FGM is one of the worst physical and psychological scars a girl can be left with.
I met Mandisa in a quiet café in Glasgow. She is a shy, unassuming Kenyan. Ill at ease in company. A mutual friend had introduced us and after weeks of persuasion she agreed to talk to me. Eventually she began to tell me her story. As a mother, what she revealed shocked me to the core, especially the betrayal by her own mother.
Now 30, Mandisa came to Britain when she was six. The family settled in London. When she was eight, her mother said they would be returning to Kenya to see her grandmother and aunts. On the flight ‘home’, Mandisa was told she was going to become a woman. What she didn’t know was the horror that awaited her. This involved female genital mutilation (FGM), the practice of removing the clitoris and many of the outer parts of the vagina.
Young girls in the UK are sometimes taken to their ancestral homeland so that FGM can be carried out during their summer holidays, allowing them time to heal before they return to school. Apparently this is, rather gruesomely, called the ‘cutting season’.
“I was so excited,” she told me. “I was going for the whole summer holidays. My mum bought me new clothes to wear. I would be seeing my granny, aunts and cousins.
“Almost immediately, my aunts arrived at the door but didn’t speak to me.I stood behind my mother but she let go of my hand and walked out of the door.
“They laid me on a table, spread my legs, put a rag in my mouth and held me down. I was terrified.”
What Mandisa endured was type II genital mutilation, where the clitoris is removed and also includes the labia majora and/or minora.
A piece of glass or a razor is used to slash off the clitoris and the inner and outer labia. It is usually done by an older woman or, in Mandisa’s case a family member, without anaesthetic on a fully conscious, usually screaming girl who is being held down by three or four women. After the cutting, thorns and silk are used to stitch the two parts of the vulva together. The girl’s legs are then tied together and they are left like that for two to four weeks.
Mandisa remembers the agony and hearing her own screams.
“I must have passed out but I remember waking up that night thinking I had broken glass inside me. My legs had been bound together from my ankles to my thighs. They had used disinfectant to wash me – I can’t stand that smell even now.
“I needed to pee but it burned,’ she continued. ‘It was agonising, as if there were a naked flame on my privates. For the next few days, I refused to go to the toilet.”
Mandisa believes this is what led to years of urinary tract infections and menstrual problems.
As sickening as Mandisa’s history is, she is hardly unique.This is not simply an abhorrent ‘foreign’ custom, beyond the understanding of ‘Western’ values, there are some 66,000 women living with the consequences of FGM in the UK, but another 22,000 girls under the age of 15 are at risk of it here each year, with that number increasing. And it doesn’t end there. Women are actually being sent to the UK to be mutilated, from countries such as France. Since it has been banned there parents and practitioners of FGM are being convicted of the crime.
Female genital mutilation (FGM) includes procedures that intentionally alter or cause injury to the female genital organs for non-medical reasons.
The procedure has no health benefits for girls and women.
Procedures can cause severe bleeding and problems urinating, and later cysts, infections, infertility as well as complications in childbirth increased risk of newborn deaths.
About 140million girls and women worldwide are currently living with the consequences of FGM.
FGM is mostly carried out on young girls sometime between infancy and age 15.
In Africa an estimated 101million girls 10 years old and above have undergone FGM.
FGM is a violation of the human rights of girls and women.
So what is the UK government doing about it?
Female genital mutilation (FGM) is illegal in the UK – it’s also illegal to take a British national or permanent resident abroad for FGM or to help someone trying to do this.
The maximum sentence for carrying out FGM or helping it to take place is 14 years in prison.
I spoke to a midwife from the Royal Berkshire Hospital who confirms that health complications are frequent and many women do not know what has happened to them until they are examined by medical staff.
“Often the women are entirely ignorant about their own anatomy.”
Sex and childbirth, understandably, can be both physically and psychologically excruciating.
The midwife added, “We used to pray that these women would have a boy so that he wouldn’t have to endure what his mother had gone through.”
What justifications can there be for such a practice?
I asked Mandisa to explain what possible ‘traditional’ arguments are in favour of FGM.
“The vagina is not to provide sexual pleasure for yourself but for your husband. In our culture it is essential for a bride to be a virgin (it does not matter how many women the groom has slept with) and FGM acts like a chastity belt.
“The honour of your family and community is at stake.”
Such beliefs are deeply embedded in many countries worldwide.
Naturally, discussions like these are disputed daily, by victims of this primitive procedure and their supporters, but you have to be very brave to speak out against FGM in your own community. Mandisa has had death threats – she now has to carry a personal alarm and has a panic button at home.
“I moved to Glasgow as I was ostracised by my family and some of the African community in London for speaking out.”
This fear of a social backlash helps to reinforce the way in which the procedure itself silences women. Mandisa may well have become a woman in Kenya but here in the UK she lives in the shadows in fear and in pain.
Since discovering that more than 70 women and girls as young as seven seek treatment every month, the NSPCC have launched a helpline to protect UK children from female genital mutilation (FGM).
But is this enough?
The helpline will give advice, information and support for anyone concerned that a child’s welfare is at risk because of female genital mutilation.
Though callers’ details can remain anonymous, any information that could protect a child from abuse will be passed to the police or social services. The Metropolitan Police force is also supporting the FGM helpline as part of its crime prevention work and has provided training to the NSPCC.
“It’s easy to believe that this sort of thing only happens in other countries and cultures, but the reality is it’s happening here in Britain,” Mandisa explains.
“I no longer suffer the pain of sex with my husband. That pain was worse than childbirth.
“But every day I am looking over my shoulder, I am scared that my family will find my daughter. I have to live with what happened and may happen for the rest of my life.
“I cannot forgive my mother for letting this happen to me.”
Mandisa’s life is a snapshot of bitter reality.
By speaking out, raising awareness and making your voice heard we can help put a stop to this barbaric torture of young girls.
As you read this article, there will be a girl as young as six, laid on a table being hacked open and carved in the name of an ancient rite of passage. It has no place in our modern society regardless of race, religion or culture.
For further information: NSPCC
NSPCC 24 Hour FGM Helpline: 0800 028 3550
*Mandisa’s name has been changed to protect her identity