A court has prevented two girls here on holiday from being taken back out of Malta because they were likely to face female genital mutilation, in what is believed to be the first ruling of its kind.

The children’s mother, who is not being named, applied for international protection as soon as the father brought the family over on holiday earlier this year.

She had been facing substantial pressure from her husband’s family to get her daughters, aged just three and five, ‘cut’ in Sudan, the mother’s legal counsel Jeanise Dalli said.

With the outcome of that application still pending, she filed for a warrant of prohibitory injunction when it came time to return home.

What is female genital mutilation?

Dalli pointed out that the girls were at high risk of undergoing Type III FGM, known as infibulation, a practice by which a young girl’s vaginal orifice is narrowed through a process of sewing together the two sides of the vulva.

The procedure can be fatal and complications are numerous: infections, extremely painful menstruation because the blood cannot flow out properly and psychological trauma.

Refugee status 'sends a strong message'

The warrant was upheld on the same day, April 19, at which point the woman and her children were escorted to a shelter. A definitive decision by the Family Court in favour of the mother and her children, which also covered her infant son, followed just over a month later.

The mother has now been granted refugee basis on the basis of FGM, and this, along with the court decree, sent a strong message, Dalli underlined.

“The fact that it is the very first FGM case that appeared before the court, and the request for an injunction was immediately upheld, sends a strong message that the courts are intent on protecting girls against FGM,” she said.

Strong message that the courts are intent on protecting girls against female genital mutilation

FGM is a physically debilitating and sometimes fatal custom that involves the partial or total removal of the external female genitalia for non-medical reasons. It is practised predominantly in Arab and African countries.

In Malta it is considered a crime to subject someone to the practice, whether this takes place inside the country or abroad.

However, European studies on the subject point to an imbalance between the high number of girls at risk of female genital mutilation and the low prosecution rates.

Human rights NGO Tama, which assisted the mother socially and emotionally throughout the whole process, said the court decree was extremely encouraging to other women.

“The court order shows that the system can work in women’s favour and so obviously this is a milestone regarding the protection of women,” a spokesperson said.

It also showed that awareness campaigns were crucial when it came to stopping FGM, since there was a lack of understanding surrounding the legality of the practice as well as the repercussions for the girls subjected to it

The woman had previously considered applying for international protection on a past holiday to Malta.

However, she had refrained from doing so because she thought it was not common for women to be granted protection on the basis of FGM.

Helping these women to access services, providing them with emotional support and ensuring they were protected against possible backlash was also important, the spokesperson said.

“As NGO or medical professional you may be the only person that this woman is able to trust, since community pressure is high. Also, going against their family’s wishes may lead to further violence, so these women at times also require shelter.”

Dalli also credited the numerous professionals, ranging from medics to support workers, who helped the mother attain swift protection.

“This collective effort from several professionals was crucial for this mother to prove her case as well as to spare two very young girls from unnecessary harm that would have scarred them physically and psychologically for the rest of their lives,” she said.

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