**Advisory: Graphic language and descriptions of a sexual nature**
London, United Kingdom – “After the pain, it was the screaming that I’ll never forget. It wasn’t just mine and my sister’s screams, there were so many other girls there – all being cut. I’ve never heard screams like that again and I don’t think I ever will.”
Aissa, from Mali, West Africa was just six years old when she and her one year-old sister were told: “We have to go somewhere.” The sisters were taken on a journey by the female members of their family, oblivious to the torturous destination that was waiting for them. Aissa and her sister were then forced to endure a depraved ritual, scarring them for perpetuity: female genital mutilation.
I ask Aissa, now 29 and living and working as a midwife in London, what she can remember of that day when she and her little sister arrived at the place they were taken to by their step mother. “Isn’t it ironic?” says Aissa. “That I can remember everything so clearly, like it happened yesterday, but that is only because the memories of the blood, the pain, the screaming will always haunt me, like a re-occurring bad dream.”
Aissa describes how her sister was taken away by a woman to “wait for her turn” while Aissa’s stepmother instructed her to lay down on a bed. Aissa did as she was told, as four women stood over her pinning her to the bed as another woman began to cut her. No anaesthetic was used to remove Aissa’s clitoris with a razor blade. Aissa explains that it doesn’t matter how tightly you are held down, your body instinctively convulses, which results in deeper and longer incisions.
“The pain is, well, it’s so difficult to describe to you what it is like. Imagine when you cut your finger, it’s a million times worse than that. But that doesn’t even begin to describe the type of pain that takes over when the part of your body that has the most nerve endings in it is cut away. Only girls who have been cut will ever know what that level of pain is like. I honestly thought I was going to die, and then everything went black.”
Aissa then tells me there is another reason why she will never ever forget that day. Almost whispering, she says: “It was the first time I had ever slept in a real bed; we had always slept on the floor before. I can’t remember how long I stayed in the bed, maybe one or two weeks until I was able to walk again.”
As you read this, vulnerable young girls (children in the majority of cases) across the world are being led to a place by their mothers, stepmothers, aunts and grandmothers where they will be subjected to physical and emotional pain like no other. That physical and emotional pain inflicted on them, on so many levels, will be and will stay at such an intensity, there are just no appropriate words to attempt to describe the young girls’ ordeals. To listen to another woman reflect back to the time she was betrayed by those whom she loved and trusted the most, through the most invasive, barbaric and brutal treachery, is only comparable to torture so extreme it just can’t be real, except it is.
Female Genital Mutilation (FGM), also referred to as Female Genital Cutting (FGC), is recognised internationally as a violation of the human rights of girls and women. The World Health Organisation says FGM also violates a person’s rights to health, security and physical integrity, the right to be free from torture and cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment, and the right to life when the procedure results in death. The United Nations, Amnesty International and UNICEF are just three of many organisations across the world working tirelessly to ‘consign FGM to history’.
The World Health Organisation has classified FGM into four types:
1. Clitoridectomy: partial or total removal of the clitoris, and in very rare cases, only the prepuce (the fold of skin surrounding the clitoris).
2. Excision: partial or total removal of the clitoris and the labia (lips) minora, with or without excision of the labia majora.
3. Infibulation: narrowing of the vaginal opening through the creation of a covering seal. The seal is formed by cutting and repositioning the inner, or outer, labia, with or without removal of the clitoris. The seal is then cut open and stitched up again to allow for sexual intercourse and childbirth; hence the woman goes through repeated opening and closing procedures, increasing immediate and long-term risks.
4. Other: all other harmful procedures to the female genitalia for non-medical purposes.
Latest figures show around 140 million girls and women worldwide are currently living with the consequences of FGM. The latest statistical exploration from UNICEF states it is most common in western, eastern, and north-eastern regions of Africa. It is also prevalent in many countries in South-East Asia, Europe, North America and Australia. Despite it being illegal in Canada, Australia, Belgium, Denmark, Italy, New Zealand, Norway, Spain, France, Sweden, Switzerland, the US, Kenya, Egypt and the UK, Female Genital Mutilation is still widely practiced.
An utterly useless UK government
The Female Genital Mutilation Act 2003, introduced to close the loophole of the Prohibition of Female Circumcision Act 1985 (which permitted parents to take their daughters out of the UK to undergo FGM abroad before bringing them back) does not scare or stop those intent on mutilating our future generations. This act tragically fails to uphold the UK’s zero tolerance to FGM. There has not been one single prosecution of FGM in the UK, despite this abhorrent crime being outlawed in 1985.
Like any illegal practice, thriving ferociously deep and dark underground, it is impossible to be precise regarding the number of girls in the UK who have suffered and are currently suffering at the hands of this brutal and barbaric ritual. The UK charity FORWARD estimates from their research that 66,000 girls in the UK have been mutilated, while 24,000 girls under 16 are at risk from the most severe form of FGM in England and Wales. One would assume then, faced with this alarming calculation, that the British government would swiftly take action and act as a matter of uttermost urgency. That sadly though is just an idealistic aspiration of what should be happening. Our government, whose duty it is to protect its citizens, have adopted what can only be described politely as a pitiful and pathetic ‘attempt’ to safeguard and protect the thousands of children at risk in the UK. Utterly useless bureaucrats are depriving vital funding, resources, information, care and support to those desperately gasping for it.
If you search FGM on the Home Office website, the search results give little comfort or re-assurance to its victims, merely facts, figures and three telephone numbers. The Home Office re-directs most of the responsibility for the charity FORWARD to deal with. On the Department of Health’s website there are just seven search results for this ignored and neglected crime – none of which have been updated for over a year. The Home Office and the DofH refused to put anyone forward for interview to answer my questions on what exactly the British government’s approach is in dealing with the illegally practiced and prevalent FGM in the UK. They also refused to provide details on what measures have been and are being put in place to safeguard and protect the victims, how the illegal underground networks plan to be broken and how much funding has and is being allocated to fight FGM in the UK.
Quite why no minister is able to speak out to re-assure British citizens that the government are doing everything in their power to tackle the illegal practice of FGM in the UK is just mystifying. A standard statement was sent from both departments to attempt to provide a response. From the Home Office, Minister for Equalities and Overseas Champion for Tackling Violence Against Women and Girls, Lynne Featherstone says: “Female Genital Mutilation is an abhorrent crime and we are very clear that those found to practice it should feel the full force of the law. As a government, we are also working with UK and international agencies on the ground to help prevent women and girls being subjected to this practice.”
From the Department of Health, a spokesperson says: “We have written to the Royal Colleges of Midwives and Obstetricians and Gynaecologists about making sure we are doing everything possible together to eliminate this abusive and abhorrent practice and protect future generations of girls and women from harm. The current professional guidance highlights that NHS professionals have a clear duty of child protection if a doctor is approached to perform a mutilating procedure or if it becomes known to them that a child is to be taken abroad for that purpose.” Neither the Home Office nor the DofH provided details about the type of work they say is happening to protect future generations of girls and women in the UK from harm.
Saria Khalifa, the Youth Programme Officer for FORWARD, tells me the charity is extremely concerned about the British Government’s patchy approach to tackling FGM, which is failing to safeguard all children at risk of FGM who reside in the UK. She says: “The UK government has a duty to develop effective primary prevention measures particularly in London where FGM has become a growing concern. Additionally there is need for protection strategies that offer safety nets and specialist support to women and girls. There is no national action plan on FGM nor a strategy in place to engage key communities and key opinion makers on ending FGM. More importantly, the Government funding cuts which have hit the women’s sector very deepy, coupled with lack of a comprehensive strategy is making our work even more difficult and a greater struggle.”
The poisonous power of patriarchy
Female Genital Mutilation is without a doubt powered by the poison of patriarchy. In a FGM affected community, there is a fundamental belief that mutilation is the only way to initiate a girl into becoming a “good woman” ready for marriage and childbirth. The bitter irony is that the very process of FGM is achieving the exact opposite. Removing part of a girl or a woman’s anatomy, disturbing and forcefully changing the way her body is intended to function not only takes away her femininity, but biologically changes the composition that makes her into the woman that she naturally is intended to be. Women across the world are torturing other women to accommodate and appease an ideology and disorted history of male supremacy. FGM is practiced to satisfy the wishes of a patriarchal family structure, but in reality the men distance themselves from the procedure of the practice, maintaining a dominating presence in the “background” and are not concerned enough with the consequences to stop inflicting this depravity onto their daughters.
Despite the “cultural justification” that FGM “turns a girl into a woman” there is also the assumption that when she does become a “good woman” she needs to be appropriately controlled and oppressed. It is widely believed that removing parts of her genitalia reduces her libido and in turn makes her less sexually demanding, supressing the level of pleasure she is “allowed” to receive and sustain. It is not uncommon in some cases for a woman’s vulva to be stitched up, leaving just a small opening for urine and menstrual blood to pass through, before the woman is then re-opened for sexual intercourse and childbirth.
Aissa says it is not only the damaging physical effects that victims are forced to endure for the rest of their lives:“I still need to work on myself psychologically because of all the feelings of self-loathing I have towards my body. I am different and I look different – for a very long time I didn’t even feel like a woman. It was impossible to have sex, the pain was horrific and I have suffered with lots of urinary infections. Still now I find it so difficult to have any medical appointments, which is part of the reason why I wanted to become a midwife to help others who are like me.”
There are no cultural or religious justifications ever for mutilating another woman’s body. There is no endorsement of FGM in the Bible, the Tanakh or Quran. Charity Forward has published a research on FGM and Islam as many Muslim (as well as non-Muslim) communities tend to associate FGM with Islam. “Words like ‘sunna’ and ‘tahur’ used for FGM by Muslims erroneously endorse the link of Islam to FGM and brings the great religion into disrepute. All religions say God created human beings in the best forms and wanted them to keep the nature in which they were created. It is forbidden to make changes in God’s creation unless there is a compelling reason ie for medical reasons.”
Aissa recently returned to Mali to take the brave step of explaining to her father how the life she dreamt of living was cruelly snatched from her through the destructive and devastating consequences of the Female Genital Mutilation she endured. She tells me she wanted to make the visit to protect future generations of her family – to make sure they never ever have to suffer like she has. After many difficult and emotional discussions with her father, he has now promised Aissa that no other girls in her family will ever be mutilated again.
“And do you believe your father’s promise?” I ask.
Aissa pauses, then responds slowly: “Yes I do, what other choice do I have, but to have faith in those whom I love and trust the most?”
Siobhan Courtney is a British freelance broadcast journalist and writer. She is a former BBC World News presenter and BBC News journalist who has reported and written for BBC Newsnight.