“The first I knew that my genitals were not as they should be was in the final stages of labour,” local woman Sagal* told us. “Imagine that? I got whisked into surgery.” Neelum Bains spoke to Sagal, who told her about her experience of female genital mutilation (FGM) and how it has changed the course of her life.
Female genital mutilation is any unnecessary procedure that intentionally alters or causes injury to the female genital organs. Some communities refer to it as female genital cutting. There are thought to be a large number of girls and women living in the borough who have had varying types of FGM in their family’s native country. Yet, it is illegal in the UK and considered as child abuse.
Sagal said: “We lived in Somalia, in a place called Mogadishu. As in many families, my maternal grandmother was a strong personality, and in a lot of ways the head of our house.
“It was my grandmother who took me and my sisters to a hospital and authorised type 2 FGM procedures to be carried out when we were all still very young. My mother was totally unaware that this was going to happen, because she was working. When she realised, she wasn’t pleased, but there was nothing she could do. She took us all to see another doctor to make sure that the procedure had been carried out correctly and safely at least.
“The thing about my grandmother was that she loved us. She would not have seen what she did as barbaric or abusive in any way. For her and people of her generation it was a sign of good breeding, status and social standing to make sure that all the girls in our family had the procedures carried out. For them, it meant we were clean, protected and pure – which would lead to us being highly attractive marriage prospects in the future.
“My grandmother had the responsibility of maintaining our family values and upholding who we were in the community. And she enhanced those family traditions, and lived her life by them – but we need to change that now.”
Life in Ealing
“We moved to the borough when I was five. I was never aware that I was different in any way. I didn’t have any scary memories of what happened to me, but I guess I was one of the lucky ones.
“As I said, the first I knew that my genitals were not as they should be was in the final stages of labour. I got whisked into surgery to avoid any further damage to my body or harm to my baby. I was in shock.
“As soon as I could, I found out as much as I could about the procedures, where they can happen, why they happen and what parts of the body they affect.
“I began to realise how little information was out there for young girls and women and started to wonder ‘how will they know it’s not natural and can cause them harm if they are not exposed to the truths?’
There is help out there
“I am not a victim. Yes, it has happened to me. Yes, I am different to some others, but I will not let it define me. There is a little girl sitting at home who’s had this done – who might need help to understand, or have questions that need answering – and I want her to know there’s help out there.
“For families living in the UK, outside of their ancestral homelands, continuing with the practice of FGM can be a way for them to keep a strong link to their traditions, while supposedly helping young girls stay pure, not have sexual thoughts as they go through puberty, not experiment sexually before marriage and be ‘clean’ for their husbands after marriage.
“This practice has to stop. Ten years ago, there wasn’t enough information out there – now there is thankfully a lot more.
“Telling communities like mine that what they do is barbaric, cruel, abusive is not helpful. In fact it closes doors and puts more people at risk of staying uninformed about how they can be helped to protect themselves. We need to help dispel the myths and fears of authorities getting involved out of people’s minds. We can only change the behaviours of the communities still practising FGM by talking to them, not labelling them.
“People need to make educated choices and keep the females in their families safe. Past generations have done it out of love, now it’s our turn to protect our daughters and granddaughters from a tradition that is not safe.”
*Name changed to protect her identity.
Help and information
If you or anyone you know has been affected by FGM or need more information, contact the Acton African Well Woman Clinic on 020 8383 8761 or 07956 001065 or Ealing Children’s Integrated Response Service (ECIRS) on 020 8825 8000 option 2.
- It is assumed that a large proportion of the girls and women affected are from the Horn of Africa where FGM is widely practised but there are also known cases from other communities, including Turkey, Afghanistan and Malaysia, where similar procedures are also done
- The health implications include kidney, urinary and vaginal infections, sexual dysfunction and problems getting pregnant and giving birth
- Anyone found guilty of performing, organising or assisting with FGM whether in the UK or abroad can face imprisonment for up to 14 years.
Types of FGM
Type 1 – Removal of the hood of the clitoris (sometimes mistakenly called Sunnah)
Type 2 – Excision – removal of the clitoris with partial or total excision of the labia minora
Type 3 – Infibulation – removal of the clitoris and labia minora with narrowing by stitching of the vaginal opening
Type 4 – All other types of harmful traditional practices that mutilate the female genitalia, including cutting, incising, scraping and cauterisation.