WARNING: This story contains graphic content.
words by Monica Barry | photo by Eric Sands | Feb 7, 2017 | inspirited
This is a moving story about one woman who experienced abuse at a young age but decided to use her voice to make sure it doesn’t happen to other children. This article shows that entrenched cultural practices aren’t always the best ways, and they can have severe physical and emotional consequences that last a lifetime. Listen to Khadija Gbla as she tells you her very personal – and in some places very shocking – story that led her to her present course and mission of education and support for others.
I was born in Sierra Leone. When I was 3, civil war broke out in 1991. We fled to Gambia, West Africa. We arrived in Australia in 2001 as refugees. I didn’t get a choice. My first thought was “Where the hell is Australia?” People said it was literally the end of the world. There’s nowhere else to go after Australia. We didn’t care, we just wanted somewhere safe and to have a future where people were not trying to kill us. Anywhere would do.
Once we knew we were going to Australia, my mother decided we were going to have FGM (Female Genital Mutilation) before we left. In Sierra Leone it is called circumcision. I didn’t know what it was called at that time. I was around 9 years old.
We ended up in a very remote area in a village. There was no explanation. This old lady came to greet my mum; they had a conversation I couldn’t understand. I found the old lady very scary.
The old woman went back into a hut and came back out with a very rusty knife. I always remember this because it was really orange. I instantly thought this woman was going to kill me! Why else would somebody be holding a knife? My Mum dragged me along with her into a second hut. In my culture you don’t question your parents. I couldn’t say ‘Mum, where are we going?’ That would have earned me a slap across the face.
I knew something was really wrong; it was an instinct. We were in the bush and this woman had a rusty knife. I thought I was being led to the slaughter. Next thing I knew my clothes were off and then my mother had me pinned down to the floor. And of course I struggled – as you would when someone’s on top of you. My mother was far stronger than I was. The old lady grabbed hold of what I now know to be my clitoris. At that age I didn’t know, and there’s not even a word in my language for clitoris. All I knew was that she was holding a piece of my flesh, and then she started cutting away.
I now know I had type two FGM done to me. There are three types. She cut off my outer lips called my labia majora as well as my whole clitoris. This ordeal went on for what felt like forever to me. Have you ever used a rusty knife to cut something? Even a fruit, it takes forever; it’s hard to get through. Imagine that on a piece of flesh with a struggling child and I screamed and passed out multiple times. I just kept trying to get my mother off me. I wanted somebody to make it stop, and she didn’t. She just persisted and kept sawing away, until she was finished and then she threw the flesh on the floor like it was the most disgusting thing she’d ever touched, and left me there to bleed. The only thought in my head was
“What the hell just happened?”
Once that was done my mum put me in the car, took me back to her friend’s house, and I spent weeks sitting in the bathtub with Dettol in it. My mother said that would help with the healing. That was it. Never spoken about it, never explained, and everything changed in that one day.
We arrived in Australia when I was 13 and I started high school in Adelaide. I think the trauma of the FGM was so overwhelming I had to lock it up somewhere. That was the only way I could deal with it. I just totally blanked it out, I had no memories of what happened; I just knew that something was different. Another part of me assumed that everyone probably looked like that down there but it’s not like I could check.
When I was in year 8 or 9, I began volunteering for women’s health, where I met a lady who runs the FGM program. I started helping out the lady with her program, packing pamphlets for her and putting FGM packs together and accompanying her to educate doctors, nurses, and social workers. My role was to explain the cultural context in which something like FGM happens. I was not aware that the program was about someone like me. It was like talking about a technical issue, not a personal one. I could not compute that I was talking about myself as the subject – It was only when I saw a visual picture on a sheet of paper and I saw the different types of FGM that the memories came flooding back.
I looked at the pamphlet, and it was then that I saw the image of type 2 FGM. That was me! Instantly the floodgates were opened! This program was all about protecting kids like me and the amnesia was gone. I booked an appointment with my family therapist who had never encountered this before; there was this kid in front of the therapist saying ‘My mother mutilated me.’
I needed to confront my mother. ‘Why would you do that? Who would do something that was so harmful to a child?” I hadn’t even experienced the full and far-reaching range of effects and issues that would eventually come from what had happened yet, so it was just the pain of the memory, and how brutal it was. I couldn’t see the love in any of it. Learning what had happened was confrontational. Then to confront parents was so unafrican. I didn’t care about respect or boundaries at that moment. I needed answers.
She was just standing there and looking at me as if to say ‘What are you going on about? Why are you so worked up?’ I said ‘You did FGM to me. Circumcision, they call it in Sierra Leone’. She said ‘Yeah, I did that to you.’ I didn’t understand why she was so calm. ‘Why would you do something like that to your daughter?’ ‘It’s part of our culture.’ Her great grandmother did it, her grandmother; her mother did it to her. She was just continuing something that had been in the family.
I said but ‘Why? What’s the point?’ She said it empowered me. She asked me ‘Khadija, do you get itchy?’ I said ‘Itchy? Why would I get itchy?’
She said ‘Down there, does it itch?’ I said no.
It was then that told me the reason why she had done this to me. She said ‘because you had been circumcised, it means you have control over your body: it means you won’t be like those girls running around having sex with everybody because they are itchy and they can’t control themselves. You have self-control and because I did it to you, you will stay a virgin until you get married because you are able to control your body. When you get married to your husband and if you have an argument you can choose not to have sex with him, because you actually don’t need sex. That’s your power, that’s your control.’ This was my mother’s definition of empowerment.
To me that is not empowerment.
For me empowerment is having a choice and having autonomy over my body.
She took that away from me; she made a decision on my behalf about MY body.
She made assumptions about my ability to control my own body and my own sexuality.
Once the realisation of what had happened to me set in, I started to see that it would happen to others and that I was part of a bigger problem. It wasn’t just about me anymore. I continued with the program getting more involved as a peer educator with a new resolve.
My relationship with my mother was strained after that. I felt like I had to live with my perpetrator and we had a very challenging relationship. Once the negative health effects started rolling in it became tense in the house. She did not understand that these issues were linked to FGM. There was no way to talk with my mum about it.
I kept on going with the education program. My mum did not like my involvement, and she would say ‘Stop doing what you are doing. Stop talking about FGM.’ Again she was trying to control me. I said ’HELL NO!’ To her, every time I spoke about it, it was like she had done something bad. She wanted to keep FGM private so as to keep our culture intact. When you have FGM done, you become part of a secret society and no one talks about it.
I decided to break the rules: I chucked all that out the window and decided that ‘No! I am going to talk about it and tell people that it’s not a positive thing, that it’s a cruel act against children.’ I don’t feel I can bond with my mother because she agrees with it. Besides not wanting to take responsibility for what she did and how I feel about it, she still agrees with the practice.
The physical effects I suffer are many. One is that I have no libido; that’s not a choice, and then I was told by a doctor that if I wanted babies I would have a slim possibility, reducing as time went on. My chances of getting pregnant were very low. I also have long and very heavy periods. Usually seven days, pads changed twice an hour. Painful, too, nothing over the counter helps me; I would often have to go to the hospital as a teenager because of how much pain I was in. All they could do was medicate me with very strong painkillers.
I had many ultrasounds and tests when I was 15. They finally discovered that I had fibroids. Not one, but 3, situated near my ovaries. Usually people get fibroids only in your thirties. It’s not normal to have them at such a young age. They can grow and affect your fertility. That became a problem later. I also experienced constant UTIs.
I come from a culture where a woman is absolutely useless without a child. A barren woman might as well be killed, put down like a dog. We are treated as absolutely useless, and once people found out about my fertility issue, it became general conversation and I became the butt of jokes. After a long and trying time in my life, I did manage to have a child, but because of my FGM I went through many complications and I was forced to have a caesarean. It’s not that I didn’t want to have one;
it’s that FGM took that choice from me.
FGM is child abuse, both physical and emotional. It is officially the mutilation of a child who cannot consent. The campaign of education came about because FGM is happening in Australia. Not only are parents taking kids overseas to have it done, they are finding people here to do it. The communities that practice FGM come from Africa, the Middle East, Asia and South America. My culture dictates that my sexuality is controlled, and that I don’t have a right to my body. That’s what FGM is for. That is its premise and its aim.
FGM is practiced for numerous reasons: First is the belief that the clitoris is dirty, it smells, and if you don’t cut it off it will grow as long as a tongue and it will drag along the floor, so it needs to be removed. Also is the belief that if you don’t circumcise girls, they will become promiscuous. It is the thought of those who practice FGM that this is the only way virginity will be kept intact, making it easier on the girls who no longer have to control their libido. Another important cultural reason for this procedure is that if you don’t do it, in certain communities you will be ostracised because FGM is the norm. It is also about belonging and part of a coming of age ceremony. None of these reasons hide the fact that this is violence against women.
For the girls who are made to have FGM there are severe consequences, one of them being the risk of death. Many girls bleed to death. I was one of the lucky ones. Every 12 seconds a girl is mutilated somewhere in the world.
To support girls and women who have suffered this procedure, and to educate the wider community, I have started and am the CEO of my own Cultural Consultancy, which provides cultural awareness, training and motivational speaking for organisations. I am also the Executive Director for the non-for profit organisation NO FGM AUSTRALIA. We recently launched a national hotline on our website. The hotline is to help with advocacy on the part of the perpetrated, and also to report children whom you fear are in danger or that you are worried about in this respect. We recently had our first legal FGM prosecution in Australia. Three people were found guilty. We want to stop FGM because we want to protect our daughters, sisters and we are judging the act, not the people. It’s about judging and condemning the act.
Through strong and determined people like Khadija, we can see that given the chance and the resources, people can make a difference in the lives of others. Hopefully, one day, with more awareness and education programs such as this, some long-held cultural attitudes can change. Also the unimaginable abuse and trauma that these practices cause can be stopped and outlawed in not only western society but in the entire world. No one deserves to be abused, and the children need our protection, and they need a voice which is what Khadija gives.