Fatu Sillah clearly recalls the day her childhood ended. She was six years old when her mother’s friends invited her to a party with girls from her village near Freetown in Sierra Leone.
“When I got there I saw other girls sitting on the ground crying and I remember the overwhelming smell of a traditional African medicine used to heal wounds. I was taken into the backroom, stripped naked and held down on the ground by six women. I saw the cutter with a small, sharp knife. She said: ‘It will be quick and it won’t hurt that much.’ “
Sillah could barely move afterwards. “For six months I struggled to even walk. Afraid to urinate, I taught myself to hold on so I could avoid the pain of peeing. I would go only once a day at the most, and as a result for years I have suffered from urinary tract infections.”
Fatu Sillah will be speaking at a conference about her personal experience of Female Genital Mutilation in Sierre Leone, Sydney. 23rd October 2015 Photo: Janie BarrettCredit:Jani Barrett
On Monday Fatu, now 26 and a university student, will talk about her experience at a Family Violence Has No Boundaries conference hosted by the University of Melbourne. The Sydney woman’s message to anyone considering breaking the law to impose female genital mutilation (FGM) on their daughter is clear: “It still affects me as an adult and I wouldn’t want my worst enemy to go through the pain and suffering it has caused me and many other girls.”
Sillah is one of a number of African-Australian women who are speaking out against FGM, also known as female genital cutting (FGC), in the hope that they can stamp out the practice.
“The World Health Organisation estimates more than 125 million girls have suffered FGM. What you need to know is that this is not just happening in Africa and the Middle East but right here in Australia,” she says.
Another FGM survivor who insists the practice persists in Australia is young Adelaide mother Khadija Gbla. Since Gbla spoke at TEDx Canberra last October, her courageous, often funny presentation – where she reveals what it is like to live in “clitoris-centric” Australia – has attracted more than one million views on YouTube.
Gbla was told in Australia that her FGM injuries incurred as a child in Sierra Leone meant she couldn’t have children. But she did become pregnant and this makes her eight-month-old son all the more precious.
Gbla was so devastated by her FGM experience that she co-founded No FGM Australia with Melbourne woman Paula Ferrari. The pair describe themselves as “clitoral warriors”, running an organisation that aims to protect girls from FGM and support survivors.In their work, the two women have had to call the Child Protection Service to stop FGM being performed on girls, some of whom had just been born.
“It is secret, so difficult to detect. We know from overseas data that girls born to mothers who are survivors of FGM are at very high risk of being subjected to FGM,” says Gbla.
The incidence of FGM in Australia has been difficult to quantify as, unlike in Britain and France, little data has been collected. What is known is that 20 years ago, with the arrival of the first refugees from countries where FGM is practised, a concerted effort was made to prevent it through education programs and later by making it illegal, with mandatory reporting. As a result, in New South Wales performing FGM could lead to 21 years in prison; in Victoria a “cutter” could face 15 years.
Though most African, Middle Eastern or South-east Asian parents have abandoned the practice for their daughters in Australia, many people interviewed for this article say it stubbornly persists within parts of some communities here and has been driven underground because it is illegal. They say there needs to be more education for recent arrivals.
The findings of a new study of 800 Australian paediatricians confirms that FGM is still being performed in Australia. The survey, by Professor Elizabeth Elliott and her colleagues at the University of Sydney’s Australian Paediatric Surveillance Unit, found that more than half of respondents believed FGM was being performed on Australian children.
Yet, though most paediatricians were aware of its complications, few asked about or examined patients for FGM.
Ten per cent of those surveyed had seen at least one case of FGM in a girl aged 18 or younger during their career, including 16 paediatricians seeing FGM in the past five years. Professor Elliott says the study reveals that FGM is occurring, yet there is a “dearth of knowledge” among medical professionals. The researchers also reviewed the Australian and international research, which confirmed widespread medical ignorance of the practice.
Legal authorities have taken action. In an ongoing case in the New South Wales Supreme Court, an elderly woman has pleaded not guilty to the alleged genital mutilation of two girls in separate procedures in Sydney and Wollongong. The girls’ mother is accused of organising the procedure. A high-ranking member of the Dawoodi Bohra Shia Muslim community has pleaded not guilty to being an accessory after the fact.
Fatu Sillah estimates about half of her friends from Muslim backgrounds have undergone FGM. “No one will talk about it. Everyone is scared because they know the consequences. I know of someone who wanted it for her daughter. There is talk of a Somalian cutter who will do it. It is happening.”
She has heard of families taking girls to towns such as Wollongong to have the procedure done, mostly at around five years old so it won’t be known outside the family.
Some say FGM persists because it is a religious practice. But Sheikh Isse Musse, a spiritual leader in Melbourne’s Horn of Africa community, says FGM is not sanctioned by the Koran.
“There are a few sayings from the Prophet, but those have been found to be lacking in strength. Even if some people take these sayings to be credible, we explain what damage FGM does. According to the principles of Islam, if anything has a damage or harm to the person, it is excluded.”
Melbourne community leader Mariam Issa worries that when people hear of the difficulties she and others have faced, they will judge rather than be supportive. In her book The Resilient Life, this dynamic mother of five talks frankly about her FGM experience. Some family members were horrified, but her niece insisted she include it to help others.
“Our community is very secretive. People don’t want to hang their dirty laundry outside. They don’t want to talk about it because they believe ‘no one will respect my point of view’.”
But Issa urges young women to step forward. “Don’t be shy – have a voice about injustice,” she says.
She recalls asking her own mother, “How could you do this to me?” Issa says her father didn’t want her to undergo FGM in Somalia, but her mother had the procedure done while he was away. “She saw it as a favour to me, she feared the whole community would talk about me if I didn’t have it done.”
Caucasianpeople must try to understand why the practice has continued through generations, she says. “I think the compassion element is really missing. We live in a community where people can be very harsh to each other, especially women.”
Issa is in a group of six African-Australian women, all with medical or health promotion training, who work to inform women in their Melbourne communities about FGM.
The leader, Wudad Salim, says women who experience FGM are not victims. “We are empowered African-Australian women who would like to contribute to mainstream health and advocate for underrepresented minority groups of FGM-affected women.”
Group member Hiba Rajab is retraining to be a GP, having practised in Sudan. She reminds those appalled by FGM that each experience is different. In her own case, it was a “beautiful” celebration of womanhood undertaken in a hygienic clinic.
Later, as a doctor, she saw “lots of bleeding, loss of life”. “When I came to Australia I was astonished to see that they had a whole issue here with FGM.”
Rhonda Garad is a Caucasian woman who has been married to a Somalian Australian for 25 years. She researched the politics of FGM for her master’s degree, noting how Caucasian feminists and policy- makers dominated discussion for years.
“Language used to describe FGM was often derogatory and subtly racist. I want to support these women [in the group] because they have made a strong commitment to being the voice.”
Garad says the FGM cases she has heard of are where women are isolated, or fear their daughter will marry outside the community.
This fear of losing family and culture multiplies, says Issa, as children move into the wider community. “When parents are told ‘How could you do this?’ and they are demonised, it adds fuel to that fear. We try and eliminate the taboos.”
Aayan Omar, who is studying health promotion at Deakin University,was hesitant about joining the group as she had only heard rumours about FGM occurring. But after she ran a sexual health course where a Somali girl said, “I cannot identify with the anatomy of the female genitalia,” she saw it was an ongoing issue.
Omar says older women in her Somalian community had gone through FGM. “But not me. I can’t say why as I cannot have that conversation with them.”
Fellow student Hamdi Said is also educating about FGM but says it is hard to raise the topic with her own family.
New arrivals find it hard to connect to services. The chairman of the African Women’s Network South-East, Theresa Sendaaga Ssali, says she only recently learned that the Royal Women’s Hospital has a deinfibulation clinic that provides operations to young women with stage three FGM.
This was welcome news to some women in her support group as they couldn’t afford surgery that would allow them to have sex and give birth. The group project officers advise local teachers that some girls have acute pain during menstruation.
Men are also talking about the side effects of FGM through the African Australian Multicultural Employment and Youth service. Yasseen Musa, who runs discussion groups, advises men to be gentle during sex. “We tell them it’s not that their wives don’t care for them, but it’s very painful and they must be patient.”
Fatu Sillah says her type 2 FGM has affected her ability to enjoy sex, but with a caring partner she can achieve vaginal orgasm. She is disarmingly frank about this because she doesn’t want women with FGM to despair about ever having a loving, sexual relationship. “You need someone who cares about your needs. It takes time,” she says.
Lawsuits to prevent such damage as that inflicted on Sillah are a “sledgehammer against traditional practices”, says Felicity Geary, a UK barrister who also researches women’s health and the law at Charles Darwin University. But sometimes a court case is needed to remind the community that FGM is child abuse and a crime, she says.
Yet people know the chance of being prosecuted is low, Gbla says. “No one wants to dob in offenders. These are collectivist communities that protect themselves from outsiders. They close ranks and say it isn’t happening. They can shut down the conversation by accusing others of being racist.”
Gbla has faced a backlash for being outspoken. “I have stepped over the line in a patriarchal society, but I am not making it up.” She says girls with FGM injuries are treated by community doctors and nurses. “It is being done in house.”
A 2012 study of gynaecologists and FGM program workers by Melbourne’s Royal Children’s Hospital found no evidence of FGM being performed through direct reports or children presenting with complications. However, the report concluded: “Anecdotal evidence suggests that FGM/C may be occurring, most likely by people other than registered health practitioners.”
When Gbla was pregnant, no antenatal or maternity nurse asked about her FGM. “No wonder there is no data,” she says
The UK is more vigilant, she says, with airport checks of girls travelling overseas. The genitals of French school-age children are examined for child abuse, including FGM. Welfare payments are tied to contracts stating girls won’t be subjected to FGM.
Both Gbla and Issa were trained as FGM ambassadors by long-standing campaigner Juliana Nkrumah, now working with New South Wales Police. The hard work put in by women such as Nkrumah and Mmaskepe Sejoe in Victoria encourages the latest activists to persist.
They are not complacent, noting new arrivals often live in rural areas. In Shepparton, Betul Tuna is consulting with 250 African refugees to identify leaders to help educate about FGM. Her role with the Ethnic Council of Shepparton also involves training doctors and nurses.
It is illegal to remove a child from Australia to undertake FGM. Yet Tuna says she dreads holidays when girls are taken back to their parents’ homeland. “It would be naive to think it doesn’t exist here.”
She admires African Australian women who say what they see. “It takes a lot of guts to stand up.”
Khadija Gbla and Fatu Sillah are speakers at the Family Violence Has No Boundaries conference at the University of Melbourne on Monday. www.familyviolenceconference.com