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'We need to protect all girls from female genital mutilation'

First FGM conviction is a landmark result for gardai in battle against the barbaric practice, writes Maeve Sheehan

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Copyright: Karel Miragaya

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In September 2016, Danny Kelly, then a detective sergeant, was shown into a meeting room at Our Lady's Children's Hospital in Crumlin. Paediatricians, nurses and social workers sat around a table, preparing to report a suspected crime, a particularly sensitive one and the first of its kind to come to the hospital's attention.

A father had turned up with his 21-month-old daughter, bleeding profusely from an injury he attributed to her falling backwards on a toy. The child was wheeled into an operating theatre where Professor Sri Paran, the paediatric surgeon, observed the source of the bleeding from the child's genital area, noting the "absent" clitoral head. Had the bleeding not been stemmed, the child, as he would later tell the court, would have struggled to breathe and gone into shock.

The hospital involved Dr Sinead Harty, a consultant paediatrician and forensic examiner, who found that missing clitoral head, in her opinion, could only be as a result of female genital mutilation, a crime in this country since 2012 but one that had never been prosecuted.

Within hours of Kelly leaving the hospital, gardai had embarked on the country's first criminal investigation into a brutal and degrading cultural practice performed on girls, usually in secrecy, and causing lasting damage.

The practice is a ritual custom in parts of Africa, Asia and the Middle East. It involves cutting away some or all of the female genitalia, a practice usually performed by women, on girls, sometimes in infancy. Types of cutting vary in severity and are performed for a myriad of reasons, usually based on misconceptions about protecting a girl's virginity, enhancing her marriage prospects and hygiene. It is internationally recognised as a human rights violation.

An estimated 5,790 women and girls living in Ireland are estimated to have undergone FGM and around 1,600 girls living in Ireland are estimated to be at high risk of having it done to them. The Rotunda Hospital said this weekend it treated 15 women in 2018, and nine in 2017, for "issues" relating to FGM.

Inspector Kelly's work in a gritty suburban station has run the gamut of crimes. He once traced a can of Red Bull, discarded at a local murder scene, to the Swiss factory where it was manufactured and, from there, back to the Spar in Dublin that sold it. Investigating FGM was a departure, and one that involved sensitivities around race, culture and religion.

On the first day of the investigation, he and his colleagues were knocking on the door of a flat on the second floor of an ordinary terraced house, armed with a search warrant.

"We were looking for any potential evidence that might be used in a case of genital mutilation - we were looking for sharp implements, any blood-stained items, we were looking for the toy that the child had allegedly fallen on," he said.

The parents cannot be identified to protect the child. Both had come to Ireland in 2008, the mother (27) had Irish citizenship. Her husband (37) was appealing a deportation order. Neither worked. Their children were well cared for and well nourished.

The parents each flatly denied their child had been mutilated. The father said he was against the practice, the mother insisted she would never put her daughter through it, because it had been done to her when she was a child. She told them how older women had held her down on a rock while another woman cut her when she was only eight.

Gardai found no bloodied implements but took the toy - an action station - the child's parents claimed she had fallen on. The denials continued, even during the arrest and questioning of the child's father, and, a couple of months later, their mother.

By then a British expert on FGM, Dr Deborah Hodes, had concluded that the girl's injuries were consistent with FGM. Blood on the carpet at their home was separately found to match the girl's.

Following a landmark trial last year, the parents were convicted. When they were sentenced two weeks ago, their not guilty pleas were taken to reflect their "lack of insight and a lack of remorse". The father received five and a half years, and the mother four years and nine months. The court heard that the child, who is being cared for by her aunt, will likely experience long-term psychological effects.

Gardai never did find out who actually cut the child. Her extended family - who lived in the vicinity - said they had no knowledge of the practice.

Kelly was struck in general by the depth of secrecy around the subject, although most communities are aware that it is against the law.

"What surprised me about the case was how ingrained the culture is. Learning that there is no known health benefit to a girl for having this done. They come from a culture where women are seen as second-class citizens and having FGM is basically seen as increasing their chances of getting married."

Ireland's first conviction for FGM landed just ahead of International Day of Zero Tolerance of FGM last Thursday. "The point which the first prosecution makes is that if you do this in Ireland, there will be consequences. This will do two things: it will deter families, but it can drive families underground," said Dr Caroline Munyi, of AkiDwA, an organisation that supports migrant women. Education and awareness is key, she said.

According to Dr Caitriona Henchion, director of Ireland's only FGM clinic, run by the Irish Family Planning Association, a prosecution "is, in a way, a failure because that child has already been damaged".

The goal appears to be education and prevention.

"From a police point of view, it is not all about prosecutions. It's about prevention and protection," said Inspector Kelly.

"The learning from this case is that FGM is here. We need to help prevent and protect any other girls from becoming victims of FGM and we need to work with our colleagues in other agencies."

The Garda's Protective Services Bureau is working on guidelines for the force.

Sunday Independent