DUBLIN, Ireland (WOMENSENEWS)–Pamela Izevbekhai fled her native Nigeria with her two young daughters just over a year ago and sought refuge in Ireland to save the girls from female genital mutilation.
Since then she has been alternatively in housing for asylum seekers, in hiding or in prison. On Monday she was released from prison and now her request for asylum has gone to the country’s High Court.
She left her husband behind in Nigeria. It is his family who insists the girls undergo the procedure, and some relatives are in the United Kingdom. They chose to seek asylum in Ireland because it is an English-speaking nation and she felt safer there.
Izevbekhai, a banking executive who used to work in Lagos, knows the horrors of female circumcision well.
Her first daughter, Elizabeth, bled to death at 18 months of age in 1994 when the family of her husband–a successful businessman–demanded the procedure. Female genital mutilation sometimes entails the removal of the clitoris. It can also entail cutting the outer labia and sewing together the remaining skin so that only urine and menstrual fluid can escape.
"I have a daughter in the grave, don’t you understand that?" Izevbekhai demanded of the barrister representing the Irish government during her hearing.
Now Izevbekhai is struggling to prevent her living daughters from meeting the same fate as their deceased sister.
On Monday, Irish High Court Justice Finlay Geoghehan released Izevbekhai from Mountjoy Prison where she had been held since Jan. 13 and ordered her to return to the asylum home in Sligo where she and her daughters had lived during the past year.
Despite repeated calls by Galway-based Rape Crisis Network Ireland and the Health Service Executive, the country’s national health service, Izevbekhai may still be deported.
Lost Appeal in November
Last November, Izevbekhai lost her appeal to gain asylum in Ireland, resulting in the deportation order that sent her into hiding.
After a month in underground safe houses, she was arrested by immigration officers who followed a tip and discovered her in a meeting with a social worker who was trying to help her see her children. The girls, Jemima, age 3, and Naomi, age 5, were in state-run foster care at the time.
As the justice read out her prison release order on Monday, Izevbekhai held back tears, but one of her two female prison guards gave in to them.
In the small courtroom reserved for asylum cases at the High Court in Dublin, more than a half dozen wigged senior barristers considered her case as about a dozen newspaper and radio journalists sat in the back of the room.
Beside Izevbekhai a row of supporters sat on the edge of their seats, their hands going out to her every time she went to or came back from the witness box.
Monday’s release allows Izevbekhai to stay in the country until the next step in the legal process, at which time she may or may not be ordered back to Nigeria. Her lawyers say the case will go through a handful of hearings and may not be resolved until late June.
Documents including baby Elizabeth’s death certificate and a doctor’s report detailing the cause of death as well as a letter from the attending physician dated Jan. 19, 2006, explain the risks Izevbekhai and her daughters face if deported.
Asylum Petition Central to Case
The case revolves around the question of why her asylum petition was rejected despite evidence that both she and her children face danger in Nigeria. Her lawyers call that gross neglect and are pinning hopes of gaining her freedom through the country’s highest court by proving the charge.
The government claims her children are not at risk in their home country.
Izevbekhai and her supporters say the decision was reached on the basis of faulty reports of female genital mutilation that have since been revised.
Izevbekhai’s case includes a list of risks–including kidnapping and genital mutilation of her daughters as well as violence to herself–that would seemingly grant nearly automatic asylum in just about any European country.
Female genital mutilation, however, is not specified as a risk in itself, although it is recognized as a human rights abuse and an illegal act by both the European Union and the African Union, including Nigeria.
Nigeria’s president, Olusegun Obasanjo, has led the African Union for two years up until this week, when the seat rotated to the president of the Democratic Republic of Congo.
Obasanjo chaired the 2003 signing of the Maputo Protocol banning human rights abuses against women. The protocol includes especially harmful traditional practices such as female genital mutilation. Yet according to the letter from Izevbekhai’s doctor–seen by Women’s eNews–the national government continues to look the other way on such practices.
Maputo Protocol in Force
Togo was the 15th and last country needed to ratify and sign the protocol in October, bringing the protocol into force Nov. 26.
Mozambique also ratified the protocol Dec. 8, the same day Izevbekhai went into hiding.
Further ratification and government-led training on implementing the protocol is now needed, said Khady Koita, a Paris-based advocate who recently published a book about her own mutilation experiences, "Khady Mutilee," or "Mutilated Khady."
"Now it is all our jobs to best implement this protocol. It is up to the governments to monitor the program and train themselves in the protocol. When people don’t know what’s in it, they can’t use it," she said.
Koita’s book was released last October in French in an enormous first run of 70,000 copies. Translations in 14 languages are planned in coming months with Italian and German scheduled for February. Japanese, Brazilian Portuguese, Russian and Polish will follow. The book still lacks an English publisher.
Koita hopes her book not only opens minds but also helps girls to speak with their parents about female genital mutilation. In the book, Koita writes that 60,000 mutilated girls live in France while 2 million girls worldwide are mutilated every year.
Izevbekhai is herself "intact" and does not come from a tradition where girls are mutilated. She and her husband have been trying to protect their daughters from his parents who have stopped at nothing to get a hold of the girls, including attempted kidnap on a handful of occasions.
In his letter, the doctor said Izevbekhai’s mother-in-law has approached the hospital where he worked to have the procedure done there. The hospital denied her request, he said, and though they tried to educate her against what he called the "evils" of female genital mutilation, he said she continues to believe her grandchildren will not find suitable husbands if they remain intact.
Meghan Sapp is European correspondent for Women’s eNews. She is a freelance journalist based in Brussels, Belgium, and writes primarily on trade, development and agriculture issues.