Evening Standard:
FGM: why we need to talk about this violence against women

Tell me about the day that changed your life…” asks the reporter sent to inter­view Waris Dirie (played by Liya Kebede) in the 2009 biopic Desert Flower. The film is an adap­tion of a book that tells the har­row­ing, true story of Waris, a Somalian nomad who, after strug­gling in London for many years, was dis­cov­ered by pho­tog­ra­pher Terence Donovan and became a super­model. In the film, the reporter blindly assumes that the day that changed Waris’ life was that day – when she was spot­ted clean­ing the floors in a fast-food restau­rant. Instead, Waris’ answer unrav­els her gut-wrench­ing his­tory as a victim of female gen­i­tal muti­la­tion.

Most com­monly prac­ticed in Africa, Asia and The Middle East, Female Genital Mutilation inten­tion­ally alters or causes injury to the female gen­i­tal organs for non-med­ical rea­sons.” (NHS​.uk) The oper­a­tion is typ­i­cally per­formed on young girls using knives, scis­sors, scalpels, pieces of glass and razor blades, and often, bar­bar­i­cally, with­out any anaes­thetic.

FGM is often mis­in­ter­preted as a holy tra­di­tion, dating back to Ancient Egypt, despite there being no men­tion of female cir­cum­ci­sion in the Bible or the Qur’an – or any other reli­gious scrip­ture. Female Genital Mutilation is seen as a manda­tory part of grow­ing up as a young female in many com­mu­ni­ties – of many dif­fer­ent faiths – and it is con­sid­ered a vital qual­i­fi­ca­tion in secur­ing a hus­band. Indeed, many men have paid a hefty dowry for the girl’s hand in mar­riage – men who see the cir­cum­cised gen­i­talia as clean, chaste and insur­ance that she is a virgin.

The prac­tice can and does cause excru­ci­at­ing long-term health com­pli­ca­tions includ­ing the spread of HIV, tetanus and Hepatitis B and C, prob­lems during preg­nancy and child­birth due to vagi­nal walls being sewn too nar­rowly, painful men­stru­a­tion and uri­na­tion, and numb­ness during sexual activ­ity. This numb­ness is often the cause of the muti­la­tion, as many com­mu­ni­ties believe it will dis­cour­age a woman from having sex before mar­riage. The sad fact is, con­sid­er­ing the emo­tional and phys­i­cal pain it incurs, it prob­a­bly does.

This is not only an epi­demic that affects women over­seas: 700,000 girls are sub­jected to FGM in the EU, with an esti­mated 137,000 of those women in the UK, and num­bers in the US have dou­bled in the last ten years.

Google FGM or type it into YouTube and a number of arti­cles and short form doc­u­men­taries appear, but for such a wide­spread and seri­ous issue, it is often swathed in secrecy, shame and family loy­alty.’

Waris, now 50, has ded­i­cated her life to cam­paign­ing against FGM via the Desert Flower Foundation, which she set up in 2002. She told Refinery29 UK that: The media plays a key role in the fight against FGM. Without dis­cussing FGM in public, no politi­cian would do any­thing to stop this cruel crime on inno­cent little girls. The per­pe­tra­tors must be pun­ished, hard.”

Waris was one of the first people to talk about the epi­demic pub­licly; she pub­lished her best-sell­ing book Desert Flower in 1998, and was a UN Special Ambassador from 1997 and 2003. You will suffer for the rest of your life from trauma, night­mares, chronic pain and many more prob­lems”, she says, and as nobody con­trols com­mu­ni­ties prac­tic­ing FGM and the integrity of the girls, the crime does not stop.”

One of the most ago­nis­ing parts of her film, and her life story, is the dis­cov­ery of Waris’ cir­cum­ci­sion by her British room­mate, Marilyn. Only a cut woman is a good woman,” she says, defi­antly, in the film. Her chill­ing words echo the over-arch­ing feel­ing towards FGM in coun­tries where it is preva­lent. Cutting, seem­ingly, has a Pied Piper effect, where most people under­stand its effects and realise that it is morally wrong, but would much rather not deal with the shame of being ostracised by their com­mu­nity.

Safa Nour is the little girl from Djibouti who was cast as the young Waris in the film. On accept­ing the role, Safa was pro­vided with pri­vate edu­ca­tion and her family given food, water, travel and med­ical care, under the con­di­tion that her par­ents signed a con­tract stat­ing they would never sub­ject her to FGM. Devastatingly, this impor­tant act of pre­ven­tion had unfore­see­able results, with Safa’s father speak­ing out about his unease with the deci­sion to sign the con­tract, admit­ting that his family are now shunned because we have an unclean, uncir­cum­cised daugh­ter.” Though making FGM ille­gal glob­ally is a cru­cial and impor­tant first step, the res­o­lu­tion is not as simple as ban­ning the prac­tice and hoping it rip­ples change among com­mu­ni­ties, because the inten­tion is often mis­taken as an unwill­ing­ness to under­stand tra­di­tion. Implementing long-term plans for FGM pre­ven­tion and dis­sim­i­la­tion of taboos must also happen. People prac­tic­ing FGM have to be edu­cated”, Waris urges.

There are a number of women opting to claim back what was taken away from them by dein­fibu­la­tion (rever­sal surgery), which is becom­ing increas­ingly common. Charitable organ­i­sa­tions like the Desert Flower Foundation are enter­ing into spon­sor­ship con­tracts with fam­i­lies, asking that they aban­don the prac­tice in exchange for school places for the girls, reg­u­lar appoint­ments with pedi­a­tri­cians and edu­ca­tion for par­ents by way of work­shops.

FGM is a bar­baric attempt to sup­press women and strip them of their sex­u­al­ity in the most basic and degrad­ing way. In many of these coun­tries across the world, women have no choice in what is done to their bodies. And even when the wounds heal, the psy­cho­log­i­cal damage remains for­ever.

Fortunately, atti­tudes towards Female Genital Mutilation are slowly start­ing to change in rural com­mu­ni­ties and it is ille­gal in most coun­tries – Nigeria out­lawed the prac­tice this year – but change must come quicker, as there are an esti­mated 3 mil­lion girls in Africa at risk of under­go­ing female gen­i­tal muti­la­tion in 2016, accord­ing to the World Health Organisation.

Sadly, for many, it’s simply too late.