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We Spoke to an Anti-Female-Genital Mutilation Activist About the Lifelong Impact of Cutting

Due to the secrecy that surrounds FGM, the true extent of the practice in Western countries isn't known. We spoke to the director of No FGM Australia, the Human Rights Award–winning charity that works to abolish the practice.
Phoebe Hurst
London, GB
January 13, 2015, 4:00pm

The kind of equipment used in FGM. Image via Wikimedia Commons

This article originally appeared on VICE UK

Khadija Gbla was nine years old when her clitoris was butchered with a rusty knife.

She was driven to a hut in the middle of the Gambian bush and told to take off her clothes. Her mother pinned her down while another woman took the blade to her genitals. She had no idea what was happening.

Seventeen years later, Gbla is married and expecting her first child, but the day she was subjected to female genital mutilation has never left her. "People don't understand the impact female genital mutilation (FGM) has on a woman," says Gbla, who recently said that, while she doesn't enjoy being the face of FGM, she knows she must break the silence. "I suffered because of it during my teenage years, I knew the effect when I was married, and am seeing another side now I'm pregnant."

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Born in Sierra Leone, Gbla and her family fled their war-torn country for Australia in 2001. Her mother underwent female genital mutilation as a child and arranged for it to be carried out on Gbla before leaving Africa.

Gbla now lives in Adelaide and is the director of No FGM Australia, a charity that works to abolish FGM and supports those at risk. She is Australia's only outspoken FGM survivor and has had her work recognized by Amnesty International and the Human Rights Commission. Due to give birth in six weeks, Gbla's pregnancy is another, physical kind of stand against FGM.

"I was told I couldn't have babies because of my FGM, so it's actually a miracle," says Gbla, whose condition may mean she is unable to have a vaginal birth. "I don't take for granted that I'm pregnant."

FGM is the injury or removal of the external female genitalia for non-medical reasons. You can see an animation of the various types of FGM here. Practiced in 28 African countries, as well as the Middle East and some part of Asia, the justifications for FGM vary. Some communities view it as a way to preserve girls' chastity but it can also be carried out as an initiation into adulthood.

"Even though women are the ones who propagate FGM, the benefits are all for men," says Gbla. "They do not believe women have the right to sexual pleasure."

According to the World Health Organization, as many as 140 million women and girls have been subjected to FGM worldwide. The immediate effects are dire: severe shock, pain, and bleeding—but it rarely ends there. Many FGM survivors grow up with chronic pain and menstrual problems, as well as myriad psychological issues, including PTSD.

While FGM is illegal in both Australia and the UK, there are cases of immigrants from practicing communities taking FGM to their adopted countries. Last year, a doctor was charged with performing FGM at a London hospital and, in Australia, police are investigating reports that a Brisbane man has taken his daughter to Africa in order to undergo the procedure.

Due to the secrecy that surrounds FGM, the true extent of the practice in Western countries is not known. There is no central data reporting of FGM in Australia but No FGM Australia estimates that three girls are at risk of mutilation every day. In the UK, NHS figures state that 66,000 women are living with the consequences.

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Gbla says her determination to break the silence on FGM has upset certain areas of the African Australian community. She has a difficult relationship with her mother, who maintains that FGM is "empowering."

"My family feel like I am a traitor," she says. "My mother thinks this whole conversation makes her look bad, and I try to explain that it's not about you or me. My story represents the story of the other girls—I'm just vocalizing it."

While Gbla has been able to tell her story, many women living with FGM find it more difficult. The Desert Flower Foundation, a FGM charity founded by former model Waris Dirie, discovered the importance of providing a safe space for FGM survivors to talk when they opened the first Desert Flower Medical Center in Berlin two years ago.

"We have learned FGM victims need holistic medical treatment as they suffer from various medical problems," explains managing director Walter Lutschinger. "Women treated in our center participate in the support groups as it takes a long time to overcome their trauma."

It's not just the survivors or those at risk of FGM who find it hard to speak. Despite the number of girls at risk, Australia is yet to have its first FGM case on trial. UK police have done "dozens" of investigations since 2011 but only one prosecution has ever been made.

"My family feel like I am a traitor." – Khadija Gbla

The hesitancy in reporting FGM could have something to do with its status as a "cultural issue." Teachers are aware of the racism accusations that may follow from discussing the subject with children from practicing communities and health care workers are unaware of how to question at-risk girls and women. For Gbla, these are excuses for not confronting what FGM really is: child abuse.

"I am all about celebrating my heritage," says Gbla. "What I do not celebrate is a culture that thinks it's OK to mutilate a little girl. That is child abuse and it can't hide behind culture."

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It is hoped the New South Wales government's new FGM awareness campaign, which uses translated education resources to target at risk communities, will go some way in combating this. In the UK, a Home Affairs Committee investigation released last year highlighted the problem of "misplaced concern for cultural sensitivities" surrounding FGM, as well as the importance of agency coordination.

"Policy is currently far from joined up," says No FGM UK founder and sociologist Hilary Burrage. "The challenges of connecting various public services are being addressed only very superficially."

The coordination of public services stands at the center of Gbla's online petition to Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott, which calls for a united approach from child protection services, health care, immigration, and the police.

"FGM should be everybody's business," she says. "It shouldn't sit under one department or one person's responsibility, it is everyone's responsibility."

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