'Our lives hang in the balance'


Pamela Izevbekhai fears her daughters will be subjected to female genital mutilation if she is sent back to Nigeria. Now their fate rests in the hands of the European Court of Human Rights, writes CARL O'BRIENSocial Affairs Corrspondent

IT'S LATE ON A drizzly Thursday night when Pamela Izevbekhai emerges from the side door of Temple Street Children's Hospital. She walks with a leaden step and her eyes are tired. She has been sleeping on a mattress beside her eldest daughter Naomi (7), who is being treated for pneumonia. The lack of sleep, as well as the events of the last few days, have exhausted her.

"I know I'm supposed to feel relieved after what happened in the court this week," she says. "But I don't, to be honest. Our lives are still hanging in the balance. I still don't know what will come out of all of this, what will happen for my children."

It's been a long week. On Tuesday, her three-year legal battle to prevent her deportation - on grounds that her two daughters would face female genital mutilation if they returned to Nigeria - was rejected in court.

She was handed her deportation letter and told to pack her bags. In a dramatic last-minute reprieve, the European Court of Human Rights intervened, seeking to have the deportation delayed for three weeks to allow it to consider her case.

It's the third time she and her family have been handed a lifeline by the courts. But they are still at an uncertain crossroads. "Our lives feel like they're hanging on a string every day. I'm trying to minimise the impact, trying not to put fear into them. But they know it's a worrisome situation. In their own way, they help me. They pray to God every day and before going to bed," says Izevbekhai.

"When we were going to court on Tuesday, Naomi gave me a hug. She said, 'everything will be all right'. Jemima [her six-year-old daughter] didn't cry, even though she could see I was upset. That keeps us going. They know about the situation, they understand it. But all we can do is hope."

At the heart of Pamela Izevbekhai's case is the issue of female genital mutilation, and whether there is adequate protection from it in her home country of Nigeria.

The practice, which involves the partial or total removal of a girl's genitalia, is a deeply rooted cultural tradition in countries like Egypt, Sudan, Togo, Kenya and Nigeria.

Female genital mutilation involves the partial or full removal of the clitoris. In some cases, it is accompanied by cutting the outer labia and sewing together the remaining skin so that only urine and menstrual fluid can escape. In the most severe cases it can lead to death through severe bleeding, neurogenic shock as a result of pain and trauma, or infection and septicaemia.

The UN has characterised it as torture, and has said that states have the responsibility to take all the necessary measures to eradicate it.

The Nigerian government says it is opposed to the practice, and its constitution outlaws inhuman and degrading treatment.

Human rights groups say the law is poorly enforced and that relocation of families within the country is not a realistic option.

Izevbekhai says she decided to flee her native Nigeria with her two young daughters to save the girls from female genital mutilation.

She says 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.

"I didn't know much about it, it's not a tradition in my family," she recalls. "I was very opposed to it, but I gave in after a while. I was being ostracised by the family and my husband was telling me it was for the best to go ahead and do it. I was young, maybe I was trying to satisfy everyone. It was the biggest mistake of my life." The procedure itself was carried out by a cousin, she says, but it quickly became clear that something had gone horribly wrong. "I thought, they're killing my child," she recalls, fighting to hold back her tears. "Some of them kept reassuring me, but she didn't stop bleeding. She was shrieking.

"Her hands and feet began to go cold and I rushed to the hospital. They tried first aid and blood transfusions, but it didn't work. She died the next day."

Her decision to flee to Ireland came much later, after the birth of her two daughters. She says her husband's family continued to insist that the procedure be carried out, in accordance with tradition. In the end her husband - who was opposed to the procedure - arranged to have her flown out of the country to Ireland to seek asylum. The plan was that he would follow at a later date with their son, Adrian, now 17.

Today, she accepts many may not believe her story, or that the threat of forced female genital mutilation is genuine. But she insists the risk is very real.

"I know some people think that, but you have to stand in my shoes to understand my position. I will do whatever I have to, to protect my girls. I can't blame people who don't understand my situation or don't know about the reality of life for women like me," she says.

Life in Ireland, she says, is difficult, particularly given her comfortable upbringing in Nigeria. She had a job as a banking executive, while her husband worked in business. They had a nice house, three cars - a Jeep, an Opel and a Mazda - two maids, and all three children went to either private creches or schools.

"We weren't rich, as such, but we were very comfortable. I had money, I could do what I wanted. I didn't have to worry about bills." It's a world away from her life as an asylum seeker in Ireland on a weekly allowance of €19.10.

"It took a long time to come to terms with living in a single room, sharing basic facilities with others, not being able to cook. I cried on the first night, thinking I can't do this.

"Life is tough. I know the Government tries to make us as comfortable as it can afford to, but it can be very difficult. You end up begging for everything and being reliant on others. I've lost my temper a few times because of it, I'm sorry to say."

Some people have said to her that life would be infinitely better at home in Nigeria, reunited with her husband and son. But she insists that the danger of female genital mutilation would hang over her two daughters.

"I loved my old life, and I'd love to have my family together. But we have to deal with the difficulties we have in the best way possible. I think this is the only option for us."

She accepts that if the Government was seen to grant asylum to a Nigerian on the basis of female genital mutilation, it could open the floodgates for other applications. But she is seeking compassion from the Minister based on her circumstances. "I know the Minister must feel he can't do that. But I would ask him to look at the reality of what's happening for many families. I've lost a child - I don't want to lose another. I've been looking over my shoulder for so, so long. I made a terrible mistake before and I will make sure that I don't make another.

"I'm appealing directly to the Minister as a father, that he just please allow us to stay and end all of this for us. No one would want to put themselves through what we have done."