Editor’s note: Al Jazeera has won a Peabody Award for the documentary The Cut.
Talking about female genital mutilation (FGM) makes people uncomfortable. I get that. Who wants to think about vaginas – particularly those of young girls – being cut?
But here is what I learned from making a film about FGM: We need to feel uncomfortable and we need to feel outraged if we are to do anything about it.
FGM and me
I am originally from Eritrea but moved to Sweden when I was 11 years old. Although it has been banned in Eritrea since 2007, the country still has one of the highest rates of FGM in the world. According to UNICEF, around 83 percent of Eritrean women and girls are subjected to it.
I remember when I first became aware of FGM. I was about eight years old and we were at a relative’s house. It was full of women and children. Food was being shared and the atmosphere was festive. It felt like a celebration.
Then, I entered another room, where my female relative – a girl of three or four – was laying in bed, covered with a white sheet, clearly in agony.
I asked my mother what was wrong with her. She had been circumcised or “purified”, my mother explained. It was the same terminology we used for male circumcision, so I understood that something had been done to her private parts and that it had involved some form of cutting.
I asked my mother whether I had been cut? She told me I hadn’t, and we left it at that. I never thought to ask her why.
The percentage, types of cutting and reasons vary but the end result is the same: Girls and women lose a part of their body.
As I grew up, I didn’t think much more about FGM. It wasn’t something we talked about. It never became a page in my book of childhood memories.
But as I approached adulthood and my friends began to think about marriage and childbirth, the topic started to creep into our conversations. It was only then that I realised how many of them had undergone FGM. There were no stories of their pain and suffering because most were too young when it happened to remember it, but there was plenty of anxiety and fear about what it would mean when the time came to have sex or give birth.
Still, it felt like something that happened to others; something I couldn’t quite relate to.
Then, I went to Senegal to make a web documentary about FGM for Al Jazeera. Coming face to face with young children affected by it, witnessing their pain and the way it impacted entire communities there, made me wonder more about my own – and why my immediate family had chosen not to follow a practice so widely followed there.
A journey to understand FGM
In our documentary film, The Cut: Exploring FGM, I travel to Somaliland, Kenya and Sweden in search of answers that might bring me closer to an understanding of that.
I wanted to understand why different cultures do it and what it would take for them to stop. I went armed with the numbers, the statistics, the facts. But those numbers on a page are nothing compared with hearing first-hand accounts of having your clitoris removed – often without anaesthesia, with a razor, a knife or, in some cases, with scissors.
In Kenya, I met Domtila, an anti-FGM activist who told me how she’d witnessed her cousin being held down while her clitoris was sliced at, bit by bit, leaving her vagina brutally mutilated.
There was Khadan, a young midwife in Somaliland who had just had a baby and explained how many women like her who have undergone FGM have to be cut open before their wedding night, and again, when they give birth.
In Somaliland, I met Nura, a cutter who estimates that she has performed FGM on around 100,000 girls. As part of the procedure, the girls’ vaginas are often sown closed, leaving just a small opening for urine to pass through. I was shocked when Nura showed me just how small that opening can be.
That is what most worried 18-year-old mother-to-be Shaartu, when Anab, a midwife in Somaliland who has made it her mission to eradicate FGM there, met her.
“I was stitched when I was 10 years old. And then, when I was getting married, I was cut open,” Shaartu told Anab’s group of outreach nurses. “I have seen girls who have been circumcised like me and could not give birth, who died … So, it’s possible that I can’t give birth and I die.”
I also met 23-year-old Kadar in a trendy cafe in Hargeisa, the capital of Somaliland, who explained that he’d prefer to marry a woman who had been subjected to FGM. “Culture is stronger than women’s opinions and views,” he told me with a broad smile that revealed shiny braces.
In Kenya, I was moved by the story of 18-year-old Elly, a member of the Pokot tribe, where girls typically undergo FGM between the ages of 13 and 18, despite the practice being illegal in Kenya. She refused and ran away from home. Her family responded by shunning her and refusing to pay for her education.
A member of the Maasai, 26-year-old Nice persuaded the 7,000 people in her village to end the practice. One of the ways she approached this was to show the men of the community what it entailed and one of the tools she used was a video clip of a two-year-old girl undergoing the procedure. I turned away, unable to watch it, but that baby’s screams stay with me – as does the memory of Jackson, a Maasai warrior who upon watching the video declared that he would kill anyone who tried to do that to his daughter.
As much as inspiring women like Domtila, Anab and Nice are needed to end FGM, so, too, are men like Jackson.
Learning to talk about FGM
According to the World Health Organization (WHO), an estimated 200 million women and girls alive today have been subjected to FGM.
It happens all over the world – in Asia, Africa, the Middle East but also in Latin America, North America, Asia-Pacific and Europe. It takes place in people’s homes, on the floor of a cutter’s mud hut in remote villages and in hospitals.
How widespread the practice is, the form to which girls and women are subjected and the justifications their communities give may vary from one place and culture to another, but the end result is the same: girls and women lose a part of their body.
It is a violation of human – and often, children’s – rights.
To change this, we must change attitudes. And to do that we must take into consideration the different cultures, traditions and socioeconomic issues that are intertwined with the practice.
This needs to be led by people like Domtila, Anab, Nice and others we talked to in this film.
But to help them, we must talk openly about FGM. Not bristle at its mention.
I remember an editor once telling me that FGM wasn’t an interesting topic.
And, perhaps, in this digital click-chasing world, it doesn’t capture people’s attention in the way that an exercise selfie or a picture of food on Instagram might.
It makes people uncomfortable. I understand that. But we need to keep talking about FGM until no more women and girls are subjected to it.