1 Feb 2011

Canadian mom fighting legal battle to protect 3 daughters from ritual abuse of genital mutilation in Nigeria

Canada.com - Vancouver Sun January 8, 2011

B.C. mom fights to keep her girls out of Nigeria — and safe from genital mutilation


Two Kenyan girls sit next to an old knife used for traditional female circumcision during a rite of passage ceremony. Photograph by: Simon Maina, AFP/Getty Images files

VANCOUVER — A B.C. mother is waging a legal battle to keep her three daughters in Canada to protect them from the controversial tradition of female genital circumcision in their native Nigeria.

The family has lost one legal skirmish but won a second, and is now preparing for a hearing before the Immigration and Refugee Board (IRB) to find out if the mother and daughters — now aged eight, 14 and 16 — can remain in Canada.

Their incredible journey is spelled out in documents, filed at the Federal Court of Canada, that tell a tale as inspirational as it is heartbreaking.

Both Naomi Koin and her husband come from tribes in Nigeria that continue to circumcise young girls, a practice that includes the partial or complete removal of external genitalia.

Koin became a Christian in 1986 and in 1993 married Rotimi, also a Christian. The Vancouver Sun agreed not to publish Rotimi's last name to protect the privacy of his and Koin's daughters. The couple declined to be interviewed for this story, saying they did not want to speak publicly until the IRB has made its final ruling in this case.

The couple are united in their opposition to female circumcision, which the United Nations has criticized "as a form of persecution."

But Rotimi's relatives remain committed to the practice, according to Koin, and continued to "harass the family and threaten them" to try to get the three girls to undergo the procedure.

"As my daughters grew older, the efforts and desires of my late father-in-law to force them to be circumcised intensified. The in-laws would appear at my home, yell from the outside, calling me names and insulting me," she said in court documents.

Koin could not, she argued, just move from Lagos to another area in Nigeria to escape her in-laws because she had a public career: She hosted a weekly Christian talk show and children's program on TV, recorded religious music CDs, and was an actress in a soap opera.

Rotimi, now 50, moved to the United States in 1999 — he is a pastor in Houston — to try to establish a life that would allow him to get his wife and children out of Nigeria.

Koin tried three times to obtain visitor visas to join her husband in the U.S., but was turned down.

She received visitor visas for London, England, where she has relatives, and flew there in 2005 and 2006, but was told by a British lawyer the immigration process would take years and she would not be able to work during that time.

In July 2007 she was granted a visitor visa for Canada, and made plans to move here in September of that year.

That August, the family had its last confrontation with Rotimi's relatives, which occurred while Koin was at work and her three daughters were at home, momentarily left alone by their maternal uncle.

The eldest daughter relayed to the IRB what happened: "My Dad's relatives told me that my Mummy had given permission for me and my two sisters to go on holidays to their village; they wanted us to pack our bags and go spend some time with them. Because my Mum had given an instruction earlier never to leave the house without speaking to her, I went into the bedroom, called my Mum, told her everything, and she told me not to go anywhere."

When Koin arrived home, the daughter said she could hear her mother and her father's relatives "yelling at each other really loudly. I felt really scared."

Some of Koin's fierce opposition to this practice must surely come from her own horrific experience of being circumcised at 12, as part of a public ritual that included no anesthesia to dull the excruciating pain.

"I screamed and cried inconsolably until I had no more strength. I bled profusely and almost fainted. I was in shock and could not believe that my mother had allowed this to happen to me," Koin recalled.

"To this day, I still endure the negative psychological trauma of that experience."

The family settled in Metro Vancouver in the fall of 2007 and made a Canadian refugee protection claim in 2008.

However, the IRB denied the claim in March, ruling there wasn't enough proof the girls would be forced to undergo circumcision if returned to Nigeria and that the family had not been subjected to persecution.

Koin's lawyer appealed to the Federal Court, and in November Justice Russel Zinn ruled the IRB's decision was "seriously flawed" and ordered it to reconsider the application.

Zinn added: "Given that the in-laws want to force the young girls to undergo a painful and dangerous procedure with severe and well-documented negative physical and psychological ramifications, the Board's finding that 'there is no evidence to suggest that the in-laws' threats amounted to anything' is unreasonable."

The IRB has not yet scheduled a date for a new refugee hearing for the family, but a spokeswoman said such files are given priority when they are referred back by the Federal Court.

The pastor of the family's church wrote a supportive letter to the IRB, saying Koin is a talented gospel singer and that she and her daughters "are a responsible and loving family."

Perhaps the most straightforward argument in this long legal drama, though, comes from Koin's 14-year-old daughter, who simply told the IRB:

"I understand that circumcision means that I would have to be cut in my private parts. I am really afraid of being circumcised in Nigeria and I do not want to do it."

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