“FGM is not an Islamic thing, it is a cultural thing” explains one resident of Northampton. This is a central message echoed by many people who are trying to tackle the issue in UK and beyond. Yet despite this, many people do associate the practice with Islam. Working with Community Reporters from affected communities, we have been gathering stories about the topic of FGM – ranging from experiences of FGM to how people have found trying to address the issue in the community. This feature article brings together some of the key ideas from these stories, and begins to address, what Abade – a local campaigner on the issues describes, as a “hot topic in the community”.

Experiences of FGM

A lot of the stories about FGM talk about it as a “brutal” practise and people’s experience of the procedure are harrowing. Talking about her experience of FGM, Zubeda describes how they didn’t use anesthetics and instead used more natural, or traditional ways of stopping infection and bleeding. Similarly, Florence explains how a young girl from her community was taken by her parents to her home country to have the procedure done and when she returned she became extremely ill. The parents initially tried to pass the illness off as Malaria, but when Florence confronted the Mother, she explained that it was FGM that had caused her daughter to be ill but that in their “culture it is normal, we have to do it”. Despite coming from a community that practices FGM, Florence saw how the child suffered and says this and other experiences like it is why “they have to stop it.”

Reflecting back on her experience of FGM, a Somalian lady explains how it was traumatic and that she went through it without any pain relief and whilst being fully conscious. As a consequence of this, the lady has issues to this day with an Auntie who held her down whilst the procedure took place which has affected their relationship. Many of the stories gathered echoed this – that the procedure was done against their will. However, one woman explained how as a child she felt peer pressure to have procedure done. Speaking about this she states, “I became isolated from my friends and family” as her peers, such as her cousins, had had it done and she felt like she was different to them. She therefore convinced her Mother, who was initially against it, to allow her to undergo the procedure.

The impact of FGM

The impact of FGM is described as a trauma by many of the women in the stories. As Florence states, some of the women “get infections that makes them feel ill all their lives, so I think they are mentally disturbed”. The woman who convinced her Mother to let her undergo the procedure describes how it had serious medical implications for her as a child. As she states, “it took me to survive a long time” as following the procedure she developed an infection and they struggled to contain the bleeding.

Echoing the sentiment of lifelong trauma, a woman who has experienced FGM states that it has left her “scarred for life”. She describes how it has impacted on her life in terms of her marriage and having intercourse with her husband, and also her feelings about her body. She states that she is “ashamed to get undressed” in certain instances such as around her husband or for medical examinations. Addressing how the procedure impacts on women’s personal lives, Zubeda acknowledges that FGM makes it extremely difficult for women to have physically fulfilling relationships. One lady describes herself as disabled as a result of FGM.

Talking about FGM in the Community

Whilst gathering stories about FGM, the Community Reporters did encounter some resistance. In her story, Hamdi explains that people from her community were not happy for her to speak about the topic and her assumption is that they must be “supportive” of FGM as otherwise they would be “open and easy to talk about it”. She goes on to outline how she felt threatened as people suggested that “if anyone got caught out that it would me who had betrayed them”. Zubeda encountered similar hostilities with some people she spoke with. She says that “they did not want me to talk about it all… I was shaming the community”. This was largely because people believed that the practice of FGM is Islamic and was in the Quran. Offering a further explanation as to why it is seen as a negative action to speak about the FGM, one person suggests that because FGM is deeply engrained in people’s cultural psyche it is “unspeakable” for people to say “it is a bad thing”.

A lady who works with families affected by FGM says that because of this deep engraining in people’s psyche, when a parent submits their child to FGM they may do so from a point of good intent, believing it to be a requirement of their faith or culture and/or as a form or protection. For her, she does not feel that the concept that they are harming their child would register in their thinking. This lady goes onto describe how when educating children and young people about FGM the choice of words used or how it is discussed – for example, as child abuse – can have unintended negative consequences. She states, “it very important to choose words properly”. Whilst this lady is supportive of FGM being illegal and is pro educating people about the issue, what she is advocating for is discussions around FGM to be thoughtfully approached and handled, and thus prevent the practise from being pushed further underground. Essentially what this, and the other stories gathered suggest, is that changes to the law will not on their own be able to bring about ideological changes in people’s minds.

Despite the sensitive nature of the topic, perseverance in continuing to bring up the topic within and outside of affected communities does seem to be the way forward. This project is testament to this with the numbers of stories and experiences being gathered by the Community Reporters growing. As Abade suggests, he is engaging youth and families in discussing the topic. Talking about this, he states, that this “is not about women or men, it is a family issue” and in addressing it as such, he feels he is able to make progress in terms of dialogue within the community. Echoing the need for this dialogue not just in affected but wider society, a healthcare professional states that she thinks it is important for “people of many cultures” to understand the topic.

So, what can be done about this issue?

From the stories gathered, people emphasised the role that education plays in the tackling the issue of FGM. As one lady said, “the authorities should make it their duty to educate children in schools about FGM”. Echoing this sentiment, a Community Reporter involved in the project stated that schools are interested in being a part of this but that they were encountering issues in accessing training and support in how to do this.

Outside of formal education, informal sharing of ideas and knowledge is also key, specifically in terms of people from affected communities discussing the issue with other people and their peers from those same communities. As part of this project, the people involved have set up a ‘café session’ in which people can drop by at a designated time and engage in conversations about FGM without any formalities of attending a workshop or course. This dialogue is being extending onto a website being created as part of theprojects, that will use the stories gathered to stimulate further conversations and discussions. What is apparent from this approach and the stories in this article, is that the Law alone cannot bring about the ideological and cultural shifts needed to address the issue of FGM. Education in its broadest sense as a dialogue or an exchanging of ideas, is what the people who shared their stories as part of this project felt would be most effective.

To find out more about the project that these stories are a part of, click here.

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