On 6 February, it’s the International Day of Zero Tolerance to Female Genital Mutilation – it’s time we all make a stand
Take one minute and try to imagine having an eyelid cut off for no obvious reason and with no anaesthetic. Try to feel the searing pain, the blood trickling down your face. The shock and panic of staring at a piece of your flesh that’s been hacked from your body; the loss and confusion. You would be permanently scarred. And everyone would be outraged.
Now imagine being 10 years old and being told by your mother that you’re going to a celebration with other girls your age. But when you get there, you’re pinned down by women you don’t know and your outer labia, inner labia and clitoris are cut off with a razor blade. Picture your blood pooling on the floor, while, with no pain relief, the women thread a needle and sew up your bleeding wound leaving just a small hole – maybe just three millimetres in size. All through this terrifying mutilating act, your mother, the woman you love most in the world, is sat waiting next door, delighted that you are ‘being made clean’. There is not a woman in the world who can read that without curling up her body in horror, but because it’s our genitals, not our eyelids, the taboo and silence attached to this subject has meant it’s not yet been stopped. And this horrific act continues to happen to girls we live alongside.
FGM, historically sometimes called female circumcision, is mostly practised in countries across sub-Saharan Africa, the Middle East and Southeast Asia. It is estimated that 140 million women and girls worldwide have undergone the procedure and an estimated 23,000 girls living in the UK right now are at risk. This is despite the fact that FGM was criminalised in the UK nearly 30 years ago in 1985, and since 2003 it’s been illegal for British parents to take their children abroad to be cut (the maximum term is 14 years in prison).
The mutilation ranges from the partial cutting or pricking of the clitoris to the complete removal of the external sex organs. There are various deep held beliefs behind the act ranging from making a girl marriageable (intercourse without opening the scar is almost impossible so the chances of pre-marriage sex is highly unlikely) to controlling women’s sexual pleasure and urges by removing the clitoris. And while it’s often defended as being a religious practice, it is not sanctioned by any religious text.
Nimco Ali, 30, co-founder of Daughters of Eve, a non-profit organisation that aims to empower and protect people from FGM-affected communities, believes the procedure has its roots in something altogether more insidious. “They say it makes you a woman; it’s a rite of passage. But as you start to grow up and learn about feminism, you start to realise this is about control and fear. I look at my three-year-old niece and she’s free and fearless. That is what FGM is there to stop. Break the girl and then mould her into an image of what men want.”
A protest against FGM in New York, 2013
Apart from the psychological trauma of having your flesh cut off, the physical ramifications of having your vagina sewn up include (not surprisingly) urinary tract infections, infertility and complications in childbirth, severe pain during urination, menstruation and sexual intercourse and of course, as with all rudimentary surgery, a chance of death.
“They had to rip me open so I could deliver my first child”
Susan, 35, chairlady of the Kongelai Women’s Network in Kenya explains the long-lasting effects of FGM
“I was circumcised when I was 13. The effects of FGM are terrible. It caused me a lot of bleeding and pain during the procedure. Because of the wound even urinating was painful – it would burn. According to the old women who do it, there should be no blood clots left on the wound so they take off all of the clotted blood with herbs. It is a very, very painful experience. The operation involves cutting off all of the labia and clitoris and sewing the sides that are left together leaving a small hole for sex, urination and childbirth. To do this they tie your legs together after they have cut so the sides fuse together. They leave a stick in the middle so that a hole is left during the healing process. After being circumcised girls are put into isolation for three weeks where they are mentored by older women. While you are there healing, your father is spreading the word that you are now ready for marriage. You won’t know the man and they are often much older than you because they have more money to pay the dowry. Because they are often older their energy when it comes to sex isn’t the same. So on the first night of your married life they won’t have the force to penetrate you. So girls will get a cow’s horn to drill the hole bigger. It will bleed again but then the man can penetrate more easily. This is what happened to me. It was very traumatic and painful. If the hole is too big for the man he will request that the girl is sewn up smaller. I had terrible problems giving birth to my first child because of the circumcision. The hole was too small so they had to rip me open so I could deliver and then sew it up again. I refuse to have my daughters circumcised. I don’t want them to go through the same pain that I went through. I want them to be married to education when they’re young. ActionAid training has given us awareness about the benefits of female education and the strength and understanding to finally stand up to the men in the communities.”
Trying to get women who have undergone FGM to talk about it is understandably difficult. Reliving a traumatic act isn’t easy. Mary Laiza, now 40, remembers the day she was cut in Tanzania aged 18.
“On the evening before my cutting, I made a promise to my parents that I would not let them down and I would not cry. My mother had said FGM would bring glory to our family so I yearned for the day I would be cut. On the day itself, a Maasai old woman came to my parents’ house. The procedure does not involve any pain relief. When she started cutting the clitoris, I was not surprised since I knew that area was to be cut. But she kept on cutting the other parts; I felt I was almost dying. But my parents were shouting in jubilation.”
“I stopped talking about it when I was about 11,” recalls fellow FGM survivor Nimco. “I was seven when I was cut. I was taken to Somalia from my home in Cardiff for a holiday which is when it happened. Cardiff has one of the largest Somali populations in the UK. There wasn’t a girl I knew who hadn’t been cut.
“I used to talk about it all the time to girls at the mosque and junior school, but then I went to a different school to everyone else and I thought, ‘I can’t have that conversation. I can’t explain to people.’ So I just began to talk about FGM in the third person, like it hadn’t happened to me. “For a long time I thought something different had happened to me [than to my friends] because everyone else was like, ‘What’s your problem? It’s fine.’ Now I understand that for me FGM was the only thing that happened in my life that didn’t make sense. Other people were told to wear a headscarf and told not to go out. But we were given free rein to be educated. My mum said that her daughters were never going to get married for money and they would have their own independence. And yet she had me cut.
“I can remember bits of the procedure,” recalls Nimco. “I remember the circumcisor having a go at me; I remember the smell of coffee being brewed – and the smell of Dettol can still stop me in my tracks. I remember being told to stop crying and that it was OK. But it wasn’t OK. I was just so angry for a long time. “I told my teacher when I got back, and she said, ‘Well, that’s what happens to girls like you. It’s like a Bat Mitzvah.’ But it’s nothing like a Bat Mitzvah. And that’s when I started to think, do people actually know what they’re talking about?”
Faduma Ismail, a survivor from Genital Mutilation is seen holding a book on March 3, 2004 in London
The cultural sensitivity attached to the issue, along with the complicit silence around it, has meant that in the UK, there has never been a prosecution (although in November the Met arrested two people accused of performing FGM on a six-week-old baby). David Cameron suggested just two weeks ago that this absence of prosecution was due to the lack of people from FGM-affected communities coming forward with evidence. Nimco suggests a more hands-on approach could stop FGM within a decade.
“We need to break the cycle of FGM in a generation,” says Nimco, explaining that affected communities have to break the culture of silence and young parents have to be educated as to why FGM is unnecessary and harmful. “We need to tackle women our age to make sure they don’t put their daughters through it. A significant decrease in the procedure in the next 10 years will be a mark of our success. “But it’s not just about breaking the cycle of the cut. It’s about breaking the cycle of control. You are told that as a woman you are unacceptable. So you are cut to be made clean and now we have to remould you. And if that happens just because you are born, what else will happen to you if you step outside what they tell you to be?”
As for Nimco, her own courageous attempts to drag the issue into the limelight and confront her own trauma of FGM hasn’t been without sacrifices. “If the person doesn’t want to say something about it, then as hurtful as it is, you’ve got to walk away. And that’s the stage it’s at with my mother now,” explains Nimco. “If she says sorry, she has to admit it was wrong and then unpick her own experience. It’s going to be difficult so therefore she doesn’t want to talk about it. And that’s something I’ve come to understand. She still thinks she’s done the right thing. It’s a hard relationship, and it’s going to take time to heal.”
Support the fight against FGM
There are several ways you can help put a stop to FGM, both here and abroad
Daughters of Eve (dofeve.org) has joined forces with Integrate Bristol, a charity that is doing pioneering work into intergenerational communication to break the FGM cycle. £10 will help fund mentors. integratebristol.org.uk
Donations are vital to funding ActionAid’s work in rural communities in Africa; £25 could pay to support a school girls’ club for one month where girls can learn about FGM, their right to refuse and where to go for help actionaid.org.uk
Sign a petition
Although the Stop FGM in the UK Now e-petition now has 100,000 signatures, forcing a debate in parliament about a strategy to eliminate FGM in the UK, more signatures will strengthen the case; epetitions.direct.gov.uk/petitions/52740
Write a letter
Equality Now (equalitynow.org) has letter templates so you can express your outrage to governmental figureheads around the world. Anti-FGM organisation, 28toomany (28toomany.org) suggests writing to local MPs to demand the Department of Health invests money into the statutory reporting of the issue and the Department of Education includes FGM as part of sex education in schools.
If you’re worried about a girl you know…
The NSPCC has a dedicated free 24-hour helpline if you think a child you know might be at risk; phone 0800 028 3550 or email email@example.com. The Metropolitan Police’s dedicated service for girls at risk of FGM is the Child Abuse Investigation Command/ Project Azure – call 020 7161 2888
Photos: Rex Features and Getty Images