In these extracts, contributors to Hilary Burrage’s new book on female genital mutilation show that we can and must end the barbaric practice
It’s been 41 years, but the sound of the blade still rings in my head.
We lived in a border town between Kenya and Ethiopia. I was just a small child when my mother sent me to buy the razor blades for the great day of my so-called purification.
I was happy because I thought that it would be something nice. I thought that my life would change for the better. I was five years old.
But what awaited me was very far from beautiful. It was a nightmare, one that I have never woken up from.
At the beginning, I did not understand what was going to happen. I was with my mum, and waiting for me in my grandmother’s kitchen were my grandmother (may she rest in peace) and another old woman whom I had never met before. The kitchen had mud walls and floor and a thatched roof, like all the rest of the rooms in my grandmother’s compound.
The women had made a hole in a corner of the kitchen and covered it with an old sack; that was my operating room.
My grandmother was seated on the floor with her legs spread wide and they asked me to remove my underwear and lift up my little dress, then I was made to sit.
I resisted just a little bit and my grandmother forced my legs open with her own. And there, without any sanitary assistance or any type of anaesthesia, the old lady mutilated me for the rest of my life! They stripped off my clitoris, cut my labia minora and majora, and then stitched everything together, sealing me.
They used a needle and a thread. Like a piece of cloth, I was stitched.
Much later in life I came to learn that what they did to me was one of the worst of the four types of FGM that are practiced: infibulation.
They left me a hole the size of a match for my bodily needs.
The pain I felt was so intense that even today I cannot describe it. I tried to scream with all my strength, but I couldn’t because they had put a rag in my mouth. According to my family it was shameful to hear the screaming — a woman should not show her pain they told me.
Finally, I got healed, or so I thought. What I did not know was that my nightmare had only just begun. I could go on… it’s permanent damage, it’s a mutilation. I always insist female genital mutilation is the perfect description of what was done to us.
Today I cannot sew a button. I am unable to see a needle.
The most horrific part was however still to come. I had to spend a month sitting and tied from the toes to the waist so that the infibulation would close and seal properly.
I could only pee out droplets, and the pain was terrible. Why did my mother do this to me, I wondered.
But 40 years ago it was just part of life. No questions were asked and no accusations made. My mother was simply fulfilling her duty, which was to ensure that I came to marriage as a virgin. Only this way could she walk with her head high among her people.
Apparently, my mother later recalled, I told her that if I ever got a daughter I will never permit this to happen to her. And yes, I questioned my mother and asked other girls during all my childhood and teenage life, about why this was done to us but no one wanted to discuss the topic.
So I am an FGM survivor and an activist, though it took time for my family to realise that I was serious. But they have finally accepted me, and they support me.
I am single. I have divorced twice, and I have three children, a girl and two boys, but I just don’t seem to cope with men. I am before anything a proud mother of three, with a high level of education in Kenya.
My daughter is the first saved generation and the major reason for my decision to take action. She is 25 years old.
I started my fight against FGM when my daughter was born.
It’s common knowledge that many women, and particularly African women, go through untold suffering in their lives, and more so when pregnant, during delivery, when rearing their children and during calamities such as drought, floods, wars and politically or ethnically motivated, or resource-based, conflicts. They are subjected to more than they can bear.
I have founded an organisation called Save a Girl, Save a Generation. We work in Kenya, where we have a small group of three or four volunteers based in Garissa town and county who focus on affected children there, mostly in the Somali community.
A high percentage of the residents (90 per cent) practise FGM as culturally inherited tradition, so the eradication of FGM is an urgent need.
But these days I usually live in Spain. The Spanish arm of my charity comprises a group of five women who had one goal in common, to save the girls. Save a Girl, Save a Generation has been registered in Spain since 2007, although we have been working together quietly for the past 20 years. We have never been funded.
We saw the need to create awareness of female genital mutilation and other harmful traditions in Spain because of the increasing number of refugees from Somalia, Sudan and Ethiopia, among other countries where these practices are common.
Save a Girl, Save a Generation is now a Spanish-based non-governmental organisation involved in addressing the problems of women and girls as members of society from the east African region.
Women are married into a harem, some with co-wives older than their own mother, with none screened for sexually transmittable diseases.
The girl child is seen as more of a liability, in contrast to boys. They are often not sent to schools or, if sent, not beyond primary level, from where they are seen to be ripe for marriage.
Unfortunately, we have found that the FGM fight is not giving as good results as expected, so we are studying also what is going wrong — a subject about which personally I have my own opinions.
More must be done by the authorities in Spain, too. Here, the victims do not have any support and, although there are laws, the expertise of campaigners and survivors is not utilised.
And now things are becoming very difficult. FGM is being used to protest against the Western world and there are other abuses too: early marriage, child prostitution, child labour and gender violence. All of society must be active against these abuses.
Education is a good weapon in the fight against FGM, particularly teaching from primary level about how harmful it is. Introducing issues like bad and good traditions in schools at primary level can help to protect girls now or, if they are victims already, this can help them save their daughters in the future.
A free telephone, with the support of the government for girls who want to save themselves from FGM, and protected accommodation such as refuges plus a trained and prepared reconciliation team can help in not separating families but uniting them once the danger is over.
I also believe that, although it’s imposed on us to somehow please our so-called husbands and the community, women themselves can decide to put a stop to FGM. Women have an incredible strength when it comes to what they strongly believe in and when it comes to protecting their children. They can do miracles once they make up their mind. We just need to help women to realise they are strong and are able to choose not to mutilate.
More often FGM has been a taboo issue, always they disregard the matter.
FGM is the worst form of violation of human rights and gender abuse, and the world must unite to say: “Enough.” Asha Ismail
Female Mutilation — The Truth Behind the Horrifying Global Practice of Female Genital Mutiliation by Hilary Burrage is published by New Holland (£14.99).
“Yet another book on female genital mutilation?”
No. Millions of voices and millions of pages on female genital mutilation (FGM) will never be enough to describe this practice, coming from the depths of time in order, as it is believed, to submit and control women’s sexuality for the benefit of men.
To achieve this sole purpose many forms of unfounded justifications are put forward: women’s cleanliness, purity of the female body, religious prescriptions, ritual passage to a superior social level, self-control, family honour, etc.
The colour of the cast does not change the fracture. Regardless of the names and the forms given to FGM, the practice will always remain what it is: mutilation.
During the last 30 years, the biggest challenge for those who fight for the elimination of female genital mutilation has been to make the world understand, as this book demonstrates, that FGM is not an esoteric phenomenon belonging to African tribes lost in the African savannahs and forests, to whom the rest of humanity must pay absolute respect. On the contrary, it is a clear violation of the rights and the physical and psychological integrity of girls and women wherever the practice exists.
We are combating a harmful practice and not a culture, because culture is highly positive. It is important to dispel any ambiguity: female genital mutilation can in no way be considered an element of any culture, when it consists of cutting and scraping the female genital organs in the name of absurdity.
For the purpose of clarification and exhaustiveness, FGM has been classified in different types depending on the severity and depth of the mutilation. This classification, although academically interesting, cannot hide the fact that there is actually one single type, the one that damages girls and women in their flesh, no matter the depth of the cut, which sometimes ends in the almost total closure of the vagina.
So this book is most welcome. The idea that FGM is only an African practice is no longer valid, since wherever an ounce of human rights is violated the entire humanity must react.
The Protocol to the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights, on the Rights of Women, adopted by the African Heads of State in 2003 in Maputo, and Resolution 67/146 of the United Nations general assembly, are examples of the global commitment against female genital mutilation.
From Kenya to Australia, Egypt to the US, Britain to Sierra Leone, Uganda to Yemen, France to Iraq, the mobilisation must be total in order to eradicate this backward and inhuman practice.
Aware of the immensity and universality of the fight against FGM, the Inter-African Committee on Traditional Practices Affecting the Health of Women and Children has set up, in addition to its 29 African national committees, 19 affiliated branches throughout the world, concentrating on five strategic axes: advocacy and sensitisation, legislation, retraining of excisers, care for victims and networking.
Each page in this book rings the bell of the rebellion against female genital mutilation.
Let us not comment on what it has taught us or try to find out who wrote it and for whom it is intended. The only question we should ask ourselves is: What can I do to participate actively in this wonderful human adventure to free the world from one of the most absurd traditions, detrimental to the rights, the health and the life of women and girls?