as to the mythical benefits, I believe they are unreal. It is important that the various State agencies, such as the HSE and others, are appropriately informed regarding the cultural backgrounds of people in order that they can be sensitive to people's perceived cultural practices and the myths associated with them. Among the reasons female genital mutilation, FGM, is supposedly necessary are sexuality, preservation of virginity until marriage, marriageability, economics in that FGM is an income-generating activity for the women who perform it and gives them higher status in their societies, tradition and preserving a so-called set of values and rituals in the community. Despite this, there is no proof that it is linked to any religion. There was some suggestion that Islam had some association with it but there is no such teachings in the Koran and no Islamic person of note would preside over such a barbaric act and regard it as a ritual necessary to denote one's loyalty or devotion to religion. Culturally aesthetic reasons are put forward, that in some way the genitalia is supposed to be ugly.

It is disgraceful in the extreme that in the modern world anyone would preside over this practice. While we must be sensitive in dealing with the cultural issues and the myths associated with it, we must not be deterred from moving forward very forcefully with this legislation. I do not wish to delay the House by pontificating about this issue. The Bill's benefits are clear and we must proceed with it. I suggest that Committee Stage be dealt with as quickly as possible and we can deal with amendments at that stage. I commend the Bill to the House and, in particular, I commend the efforts of Senator Ivana Bacik. I remind the media these are the debates in which they should interest themselves and not just provide the tongue in cheek coverage we have seen in the past.

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.

Tá coinne ag an Seanadóir Mary White agus ar an ábhar sin, ba mhaith liom mo chuid ama a roinnt léi.

Is that agreed? Agreed.

I welcome the Minister to the House and commend the Government on bringing this Bill forward. As other Senators have said, particular credit is due to Senator Bacik and the Labour Party for bringing forward this important issue just over a year ago in this House. It is hard to believe that between 100 and 140 million women in the world may have undergone female genital mutilation. It is a truly scandalous state of affairs and it is right and proper that Ireland would move to have specific legislation prohibiting this practice and any involvement with it.

In recognising and congratulating Senator Bacik for her initiative on this issue, although she and I have often come from different places philosophically on a range of issues concerning human dignity, it is an issue which can unite people of goodwill who seek out the common good and vindicate the dignity of the human person at all stages of life. It is an absolutely vital issue for us to raise at this time.

I very much subscribe to the notion that this is about women's rights and reducing and tackling gender inequality. Those are important concepts and ones which have to be vindicated in our world and country. It is a pity that the word "dignity" is not present in the Minister's speech. We really need to rediscover the language of human dignity because female genital mutilation is first and foremost an attack on human dignity. It is an attack on women's rights and gender equality, but the fundamental issue is that it is an attack on human dignity.

This is a very interesting subject. There are many issues in the world today where we are invited to believe that certain practices are somehow acceptable because many people engage in them, have engaged in them or are they are important to certain cultures. This issue is pre-eminent in demonstrating to us that there are norms which have to be recognised and honoured across time and space.

The idea that it could ever be culturally acceptable to attack and violate a person's dignity and interfere with his or her bodily integrity in such a way as female genital mutilation is absolutely repulsive and must be so to any civilised society. That is why I would argue strongly that we infuse this debate with the language of human dignity.

I support and congratulate the Government and the Labour Party in dealing with the issue of extraterritoriality. I recognise the sensitivity around dual criminality. The Minister said it is only in certain cases that one can go beyond the requirement that an act would be criminal in the country of origin of the perpetrator and of destination where the act is carried out.

I wonder whether we should make an exception in this case. In other words, we could provide that it would be a crime for an Irish citizen to carry out or to be in any way implicated or involved in female genital mutilation, even in countries where it is legal. I wonder what message it might send out to people to know that they would not be criminalised for carrying out such an action on the basis that it is legal in the country where they did it. If, for example, the issue involved child abuse in a country with inadequate child protection laws, none of us would have sympathy for a person who was criminalised for carrying out or being involved in an act of child abuse, notwithstanding that it was lawful to do so in the country in question.

Senator Ivana Bacik correctly raised the issue of mental health, one of the aspects of the legislation on which AkiDwA has raised questions. It would be useful if the Minister were to specify the reason a defence should be available, including in circumstances where the action is carried out to treat the mental health of the person concerned. In what circumstances could mental health be invoked for a procedure such that it should be protected?

While the House will have an opportunity to address the issues I raise on Committee Stage, I emphasise two points. The Minister has endorsed the preventive and proactive approach taken in the legislation and correctly noted that legislation is never sufficient. The law is a teacher and while it is important that legislation specifies what is and is not permissible, it must also be backed up by initiatives to ensure a cultural message is sent to all those resident here that female genital mutilation is an unacceptable practice. What plans does the Government have to reinforce the impact of this new law with cultural and educational initiatives in order that the law is seen to be well justified? I congratulate the Minister and Senator Bacik on their initiatives in introducing the Bill early in this term.

Having sat alongside the Minister at the Joint Committee on Health and Children for some years, I am optimistic and pleased that the health portfolio is in his hands. His speech was thoroughly prepared and demonstrated a deep knowledge of the issue. Senators are privileged that he has come before the House in person to deal with the Bill. I also compliment Senator Ivana Bacik and Senator Jillian van Turnhout, chief executive of Children's Rights Alliance, on driving forward this issue. Senators are delighted to have Senator van Turnhout's expertise in the Seanad.

The Bill aims to protect women in Ireland from female genital mutilation. It defines acts of female genital mutilation as indisputable criminal offences and highlights the offence of transporting females from Ireland to carry out this intrusive procedure elsewhere. The Minister has cited a number of frightening statistics, for example, that between 100 million and 140 million women, including 3,000 women in Ireland, have been subjected to genital mutilation. It is alarming that before the end of today, a further 6,000 women and female children around the world will have been subjected to this practice. The Minister has also noted that female genital mutilation does not have any health benefits. He has detailed the severe pain, shock, haemorrhaging and serious psychological trauma victims experience and referred to the practice being performed without sterile equipment or the use of an anaesthetic.

Last year, at my own expense, I visited Malawi to open educational facilities, including classrooms and houses for teachers, which had been funded by the staff of Louth County Council. I was left in no doubt that the reason the practice of female genital mutilation continued was a lack of education, resources and power among women in the countries in which it was practised.

I am sorry I will not be present for the rest of the debate. I enjoyed the Minister's speech and commend his passion. It is pleasing to note the seriousness with which the issue of female genital mutilation is being treated by the Department.

I congratulate Senator Ivana Bacik on identifying with and progressing this issue and ensuring the Bill was brought before the House. I also thank the Minister for supporting the legislation and introducing it at such an early date.

I remember raising the issue of female genital mutilation with Members of the Oireachtas in 1992 or 1993. I did so because an Irish doctor working in London had suddenly been confronted with the problem following a major influx of refugees from Somalia to London. As a result, a special clinic was opened in Northwick Park Hospital to deal with the issue. Staff at the clinic quickly learned that it was not easy to approach the issue of female genital mutilation, which affects more than 100 million people worldwide. In most of the countries where the practice is performed, it is a cultural issue. Staff at Northwick Park Hospital found that a large number of the women who had experienced female genital mutilation could not speak English. Unfortunately, their spouses could speak English and within two weeks of the clinic opening staff noted that the information they were providing for patients was not being correctly translated by their spouses. As a result, the hospital had to hire translators. This highlights the cultural aspect of the problem of female genital mutilation and an unwillingness to accept the changes required.

This legislation, while welcome, is long overdue. As Senator Bacik noted, legislation outlawing female genital mutilation was introduced in the United Kingdom in 1985 and updated in 2003. Moreover, female genital mutilation has been addressed in legislation in most European Union member states. Comprehensive legislation is in place in France, in particular, where a number of prosecutions have been brought.

As a result of the influx of migrants in the past decade, female genital mutilation has become a significant issue in Ireland. In 1992 and 1993 concerns were raised with me that the British legislation was more comprehensive than ours in this area in that the former permitted prosecutions to be brought. The doctor who opened the clinic at Northwick Park Hospital ended up giving evidence before the British Medical Council to have a person removed from the medical register for performing this procedure in the United Kingdom. The individual in question was concerned that someone could be brought to Ireland and was not satisfied that our legislation was sufficiently comprehensive. The Bill before us is comprehensive in the sense that it clearly sets out a definition of the offence of female genital mutilation. While I am aware that concerns have been expressed as to whether the definition is sufficiently comprehensive, it makes it virtually impossible for anyone to use any defence. It is close to what would make it impossible for anyone to use any such defence in this country. I know, however, that some Members will be tabling amendments to make the situation tighter.

I have a problem concerning section 4, although this will be dealt with at a later stage. It concerns the fact that for someone to be prosecuted here for having performed FGM outside this country, the act must also be illegal in the country where it was carried out. I wonder if this section can be re-examined in this respect. The UK legislation goes a step further in that even where FGM is legal in the country in which it is performed, it is still possible to prosecute. Under the provisions of the Bill before us, however, it may not be possible to do so. If there are constitutional reasons the Bill cannot be so amended, I will obviously have to take them on board. However, when cultural pressures are brought to bear, people can be removed from one country in order for the procedure to be performed in another. Under section 4 it would appear that if the procedure is legal in a foreign country, then a subsequent prosecution would not succeed here. I will therefore seek to amend that section accordingly.

As other speakers have said, FGM is very much a cultural issue and is not just about legislation. There is only so much we can do by way of legislation, but the Bill is about making the procedure illegal and ensuring that we have a comprehensive legal framework to discourage people from continuing the practice. We also need to educate people, but it must be borne in mind that it will take time to change attitudes to a matter which affects so many. The focus of such education must be on people who come from countries where FGM is an accepted procedure.

I welcome the legislation, which is long overdue and should be enacted at the earliest possible date. I thank the Minister for taking this matter on board so early after his appointment.

I welcome the Minister for Health to the House. He may be aware that in recent days a plethora of health issues have been discussed here and that there have been requests for him to attend the House. We will welcome the opportunity to discuss these matters with him in due course and hopefully he will be a frequent visitor to the Seanad.

I commend Senator Bacik for her work on this Bill which, as she said earlier, has cross-party support. It certainly has the full support of Sinn Féin and will not be amended by us. Our spokesperson on health in the Dáil, Deputy Ó Caoláin, has consistently called for such legislation to be introduced. We welcome the fact that Senator Bacik and her Labour Party colleagues have introduced the Bill, which is also supported by Fine Gael, Fianna Fáil and the Independent groupings.

The Minister has made some interesting points and rightly refers to FGM as a gross violation of women's rights and human rights generally. That is an important statement to make. He also said that the act will not be tolerated. There are gaps in the Non-Fatal Offences against the Person Act, which could allow people to offer a defence of consent, as one option. There are also concerns about the extra-territorial effect of the current Act, so I welcome sections 3 and 4 which deal with FGM acts committed outside the State. I am glad the Bill will attempt to fill many of the legislative voids that have existed heretofore.

The legislation will help many families that may be affected by FGM. It should be stated that most immigrants are law-abiding people and there are many in such communities who do not want their family members, including daughters, to be subjected to these acts. If we enact this Bill, thus making FGM illegal, it will give families who may come under peer pressure within their communities greater weight to say that they do not want the FGM procedure to be carried out. In addition, people will know that they could go to jail for 14 years if they allow such an act to take place. The legislation is therefore important in giving moral support and a legal imperative to such families.

Many health problems and psychological issues flow from carrying out female genital mutilation. According to AkiDwA's statistics, over 3,000 women and girls have been subjected to FGM and I understand that the figure has been revised upwards since last year. The vast majority of those who will be affected by FGM are medical card holders who may be subjected to long delays before getting the necessary treatment. The Minister should reflect on that problem.

Senator Colm Burke spoke about addressing the cultural aspects of FGM. While we must have the necessary laws in place, we also need to win the hearts and minds of communities whose members believe that FGM is acceptable. I have worked with immigrants and I am unhappy with the direct provision system in this State whereby many young women are corralled into reception centres and are thus very much out of sight and out of mind. On three occasions, as a public representative, I was refused entry to one reception centre in Waterford because it was a private facility. My request was only to deal with routine matters in that facility. Many, if not most, of the women affected by these serious issues live in such reception centres. In addition, many advocacy groups that wish to work with and support such women are horrified by the way in which immigrants are treated by the direct provision system.

I have a high regard for the current Minister for Health and I know he will bring a different perspective to the job. He has a difficult task, given what has gone before so I will give him my full support in terms of what has to be done. The Minister and his Government colleagues, however, should be conscious not just of how we treat Irish people but also how new Irish immigrants are treated, particularly with regard to their health requirements. They have particular health needs and we cannot isolate their living environment in this context. If we are to win the hearts and minds of immigrant communities, those issues must be addressed.

I commend the Bill, which has the full support of Sinn Féin. I commend the Minister for supporting the legislation, as well as Senator Bacik for introducing it in the first place.

I thank the Minister for his comprehensive presentation of the Bill. I am delighted that we are discussing this legislation, which is the first measure on which I have shared my views. As previous speakers have said, this is a positive step and I hope the Bill will be passed without delay so it can be placed on the Statute Book. While my comments are aimed at strengthening and improving the Bill, I will be giving it my full support. I wish to thank the Children's Rights Alliance, AkiDwA, Amnesty International Ireland and other NGOs for their briefings. I also acknowledge the leading and supportive role played by Senator Bacik on this important matter.

We all recognise the horrors of FGM as a gross violation of human rights, as well as being a critical issue concerning children's rights and child protection. FGM has real implications for children living in Ireland today.

Families in Ireland from FGM practising regions have reported serious pressures from overseas families to bring their daughters back to have the procedures carried out. This Bill must make it abundantly clear that Ireland will not tolerate this practice. It must be passed to bring Ireland into line with the majority of European countries but, most importantly, it will help families and parents to counter pressure to submit their daughters to FGM. It should act as a deterrent to the continuation of the practice and deliver a clear preventative message.

I will use my time to focus on the Bill. As Senators, it is our duty to make this Bill as strong as possible. There are three important areas that I propose should either be amended or clarified. The first in regard to defences. I am extremely concerned about section 2 in terms of defences, which seems to allow for a surgical operation "necessary for the protection of her physical or mental health". This is not an acceptable defence and should be removed. We know that FGM has no health benefits and involves removing and or damaging healthy and normal body tissue. I am also concerned that mental health could be used as a defence by a parent or guardian to remove a child from Ireland to undergo FGM abroad. If such a defence is used, that is tantamount to saying that FGM must be performed to ensure the mental health and wellbeing of a girl but I do not know how this could be used in a country like Ireland where FGM is deemed totally unacceptable. The use of such a defence effectively links mental health to culture, yet the Bill elsewhere rightly states that the defence of culture cannot be used.

The second issue I would like to mention, which several colleagues raised, is that of extra-territoriality. I welcome the inclusion of the vital principle of extra-territoriality, making it an offence for an Irish citizen or a person ordinarily resident in Ireland to commit or attempt to commit an act of FGM in another country. I note the Minister's comments on this important issue but I am still concerned. Currently, the FGM act must therefore be illegal in the jurisdiction where the act takes place for it to be an offence. I am concerned about the issue of dual criminality which the Minister has raised. This is an issue on which we need to send a very strong message to the effect that, regardless of the other country's legal stance, in Ireland it is illegal and it must be illegal for a person to take a child to any other country. This to me is as important as terrorism and I would like that issue to be re-examined.

The third issue is in regard to the definition in the Bill on which many speakers have commented. The definition is close to the World Health Organisation's definition, which the Minister referenced. I question why we would not use the World Health Organisation's definition to ensure that it is abundantly clear.

I fully support the Bill, as drafted, but we could go further and send a very strong message.

Cuirim fáilte roimh an Aire chuig an Teach. Táim an-bhródúil as an deis labhairt ar mo chéad uair sa Teach ar an mBille seo. Inniu, tá deis againn, ní h-amháin caint agus obair a dhéanamh ar son mná na hÉireann ach ar son mná an domhain. Táim an-bhródúil a bheith páirteach sa díospóireacht seo.

On my first opportunity to speak in this House, I am delighted to be afforded the opportunity to speak on this important Bill. It is an opportunity to speak not only for the women of Ireland but for the women of the world, some of whom perhaps cannot speak for themselves. We should all be cognisant of that.

I, like previous speakers, commend Senator Ivana Bacik on initiating this Bill in the House and having brought it to Second Stage. We will be able to make further contributions on it as it progresses. The initiation of this Bill is an example of how Seanad Éireann carries out it work. It has effectively and efficiently initiated Bills in the past and it will initiate more in the future.

Senator MacSharry commented on how the media are absent from the House on this important occasion, which is regrettable. It is an important occasion for women but it is more than that. It is an important occasion for health services for women, Ireland's health services, health professionals, social workers, other services and provisions related to this barbaric act. I am sad the media in Ireland have not shown courtesy to the people whom the subject matter of this Bill has affected and will affect. It has been enunciated that there is cross-party support for this Bill. Perhaps it is a reflection on the media in Ireland that women's issues are not important to them. This is an example of that. Good news very seldom makes news, it is bad news usually that makes the news.

Speakers have commented on the statistics on the prevalence of FGM. The World Health Organization's statistics on its prevalence in the world and in Ireland were mentioned. I have a list of statistics but I will cite just one, the fact that 6,000 girls a day suffer this practice. That statistic brings the horror of this home and raises the question should we have had our eyes closed to it for so long. Note should definitely be taken of that statistic.

The practice is unquestionably a barbaric act — there is no other word for it — by western standards but by any standards worldwide. We have continuous migration into this country and culture has been mentioned in the debate but culture is one thing and barbaric acts are another. This practice must be condemned.

Women who have undergone this barbaric procedure have suffered from all types of medical problems afterwards. It must to be outlawed. There is no legislation in place covering the practice of FGM and we are dependent on the sub-legislation in place. There is lack of a clear legal framework not alone to provide for the people affected but to assist health workers, social workers and care professionals. I commend the Minister on his detailed contribution on the Bill he presented and on the knowledge he has brought to the House on the implementation of the medical guidelines.

Senators Bacik and van Turnhout mentioned the mental health aspect in terms of the impact of this act. We should flesh out that aspect on Committee Stage and amend the legislation accordingly. Mental health covers a multitude and it needs to be detailed in the Bill. If it is not detailed, there will be loopholes. We must ensure that we close all loopholes in the case of this important legislation.

Another aspect is that of consent, to which Senator Bacik referred. It concerns sections 3(2)(c) and 4(2)(d). Section 3(2)(c) contains the words “done to a woman” but the words “without consent” are omitted, although section 3 provides that it shall not be a defence for it to be believed that there was consent. We will have to examine that section on Committee Stage. In European countries women have free will and consent is one thing but in other cultures women even over the age of 18 do not have free will and are subservient to the male gender in certain countries. We must ensure that if we are legislating in this respect for people going out and coming back into this country that we take into consideration that what consent means in Europe may not mean consent in another jurisdiction. That must be taken into consideration in terms of sections 3(2)(c) and 4(2)(d). Education must also play an important part in this respect.

I thank the Minister for bringing this legislation to the House. I support it and I am delighted it has cross-party support.

Like others, I welcome the Minister to the House. I also congratulate Senator Bacik, who championed the original legislation, the Female Genital Mutilation Bill 2010.

I became aware of this issue when, as a student in University College Dublin, I read an account of an African UCD student. She wrote in a college magazine about how she had been pulled out of her bed at ten years of age, taken by the women of her community and had a clitorectomy performed. It was probably the most harrowing story I have ever come across.

Many of those present are parents. I have two daughters. The idea that one could do such a thing to a child is almost beyond belief. However, significant numbers of female genital mutilations are performed on female children globally. It is not on the wane. For example, few Irish people who holiday in Egypt are aware of the fact that, despite protestations to the contrary, approximately 90% of its female children have FGMs performed on them. For those of us in Ireland, it is tempting to believe that, while this is an issue, it is not one for us. As stated by Senator Bacik and others, this is far from the situation. Apart from the fact that an estimated 2,500 women in Ireland have had FGMs performed on them, we are also a multicultural society and must face up to the facts of being one.

It has been stated in the House that this situation primarily concerns uneducated people. Facts from the UK give the lie to this assumption. Educated parents in minorities continue this illegal practice either directly or via underground methods, that is, they have FGMs performed on their children. It has also been stated that this is a cultural matter. We cannot underestimate the importance of the cultural precepts attached to FGM. For example, Senator MacSharry mentioned the sincere belief in a number of societies that the capacity of daughters to marry well would be impacted where FGM was not performed on them. We cannot underestimate the societal pressures. For this reason, we must be clear and vigilant regarding where we stand as a society.

We could expand upon a number of the issues raised by Senator MacSharry. The long-term effects of FGM include the decrease or loss of sexual sensation, in part or in its entirety, infertility, urinary incontinence and complicated child birth. I read a harrowing account of an Irish midwife working in a Middle Eastern country who had assisted a number of women on whom FGMs had been performed give birth.

We cannot be remotely casual about what our multicultural society is facing. We cannot leave this matter at the legislative stage. Legislation is vital and I am confining my comments to the Bill as a whole as opposed to specific aspects, but it is important that the legislation be backed up by enforcement and the clear message that sanctions will be handed out for any offence under this law. We must also move forward and provide support for the women of minorities. Evidence from the World Health Organization, WHO, indicates that the education of mothers in particular is influential in combating the practice of FGM. It is also important that we provide resources to facilitate women who seek the reconstruction of their genitalia following FGMs.

The issue of FGM goes to the heart of what constitutes femininity and female sexuality. As a society, we must be unequivocal in our condemnation of this practice.

I thank the Senators for contributing to this debate and note the broad support for the Bill. Like others, I am shocked that this practice continues to such an extent across the globe, that our citizens are at risk in this country and that people who would like to view Ireland as their new domicile should still be at risk.

The main purpose of the Bill is to prohibit FGMs and to provide for related offences, some of which apply to certain extra-territorial jurisdictions. Having a specific Bill prohibiting the practice will bring legal clarity and certainty to the issue and, I hope, act as a powerful deterrent for practising communities. In drafting the Bill, my officials have been able to learn from international experience in this field and call upon experts to ensure the proposals are evidence-based and in line with best practice. This is an important principle of which we should continually remind ourselves, namely, that our policies as well as our medical practices should be evidence-based.

I will address some of the issues raised by Senators. The Government recognises that FGM is a violation of human rights and a form of gender-based violence. I take on board Senator Mullen's concern that this is a serious attack on the dignity of a human being. Mental health issues have been mentioned. The concern is that they might be used as a ruse or legal loophole. The exemption referring to the protection of mental health refers to the possible need for surgery for gender reassignment, intersex conditions or congenital malformations. As custom and ritual reasons cannot be invoked as a defence for this purpose, neither can the effects of not conforming with them. I hope this reassures Senators, but I would be happy to elaborate on Committee Stage and to take on board any amendment that strengthens this provision. Members should be clear that this is what the mental health section is about.

As worded, the Bill prohibits the process of reinfibulation, which serves no purpose in respect of labour or birth and, therefore, is not exempted under subsection 2(2)(b).

The issue of permanent bodily harm is a complex one that posed some challenges. While the Government is clear that FGM in all its forms must be criminalised, it is not our intention to criminalise certain forms of genital piercing or cosmetic surgery for aesthetic purposes. In our deliberations, we were conscious that the rights of all women living in Ireland had to be balanced against one another. Therefore, the Government decided to use the broad WHO definition of what constitutes FGM, including Type IV. This category subsumes all other practices not included in Types I, II and III and usually refers to pricking, piercing, incising, scraping and cauterising. This decision was made to ensure that all forms of FGM were covered by the Bill on the basis that terms such as "pricking" can be used to legitimise or cover up more invasive procedures. An exemption was added to protect the freedom of choice over cosmetic or other procedures that do not violate women's human rights. This approach was chosen following extensive consultation with the Office of the Attorney General and the Office of the Director of Public Prosecutions. Under this exemption, no offence is committed if an act of FGM is committed against a woman of 18 years or over and where no permanent bodily harm is done. If, however, no consent was given for this act, it would still constitute assault and would be covered by the Non-Fatal Offences against the Person Act 1997.

Concerns have been expressed in respect of dual criminality. While it could be argued that the requirement of dual criminality is undesirable, the Government has been advised that it is necessary at present to comply with constitutional and international law. Only in exceptional circumstances are extra-territorial offences in criminal law provided for without a dual criminality requirement. Under Article 29.8 of the Constitution, the State may exercise extraterritorial jurisdiction in accordance with the generally recognised principles of international law. Under that, only offencesjus cogens — against the conscience of the world — such as piracy, war crimes and terrorist acts carry universal jurisdiction. Where extraterritorial as opposed to universal jurisdiction is exercised, it almost inevitably includes a requirement for dual criminality.

Article 7 of the European Convention on Human Rights is of particular relevance in respect of this matter, particularly as it provides that no person shall be held guilty of any criminal offence on account of any act or omission which did not constitute a criminal offence under national or international law at the time when it was committed. However, I am aware that Ireland is involved in preparatory work relating to the draft Council of Europe convention on preventing and combating violence against women. Under the terms of this draft convention, the practice of FGM is condemned. In addition, it provides that there should not be a dual criminality requirement. The removal of dual criminality from FGM legislation could be revisited if the convention is ratified. The UK's Female Genital Mutilation Act 2003 does not include a dual criminality provision because the Government of that country is not bound by the requirements of a constitution which demands it.

The Bill before the House makes provision for offences which relate to removing a girl or woman from the State for the purpose of subjecting her to FGM. The relevant section mitigates the need for the dual criminality requirement. The Bill incorporates provisions to safeguard the privacy of the victim as well as that of the accused person, as set out in the Criminal Law (Rape) Act 1981 and the Criminal Law (Rape)(Amendment) Act 1990. Officials from the Department are currently examining the possibility of further strengthening the protection available to the victims of FGM. This protection is particularly pertinent to FGM cases as a result of the fact that the victims are likely to be children and the accused are often their parents.

In the context of raising awareness, the HSE awaits the enactment of the legislation to progress with printing information leaflets relating to FGM. Moreover, the executive has engaged in significant steps to raise awareness and train health and social care professionals in this area by progressing the health-related objectives of the national action plan against female genital mutilation in recent years. I assure Senator Cullinane that we will investigate the instances to which he referred where citizens and non-nationals are not being afforded proper protection and information.

I again thank Senators for their contributions to this debate. Like many others, I thank Senator Bacik for introducing legislation on this matter last year. I look forward to further constructive examination of the Bill on Committee Stage.

Question put and agreed to.
Committee Stage ordered for Tuesday, 7 June 2011.

When is it proposed to sit again?

At 2.30 p.m on Tuesday, 7 June 2011.