Saturday 16 December 2017

So when is a girl from Sligo not from Sligo?

Medb Ruane

Jemima, 5, and Naomi, 7, sounded just like Sligo girls on radio, especially when Naomi swore she nets 100 goals in basketball and beats everyone at school -- except one boy.

"Are boys better than girls?" reporter Philip Boucher-Hayes teased the sisters. No, of course not!

Gender wars rule when you're seven. Reluctantly, you realise boys can run faster, then you realise it makes them better at chasing you and eventually you come to know that gender can be fun.

But gender may be deadly for these little girls. Naomi and Jemima's mother, Pamela, ran for their lives after Elizabeth, her eldest daughter, died in Nigeria. The child had undergone a barbaric gender-specific procedure that killed her in an indescribably awful way.

Leaving home, career, husband and son, Mrs Izevbekhai made her way to Europe, finding sanctuary in Sligo, where she lived on €19 a week. People welcomed her into their community, she told reporters in a softly accented Sligo voice. Her girls marched in the Paddy's parade.

Two days later, Pamela and the girls were taken to a so-called reception centre (really a deportation centre) because their application for asylum status was refused finally. She's been in court ever since.

Pamela hadn't told the girls about Female Genital Mutilation, for obvious reasons, but had made it the main ground of her asylum application. Other people were given leave to stay because of FGM, so why wouldn't she have taken on faith what various politicians said?

Brian Cowen had called the practice "... a serious international issue which should be the concern of women and men who believe in equality, dignity and fairness to all human beings". On May 9, 2001, Cowen told the Dail that FGM breached women's human rights.

John O'Donoghue, as Minister for Justice, and Micheal Martin, as Minister for Health, agreed, so you'd imagine that seven years on -- Naomi's whole lifetime -- no girl in Ireland would have to fear being deported to a place where FGM could happen to her.

The answer to why they are may be linked to the controversial new Immigration Bill and its sidestepping of clear provision for what does or doesn't constitute grounds for asylum in Ireland.

On the plus side, the Bill pulls together various legislative bits and pieces into one document for the first time. On the negative side, it won't define the circumstances under which people may or may not stay, so what look like basic rights, such as bodily integrity, won't be given the status of law -- and will remain secret and exclusive to the Minister and Department of Justice, rather than to the Government and the Dail.

You can't say for sure that Pamela's application was selected as a test case, but it was certainly given special treatment. When Michael McDowell, Minister for Justice, decided to deport her and the girls in October 2005, he appointed senior counsel George Bermingham and Hugh Mohan to prosecute her, which is unusual. McDowell condemned FGM too -- how could you not? -- but shifted the emphasis to make it a question of culture rather than human rights.

"Should a girl desire to avoid FGM in spite of pressure from her family to do otherwise, she would have the option of complaining to the national police force or the Nigerian Human Rights Commission," he said on February 2, 2006, "and women have the option of relocating to another part of the country if they fear FGM."

Fine in theory, until you hear about policing and rights on the ground in Nigeria. Then it's a joke. Divisions aren't like northside/southside Dublin, or Moyross versus Castletroy. The rise of Sharia law in the northern territories has damaged the status of women in Christian territories too, so even though FGM is outlawed, the law is not being enforced. People are dying.

The difference between a cultural right and a human right is that in the first case you shake your head, throw up your hands and say: "Awful, but not a lot we can do." Send them home, let them take their chances, meanwhile we'll lobby the UN.

The challenge of acting on FGM as a human right is that it raises uncomfortable questions, such as women suffering simply because they are women. In Somalia, over 97pc of girls and women are still subjected to a form of FGM; in Egypt, an increasingly popular holiday destination, the figure is over 94pc.

Perhaps there's a lack of imagination about FGM at mostly-male senior level in the Department of Justice -- or a fear that any indication of sympathy may mean a sudden increase in the number of female asylum seekers. But then, a decade ago, the department was estimating arrivals at over 1,000 a month, which scared people but actually never happened.

"I know I'm surrounded by humane people," Pamela told RTE. "I want to believe [Minister Brian Lenihan] will be horrified."

If the alternative were to castrate boys so as to lessen violence, there'd be an outcry on human rights grounds. Why the ambivalence when a crime against women is being committed on our watch?

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