If the British Government Wants to End Female Genital Mutilation, Why Is It Returning a 'Cutter' Back to Gambia?
Gambian refugee Maimuna Jawo applied for UK asylum to campaign for the rights of FGM survivors and future victims, but she feels the government has treated her like a criminal.
This article originally appeared on VICE UK.
"My daughter was five years old when she was cut," Maimuna Jawo tells me, calmly, over a cup of tea. She seems used to telling her harrowing story, having had to repeat it many times since she first applied for asylum in the UK in 2013. "All the girls used to scream and call their mums, because they don't give them anything that would numb the pain," she continues, quietly. "I'm the one holding my daughter and she's calling me and I cannot do nothing about it. Since then, I have said to myself, 'No: I will never do this.'"
But for Maimuna opting out has proved exceptionally difficult, and dangerous. Maimuna comes from a maternal line of "cutters," who have carried out female genital mutilation (FGM) on girls in Wellingara, her village in Gambia, for generations. As only the woman who inherits the role can perform FGM, the village elders don't take kindly to people turning down the job. Maimuna, who was taken out of school when she was 12 and forced to help her mother cut girls, has already been punished for her aversion to the job. She tells me she used to scream along with the victims and was beaten as a consequence, to the extent that some of her teeth are still missing.
When her mother died, the village elders decided it was Maimuna's turn to become the village cutter. Maimuna feared she would be attacked or even killed if she refused. In 2013, soon after she escaped to the UK, a BBC Newsnight film crew traveled back to Wellingara, where her elder sister confirmed her fears: "We have our traditions and if you don't obey that tradition, something bad will happen to you," Kombeh Jawo said. "I am telling you, anything could happen to her."
However, for Maimuna—who survived FGM herself as a child, as well as seeing her daughter cut—opposing the practice has become a moral obligation. "Nobody can stop me campaigning about FGM, because it's my life. I know what FGM is, I've been fighting since I was 12 years [old]. FGM stopped me going to school... I don't want those girls that I left behind me to be in that position," she says.
By leaving her village and Gambia entirely, Maimuna believes she has damaged the practice by disrupting the lineage, potentially stopping the cutting of dozens of girls. "The girls will be safe," she says. "I came here to seek asylum just to save those girls that I promised that I will not cut."
Unfortunately, the British Government has other ideas. Despite having pledged to work to end FGM worldwide, officials now want to send Maimuna back to Gambia. After making her wait a year for a decision, they have just rejected her third asylum, dismissing an array of fresh evidence.
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Maimuna finds this difficult to understand. "They [say they are] against FGM, but still yet they want me to go back and cut those girls," she says. "[They are] even deporting mothers and their daughters to go back and perform FGM. But now they say they are against FGM? I don't think that is true... they might just be saying they are against FGM to make it look good."
Green Party leader Natalie Bennett was highly critical of the decision when she joined Maimuna on a protest outside the Home Office last month. "Behind the way she had been treated is a culture of disbelief and a really unjoined-up government," she said. "If the government is concerned about FGM, as I'm sure they would say they are, then they need to be protecting people like Maimuna."
In 2014, at London's Girl Summit, David Cameron gave an emotive speech on FGM and children, as well as early and forced marriage. He drew comparisons between girls who are cut and his own ten-year-old daughter, and said, "It is absolutely clear about what we are trying to achieve, it is such a simple but noble and good ambition, and that is to outlaw the practices of female genital mutilation (FGM) and childhood and early forced marriage, to outlaw them everywhere, for everyone within this generation."
But some campaigners and charity organizations that work with asylum seekers say that, in practice, the UK Government's concern about ending FGM often seems to apply only to British citizens, with an anti-immigration agenda eclipsing the desire to end FGM in many asylum cases.
Dr. Natalia Paszkiewicz works for the IARS International Institute, a charity think tank that develops social policy recommendations through a user-led methodology. The organization recruited Maimuna to participate in their Comic Relief funded Gender Sensitivity in the Asylum Process Training over a year ago.
"If we want to protect women and girls from FGM we have to protect them not just in this country and in countries abroad but also when they flee from abroad to seek protection here in the UK. Anything less smacks of hypocrisy." –Debora Singer
"I've been working in the field of refugee studies for more than ten years now," Paszkiewicz told me. "In recent years I have seen positive changes in the UK Government's approach to women's rights, so on the surface it looks like finally women's issues are taken on board, but then I realized that there is a discrepancy between how women are treated in the UK, if they are British citizens, as opposed to how women who are seeking asylum are treated."
Meanwhile, the charity Asylum Aid take on up to ten cases a year where women have been rejected for asylum initially and appeal them—usually successfully, but the cases take many months, if not years. "The cases include women at risk of FGM, women at risk of becoming cutters and men and women whose young daughters are at risk," Debora Singer, the Policy and Research Manager, told me.
"We welcome the government's initiatives to prevent FGM in both the domestic and international arena," Singer continued. "Yet women and girls fleeing FGM abroad are not necessarily granted asylum once they arrive in the UK. If we want to protect women and girls from FGM we have to protect them not just in this country and in countries abroad but also when they flee from abroad to seek protection here in the UK. Anything less smacks of hypocrisy."
In Britain the maximum sentence for carrying out FGM, or helping it to take place, is 14 years in prison. In 2014, Theresa May used the Girl Summit as an opportunity to announce plans to criminalize the practice more effectively. "We will make the law clearer on parents' liability for failing to prevent their child being subjected to FGM," she said. "We're working to improve the police response."
As well as prosecuting a doctor, recent anti-FGM measures have included targeting "high-risk" families at airports, a legal obligation for healthcare workers to report FGM cases to the police, and even the suggestion by the chief of police of mandatory medical examinations for women and girls deemed at risk.
Paszkiewicz doesn't believe this is the right way to tackle FGM. "I think the response that is very punitive and focused on criminalization is not going to work in the long term," she told me. "The focus should be very much on changing peoples attitudes and preventing FGM in the first place. Which means the communities that are affected should be supported and more should be done on a grassroots level."
The IARS International Institute see women like Maimuna as a vital part of the solution—a part the government is currently overlooking. Rather than being ignored or marginalized, the think tank want women affected by FGM to be put at the center of efforts to end the practice.
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Maimuna wants this too. "I should be the leader of those people [campaigning against FGM]," she tells me, "because I went through it, my daughter went through it, I know what FGM is, and I know the damage that FGM does."
The Gender Sensitivity in the Asylum Process Training, which Maimuna previously participated in, operated on a similar "user-led" ethos—with the aim of making asylum seeking and refugee women heard, rather than speaking on their behalf; to this end, it was designed, facilitated, and delivered to service providers with the help of women who had experienced gender-based violence firsthand and who had claimed asylum.
Since the project ended in May, The IARS International Institute have approached the European Commission to ask for funding for a new project, this time focusing exclusively on FGM. "[The new project] is very much about raising awareness and about making sure that people hear the experiences of survivors themselves" Paszkiewicz explained. "Maimuna, if we are successful, will be one of our consultant, associate partners," she added, "and we will get more women like Maimuna onboard, and we will make sure that the voices of women like Maimuna are heard."
But far from recognizing her as a part of the solution, Maimuna feels the British government has treated her like a criminal. When she first tried to claim asylum in the UK she was detained immediately in Yarl's Wood and held for five months. "It's the same as prison," she said, about the Serco-run detention center, where immigrants are held for an indefinite time period and abuse allegations have been rife. "I started thinking, to stop being a cutter is a crime in my home country, but it's not only there—it can be a crime anywhere else."
I asked the Home Office if they would explain why they had rejected Maimuna's claim, particularly when it seems so inconsistent with their stance on FGM, but they were dismissive. "We do not routinely comment on individual cases," a Home Office spokesperson told me. "All claims for asylum are carefully considered on their individual merits."
It's difficult to believe much care was taken in considering Maimuna's case, though, given the evidence and the experts who support her story.
Aware of the Home Office's skepticism toward asylum claims, Maimuna personally presented immigration minister James Brokenshire with a DVD copy of the Newsnight documentary, which shows her sister in Wellingara consolidating her story. He said he'd watch it when he got home, but she doubts he ever did.
Maimuna says that the Home Office rejected her claim on the grounds that they don't believe she is in real danger in Gambia, at least not danger that she couldn't avoid by just going elsewhere within the country. But Maimuna points out that the absurdity of this: in a country of less than two million people—not even a quarter of the population of London—how could there really be anywhere to hide where you cannot be found?
Tony Gard, part of Movement for Justice, a campaign group supporting Maimuna, says that while she was waiting for a decision, Maimuna received a letter from Gamcotrap, the primary NGO working to end FGM in Gambia. The charity explained that, although they have reached about a third of communities in the country, according to Gard they "had had no success at all in the area that Maimuna was living in, in her community, and they would be quite unable to defend her or to pressure the elders if she was returned."
There's little chance of protection from the state, either. "The police are nothing," Maimuna says. "Those police are the police who are not ready to marry any woman who is not cut. Those police who will take their daughters to the cutters for them to be cut. How can I go to those police and say that I am asking for protection?"
"I started thinking, to stop being a cutter is a crime in my home country, but it's not only there—it can be a crime anywhere else." –Maimuna Jawo
Paszkiewicz ventures that, rather than being considered on its merits, Maimuna's case may have been rejected in part because it was too high profile. "If her case was successful it might have quite broad implications for how women fleeing FGM are treated," she said – which is frightening if, by the same logic, the rejection of Maimuna's claim sets a precedent for rejecting other women and children fleeing FGM.
Maimuna has exhausted her right to appeal, but she is actively protesting against the Home Office decision. She says she won't stop campaigning against FGM either, whatever happens to her as a consequence.
"Sometimes I question why I left all of my children," she says, "but when I think of those girls, when I think of what happened to me, I don't want it to happen to those girls. This is the fight that I take. My campaign is not to campaign until I am granted asylum and then forget it and go. No. I'm taking it forever."
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