10 July 2012

The survivor stories behind the start of 28 Too Many

Fatima greeted me as I entered the clinic. It was another dusty 40°C day. Even though I had been inWest Darfur and heard details of many atrocities there, I was chilled to the bone as I listened to her story.

At ten years old she was raped by the Janjiweed, the armed horseback militia. It happened as she fled her village. All her family were killed, the village burnt to the ground. Now, standing before me, only her small face showing from within her veil and travel cloak, orphaned and shamed by her predicament, still she manages a weak smile. 

The smile communicates gratitude for her life, thanks to Medair, the charity with whom I was volunteering. It helped her have her baby safely despite being left in the bush at seven months pregnant with obstructed labour.

 It was this experience above that changed my life -  making me decide I should and could do something to make a difference for the nearly 3 million girls who experience FGM each year.  FGM occurs in 40 countries globally (from Sierra Leone to Somalia, Egypt to DRC), 28 countries in Africa and the African Diaspora where FGM practising communities settle including the UK, a few countries in Asia and the Middle East.  It has affected 140m girls, 92m inAfrica, and one every 10 seconds.

After I returned from Darfur in 2005, I couldn’t get Fatima’s story out of my mind.  How could she speak up for herself at 5 (the age of FGM), or even 10 (a common age of forced marriage)?  I felt called to speak up for the three million voiceless girls, so they could at least understand the implications of any informed choices for those that chose to be cut later.

Since meeting Fatima in 2005, I have trained in basic midwifery and obstetrics inPakistanand helped run a fistula clinic inNigeria, where girls go for 6 months rehabilitation and to get surgery to correct incontinence caused by obstructed labour, exacerbated by FGM.  I also studied deinfibulation in the UK where FGM can sometimes be partially reversed.

What is missing is a global FGM mapping of who is doing what and what is working.  We have started mapping practises in Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania and Ethiopia after travelling there over the last few years.  This can be followed by local delivery of education programmes to educate all parts of the community; providing psycho-social programmes to deal with the effects of trauma, and corrective medical issues.  These can be done whilst lobbying and advocating the cause with British, EU, African Union and UN bodies.

Another story that has touched my life is of Rahmat who lives in a Kenyan refugee camp close to the Somali border, one of 460,000 displaced by war or famine. “It was the worst day of my life when I was cut,” she told me.  “I now want to campaign to stop this happening to others girls.” When I worked there in 2008, girls like Rahmat made up 0.07% of the population – change agents wanting FGM to end.  Here’s Rahmat’s story…

“My name is Rahmat, and I was born in 1987 in a small village near Kismaayo. I indelibly recall the day when this awful and humiliating practice was done to me. I slept peacefully, yet suspicion crept in as my poor, ignorant mother unusually woke me at dawn, served me milk and told me to shower and led me to bushes on the outskirts of our small village. After a few minutes the ‘great’ village midwife and retinue appeared with other women and girls. From her appearance, we concluded the occasion’s purpose: circumcision!  Soon the atrocious practice started. We were helpless as we followed in succession into the shaking hands of the old woman. She used sharp new razor blades which she called ‘cutters’. I could not save myself; I was only five years old. When my turn came, she had a hidden grudge for me and painfully cut almost all my external genitals.  I remember an explosion of hot searing pain in my crotch, as I screamed like a mouse in a trap. She sewed the labia minora after the operation and tied my legs together. A lot of blood oozed out from the mutilated region such that I fainted.

When I regained consciousness, I found that during the operation all the outer parts of my genitals were cut off and the mutilated opening stitched up with thorns leaving a passage the size of a rice grain. There was still hot pain in between my legs and the slightest movement so aggravated that tears would well up in my eyes. I use to walk like a cripple because my thighs had been tied together so that I could move my legs only from the knees down. To reduce the pain of urine pushing through the raw wound of the narrow opening, warm water is used to pour over it while I urinated.

As a result of the fearsome incident, I took shock and in the night I would get frightened.  Ten years after the deed day, I felt the effects of FGM in full swing.  I feel kidney problems and get very painful periods since the tissue debris has no place to pass. I contract infections owing to the stoppage of blood during menses. This resulted in periodic discontinuation of my classes, collapsing regularly in school. However, more dreadful is what the future holds for me. Seeing the problems women encounter during child delivery and labour, I fear more than ever to marry a man.  I strongly feel that we need to redouble our efforts to eradicate this ugly, offensive, dirty and backward social practice globally”.