Hi Reader Friend,
This week is a brutal topic. Female Genital Mutilation. Please, oh please, don’t shy away. Even though you may feel comfortable, keep reading.
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At six years old, before the sun had risen, Hibo Wardere was led by her mother and auntie to a small hut in a Somalian city for reasons unknown to her. When she entered the hut, there was a woman in the middle of the floor, with dirty razors scattered around her. Hibo was told to sit inbetween the woman’s legs and then had her dress yanked up and legs opened. And the pain began.
Hibo could see slices of her body, covered in blood, being cut away from her genitalia. “I felt like a fire was engulfing me from head to toe.”
Hibo, although she didn’t understand at the time, had undergone Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) – “the partial or total removal of the external female genitalia, or other injury to the female genital organs for non-medical reason,” as defined by the World Health Organisation.
It is estimated that 200 million girls and women worldwide have undergone FGM and that 3 million girls are at risk of the procedure every year. The brutal procedure is classified by the World Health Organisation into four different types:
Type I – Clitoridectomy
Partial or total removal of the clitoris (a small, sensitive and erectile part of the female genitals) and/or the prepuce (the clitoral hood or fold of skin surrounding the clitoris).
Type II – Excision
Partial or total removal of the clitoris and the inner labia, with or without excision of the outer labia (the labia are the ‘lips’ that surround the vagina).
Type III – Infibulation
Narrowing of the vaginal opening by creating a covering seal. The seal is formed by cutting and repositioning the inner or outer labia, with or without removal of the clitoris.
Type IV – Other
All other harmful procedures to the female genitalia for non-medical purposes, eg, pricking, piercing, incising, scraping and cauterising (burning) the genital area.
When you first hear about the procedure, if you have never heard of it before, chances are your face will contort in disbelief that such a practice commonly takes place amongst young girls and women. But when I spoke to the Orchid Project, who works in the UK with girls and women affected by FGM, they conveyed that the practice is normally not viewed as abuse, but as a means of protection. The Orchid Project explained why mothers, sisters, grandmothers, and aunties continue to take young girls to have the same procedure done that was done when they were children. Reasons may include:
· Ensure a girl is acceptable in her community and eligible for marriage
· Safeguard a girl’s future
· Perceived health benefits
· Preservation of the girl’s virginity
· Rite of passage into womanhood
· Status in the community
· Protection of family honour
· Perceived religious justifications.
“It was part of the culture,” Hibo stated. “My mother was doing it for my protection. She thought she was doing her motherly duty.”
While it may be part of many cultures, FGM is a form of child abuse and gender-based violence. The consequences of FGM include horrific pain, shock, broken limbs (from being held down), infections, fistula, complications in childbirth, depression, PTSD, sexual dysfunction, difficulties in menstruation, infertility, and the list just goes on.
Cultural normalities do not provide an excuse for gender-based violence and child abuse. But this practice is completely integrated and normalised in cultures around the world. How can such an integral part of societies start to change?
In the UK, charities are working to start conversations about FGM to both raise awareness amongst the general public and professionals and teach human rights to communities that continue to practice FGM in secret.
Even though the UK doesn’t keep national statistics of FGM, one research study suggests that 137,000 women living in England and Wales are affected by the practice. It was made illegal in the UK in 1985 and an additional law made in 2003 to make it illegal to take girls oversees to undergo the practice.
When I spoke with Anita Goyal, Vice President of Barnardos, she explained how she, and so many others are advocating for the end of the practice of FGM through fundraising and education: “The Hemraj Goyal Foundation have worked in partnership with Barnardo’s for over four years to support projects working with vulnerable children, young people and families. Our partnership has achieved great success especially in the area of our FGM Appeal which raised the vital funds towards running the National FGM Centre with the Local Government Association over three years which in turn has protected and empowered hundreds of women and children affected by harmful practices, and also reached thousands of professionals working in the sector.”
When money is raised, specialised social workers can be employed within councils, projects can be funded, and education to professionals - regarding what to look out for and how to respond - can continue.
While some are raising money for the cause and educating professionals on what to look out for, others are working in communities to change the conversation of human rights for women when it comes to FGM.
The Orchid Project spends time in communities affected by the practice and instead of simply saying, ‘You shouldn’t be cutting your girls and women’, they initiate conversations about human rights and ask those listening to think of how these human rights are being breached in their communities. This dialogue has proven effective as it puts the ownership on communities to make change because they see why FGM is a problem.
Hibo now spends her time honestly telling her story, being vocal on social media, teaching about FGM in schools, and training professionals.
During lockdown, Hibo and other activists are worried about women and girls who may be experiencing FGM at home in the UK. “I am petrified,” she said when describing the affect on girls and young women who haven’t been in schools or attending regular health appointments, where FGM might have been flagged.
“This is a vicious, cruel violence targeting women and girls. It’s a human rights issues and is everyone’s business to get involved in.”
If you want to get involved, or even just learn more, I’ve included some resources below. While I have focused on the UK here, there are also some links to information that will link you international stories and facts as well.