Picture this. You are six years old. Your mother tells you that you’re going to a party with girls from your village, but when you arrive, the other girls aren’t laughing and playing, they’re sitting on the ground crying. You’re taken into the bathroom, stripped naked, and held down on the floor. One woman is holding a knife. She tells you it won’t hurt that much, but she’s lying. She cuts away your clitoris, and pours alcohol all over you. Six months later, you’re still struggling to walk.
If that made you feel uncomfortable, I understand. Female genital mutilation (FGM) is not an easy issue to think about, or to talk about. It’s difficult to imagine why a practice which has no health benefits, and is physically, emotionally, sexually and psychologically damaging to women and girls still exists today.
Yet it does. And it’s a problem in Australia.
FGM traditionally occurs across 28 African countries, in some parts of the Middle East, and in Islamic Indian sects such as the Dawoodi Bohra. However, in an ever-globalising world, and an increasingly multicultural Australia, FGM has become a global issue, and one affecting Australian communities. Immigration to Australia from countries where FGM is an issue has resulted in an increase of the number of FGM survivors, and the number of girls living in Australia who are considered ‘at risk’ of FGM.
The report FGM Prevalence in Australia 2014 revealed that three girls per day were ‘at risk’ of the practice, a figure calculated by examining the number of girls which survivors of childbearing age give birth to every year.
FGM Prevalence in Australia 2018 revealed that this number had risen to 3,876 girls per year, which equates to eleven girls at risk in Australia per day.
In a major addition to this, Australian women and girls born overseas in countries where FGM is practiced but prevalence is unknown, are for the first time being considered potential survivors. This group has been termed the ‘missing million’, and it dramatically raises the number of potential survivors living in Australia who are in need of support. It also increases the number of girls at risk, with an additional 35 girls a day being born to this group of women.
The non-existence of government funding towards FGM research in Australia means that statistics are only estimates, based on the population of certain nationalities and ethnicities. Without data, and funding to collect and analyse it, it is impossible to know how many of the ‘missing million’ are survivors and how much support they require. It is impossible to identify or safeguard girls at risk.
Sierra Leonean woman and Executive Director of No FGM Australia Khadija Gbla has spoken out about her own experience of FGM, and her TEDx Talk ‘My mother’s strange definition of empowerment’ has been viewed over 3 million times. When Gbla was 3 years old, war broke out in Sierra Leone and she was forced to flee with her family to Gambia, in West Africa. They applied for refugee status, and were accepted by Australia. However before moving to Australia at 13 years old, Gbla’s mother organised for FGM to be performed on her.
She argues in this speech that in order to fight female genital mutilation in Australia, we need to understand that it is not exclusively a cultural or a religious issue. It is not exclusively an Islamic, an African, a black issue. It is not just a women’s issue.
“Female genital mutilation is everybody’s issue,” she says.
So why aren’t we talking about it?
Educating the population about FGM is imperative to stamping it out. I told family, friends and classmates that I was writing about this issue whilst in the midst of researching it. The overwhelmingly common response was one of surprise: “Is that an issue in Australia?” Australians assume that because the practice is illegal here, it doesn’t occur. This is far from the truth. While white women fight for the right to abortion, predominantly coloured victims of FGM struggle with infertility.
While white women promote discussion about sexual empowerment, victims of FGM struggle to experience sexual pleasure at all. As white women campaign to remove the tampon tax, victims of FGM suffer through periods which are unnaturally heavy and painful.
Fatu Sillah is a survivor of FGM and an ambassador for No FGM Australia. She was born in Sierra Leone, and was subjected to the practice at the age of 6. I spoke to her about her experiences, and she shed light on the difficulty of speaking out against her community, and against society.
“I don’t worry about the community anymore,” she says.
“The community will criticise you no matter what you do and society will criticise you no matter what you do, so it’s up to you to stand up, say ‘I don’t care’, I’m going to talk about this.”
“I will never be the same again and I accepted that, I think. But what I don’t accept is for other young people to go through the same thing, and I’m not going to sit down and keep silent while this inhuman act continues to go on.”
Cases of FGM are rarely reported to authorities. This may be because they are often performed by close family or religious leaders within communities where there is a history and acceptance of these practices, or because girls are taken overseas for a ‘holiday’ and the practice is not performed within Australia.
Common excuses for FGM range from ‘coming of age’ traditions, to the repression of female sexuality, to cultural ideas around health and aesthetics. Some Muslim groups cite a controversial Hadith as religious justification for the practice. In this Hadith, Muhammed allows FGM to be performed to enhance the pleasure of the husband, as long as it is not overdone.In Australia, respect of culture and tradition makes it extremely difficult to have constructive debate, and effectively address this practice. We have to ask ourselves, when does condemning an issue descend into criticism of a culture? How do we draw the line between a well-meaning suggestion and an imperialistic idea?
It is essential that this issue is addressed carefully, and from a place of utmost respect for other non-harmful cultural and religious traditions. It must come from members within that community, who are themselves the most important part of the process of change.
“You don’t point your finger straight away at someone who’s a different colour and say ‘hey, she’s at risk of FGM’,” says Sillah. “You do your assessment and research and things like that and if you know there’s anything suspicious, there’s nothing wrong with talking about it.”
“If one person speaks about FGM to one friend, I am doing my job right, you know. If they can save one kid, I’m doing my job right.”
In August 2013 a front cover of Honi Soit which pictured the uncensored vulvas of 18 Sydney University students was banned from stands for indecency. Last year, it was used by Alison Shepherd-Smith to educate Kenyan women in rural communities about their natural bodies, and to raise awareness of female genital mutilation (FGM). This caused interest in FGM at University; there was even an Honi Soit article about it. But where has the discussion disappeared to since then?
University students are active and outspoken about a range of issues in Australian society. We campaign for refugee on Manus and Nauru, for Palestinians, for the environment, to end sexual assault. But for every issue that is being fought, there is another issue which is left in the shadows. Why isn’t female genital mutilation on the radar of university students, especially university feminist collectives?
Fatu Sillah puts it down to education, and to school and university curricular. “There’s nothing. I don’t think people care enough that it’s an issue in Australia here, to include it. It’s like ‘that’s none of my business’. I think attitudes like that will never get us anywhere.”
As a community and as a nation, Australia need to make sure women and girls who have experienced this practice don’t feel alone. It is important that there are protective services are in place for girls who are at risk of this practice, and that our doctors, nurses, midwives and psychologists are educated in treating women who have experienced FGM. There are an estimated 200 000 survivors of FGM living in Australia who are in need of this support.
We can make change on these issues, and campaign for better support services for survivors of FGM. But in order to properly do any of these things, we need our society to be aware that FGM is a problem in Australia.
Khadija Gbla and Fatu Sillah both have an infectious passion for fighting FGM. “It’s about reaching out and talking to someone about it,” Sillah says.
“Our goal pretty much is by 2020 to end FGM. That’s the movement at the moment, and I think everyone is working everywhere.”
So let’s have conversations about these issues, and educate ourselves and others. If we can protect one child, and empower one survivor at a time simply by raising awareness about FGM and therefore de-stigmatising it, Fatu Sillah’s goal is within reach.
This article appeared in the autonomous wom*n’s edition, Wom*n’s Honi 2018.