Stormont outlaws female genital mutilation, branded 'war on little girls'
Stormont has taken a stand to protect young girls from genital mutilation in what has been described as a "landmark day".
As Prime Minister David Cameron branded the practice as "appalling", Justice Minister David Ford announced a new order aimed at protecting young girls.
The number of local children affected by female genital mutilation (FGM) is not known because of its hidden nature. However, the NSPCC has received calls to a special FGM helpline from people in Northern Ireland. Across the UK, some 60,000 girls under the age of 16 are thought to be at risk.
FGM, also known as female circumcision, is common in parts of Africa, the Middle East and Asia. It involves removing parts of a girl's genitals that will help her enjoy sexual intercourse when she is older. It has no medical benefit.
Supermodel Waris Dirie from Somalia suffered FGM when she was just five years old, and now campaigns for the practice to be ended, branding it "a cruel and perfidious war on little girls".
Her Desert Flower Foundation aims to save a million girls across Africa from the "barbaric" ritual in the next few years through a sponsorship project which provides food, kerosene and school fees to families who pledge not to cut their daughters.
"I'm very much optimistic (we can end it). If we all come together then we can and we will and we should," she said.
Dr Dhanuson Dharmasena (32), a hospital doctor in London, was convicted last year in the first prosecution under the law, but he was acquitted earlier this year.
Now Mr Ford has introduced a Female Genital Mutilation Protection Order (FGMPO) to Northern Ireland. Breaching an order had been made a criminal offence that can carry of penalty of up to five years' imprisonment.
This comes as the Prime Minister spoke of his concern yesterday that "too often the authorities had turned a blind eye" to issues like forced marriage or FGM for fear of offending cultural sensitivities.
The NSPCC has welcomed the new order in Northern Ireland as a "landmark day in the fight against FGM".
"We have had calls to our FGM helpline from professionals or parents in Northern Ireland who are worried about the risk of FGM - we must do everything we can to stop this child abuse," a spokeswoman said.
Mr Ford said he wanted to send out a clear message that FGM was a crime. "It is a harmful practice that has no place in our society and is a violation of the rights of girls and women. We know that these dreadful acts are often perpetrated abroad and during the school holidays when absences are less likely to be questioned.
"Sadly as many children in Northern Ireland will have looked forward to the summer holidays others will have lived in fear of the summer break.
"I welcome the added protection these orders will provide and would urge anyone concerned that a young girl or woman may be at risk to please come forward and report it to the PSNI or other relevant authority."
Finance Minister Arlene Foster has also spoken out against FGM, describing it as "abhorrent".
"Female genital mutilation is an abhorrent practice, which leaves lifelong physical and emotional scars and, in some cases, has resulted in death," she said.
• Anyone with information can contact the PSNI on the 101 number or anonymously through the Crimestoppers charity on 0800 555 111. The NSPCC has a 24-hour FGM anonymous helpline on 0800 028 3550 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
A hidden crime affecting thousands
Female Genital Mutilation (FGM), sometimes referred to as female circumcision, includes procedures that alter or injure female genital organs for non-medical reasons. It is common in parts of Africa, the Middle East and Asia for various cultural or religious reasons, but has been recognised as a human rights violation. It has no health benefit to girls and instead is regarded as ensuring they remain pure by the removal of the part their anatomy to help them enjoy sexual intercourse. The practice can leave girls and women incontinent, in extreme pain or at risk of death.
It has been estimated that up to 60,000 girls under the age of 15 are at risk of FGM in the UK each year, and that 137,000 women in the UK are living with the consequences of FGM. However, the true extent is unknown, because of the "hidden" nature of the crime. Extrapolating those figures to Northern Ireland could mean possibly hundreds of girls here being at risk.