Thinking about the Unthinkable
At present, 200 million women and girls have experienced FGM. For those less familiar with the term, it means female genital mutilation. It’s one of those topics that makes you squeamish and uncomfortable. It’s easier not to think about it. But the sheer number of women and girls that it affects means we have to.
In March I was lucky enough to attend a screening of ‘Jaha’s Promise’ followed by a Q&A with Nimco Ali, Jess Phillips MP and Zac Goldsmith MP. The latter two head up an Apolitical Parliamentary Group (APPG) to end FGM in the UK, and the former is an end-FGM activist and founder of the charity Daughters of Eve.
Jaha’s Promise is one of those films that stays with you long after the final credits have finished rolling. Not only do Kate O’Callaghan and Patrick Farrelly offer a compelling story of tragedy, they twist the disturbing premise into one of hope. Hope in small grassroots activism, in the change one passionate person can make. It’s encouraging, emotional and overwhelmingly educational. And it forces you to address a subject of such extremity that, at times, is uncomfortable to watch. This subject is FGM. According to the World Health Organization there are three main categories: Type I is the removal of the clitoris. Type II is the removal of the clitoris and the labia minora (inner vaginal lips). Type III, also referred to as infibulation, consists of the removal of all the woman’s external genitalia and the narrowing of the vaginal entrance. The practice is mostly carried out in traditional areas, by cutters who are ingrained within the family. Rarely is anaesthetic used and, aside from denying any future sexual pleasure, the health risks are countless. It is an extreme form of discrimination against women and girls, almost always carried out without consent and WHO define it as a ‘violation of the rights of children’.
Dukureh has been heralded as an activist, but her role in this film is as storyteller, narrator and interviewer. Her life has been harrowing; surviving FGM at just a week old, she was sent to New York from her home in the Gambia aged 15 to fulfil a promised marriage to a man, 25 years her senior. Jaha’s story is one of millions, but no less powerful because of its frequency. The interview with Jaha’s friend Naima Abduhli caused a collective shudder as she described her 9-year-old self’s experience with FGM. Think razors. I know, I grimaced too.
“they rearranged me, shaved away my humanity”
Although met with consistent resistance, Jaha travelled around the Gambia, meeting the influential and the not – changing minds one at a time – and creating such a stir that she is granted an audience with the chief Imam of the Gambia, Imam Fatty.
Yet, the toughest to convince was her own father. Raised in a traditional Muslim home, he practices polygamy and has over 30 children. Jaha’s biggest challenge was convincing him that FGM was not a religious obligation, that the Prophet never wrote that cutting should be enforced. Now, as founder and executive director of Safe Hands for Girls, an organisation working to end FGM, Dukureh has the capability to convince thousands more.
Other survivors like Hibo Wardere, who underwent Type III FGM when she was six, have gone on to utilise their FGM experience to promote awareness and campaign for the cessation of the FGM practice around the world.
‘Forced down on a bed, her legs held apart, Hibo Wardere was made to undergo female genital cutting, a process so brutal, she nearly died.’
Even the blurb for Wardere’s book, ‘Cut: One Woman’s Fight Against FGM in Britain Today’ is horrific to read. She grew up in Somalia, where 98% of women and girls have had their genitals forcibly mutilated.
“To these women it is a rite of passage to be endured on the way to womanhood and it is also a security, a form of protection. The cutting will keep you clean; it will strip you of your natural desire; it will mean that your family is not judged; and, one day, it will hopefully ensure that your own child marries well, into a family just as upstanding as your own, thereby reinforcing the security of your family. To these mothers, FGM is not about needless pain, it is about survival.”
It’s not spoiling the story to say that now only three countries in the world still legally practise FGM; Sierra Leone, Sudan and Mali. And campaigners like Jaha and Hibo are working hard at enforcing a legal global ban. Since 2016 it is now recognised by the United Nations General Assembly as a form of discrimination against the girl child and the violation of the rights of the girl child’.
But it is still prevalent. In 2016, there were 60,000 reported cases of FGM in the UK and Nimco Ali has suggested a figure as high as 150,000 women who have endured FGM. It is illegal in the UK, yet FGS (female genital surgery) is our third most common cosmetic surgery. Where it slips through the cracks is through ‘vacation cutting’; where the child is sent out of the country to undergo FGM and then return, under the guise of visiting family abroad. Jess Phillips suggests that we must normalise the conversation, stop branding this phenomenon as purely ‘cultural’. The umbrella term, ‘cultural’ gives us an excuse to not discuss FGM. The fear of cultural appropriation prevents people intervening when they need to. It creates a formula of which children are most at risk. The NSPCC have recently joined the conversation in favour of ending this practice, but we also need to acknowledge that the perpetrators are also victims. Victims of their own physical abuse.
How you can help
The UK is leading the global conversation on ending FGM forever, with an assurance that FGM will be globally reduced by 70% by 2030. But even Jaha has her doubts, “globally, I don’t think there is enough will and political commitment towards ending FGM by 2030.” If we don’t act, 70 million women and girls are at risk. So, we need to keep fighting.
I’m going to borrow Nimco Ali’s three pleas:
- Donate to the women on the front line (See SafeHandsforGirls, Daughters of Eve, Donor Direct Action)
- Educate yourself!
- Talk to your MP’s and hold them accountable to the UK’s 70% commitment; write letters, lobby them. The APPG’s job is to facilitate those on the front line.
But also, keep the conversation going. Talk about it, with your friends, family, whoever. Normalise the conversation. Raise awareness. The first step in change is making sure people know what they need to change.
Check out Hibo Wardere’s book, it’s on our bookshelf! Muna Hassan is someone we should all know – a young activist fighting FGM in the UK – have a watch of her short film ‘Silent Scream’ and read her interviews with The Pixel Project.