"The cycle of FGM can be broken"
As the BBC drama Call the Midwife tackles female genital mutilation in a groundbreaking episode on Sunday, we look back on this guest post written by Leyla Hussein in 2013.
Leyla explains how she struggled to come to terms with the betrayal of being forced to undergo FGM as a young girl - and how she managed to prevent her own daughter from being cut.
Warning: upsetting content
Co-founder, Daughters Of Eve
Posted on: Wed 06-Nov-13 12:07:44
(54 comments )
I underwent FGM at the age of seven. I was pinned down by the people I trusted, while my flesh was being cut off. To this day, I struggle to describe how that pain felt, but I know it was torture - and I wouldn’t wish it on my worst enemy.
I knew the moment my daughter was born that I wanted a different fate for her. I wished to create an environment where she feels safe - physically and emotionally.
I’ve been campaigning to end FGM for the past 15 years, as a co-founder of Daughters of Eve, as an anti-FGM activist, a member of the FGM Special Initiative and a trained psychotherapist. So I’m no stranger to talking about the subject.
But one of the hardest aspects of FGM is how it affects family relationships - and particularly, the mother-daughter relationship. This is hard to discuss - FGM is a cycle which moves from mother, to daughter, to granddaughter. But it's a cycle which can be broken - I've made a documentary about how I did it, which has been shown on Channel 4.
It wasn’t until the later stages of my pregnancy that I began to deal with the trauma of what had happened to me. I used to be terrified of any intimate medical examination, and a smear test was enough to set off a panic attack. During my antenatal appointments I would often black out. Then, during one of these appointments, a specialist nurse asked me the question no one else knew - or dared - to ask: ‘Were you cut?’
I said I was. She explained to me that my body was experiencing flashbacks. Until that day, I had never made the association.
The Specialist Nurse explained the legal framework around FGM; she provided me with information about available services and gave me counselling. I feel entirely indebted to her. If I hadn’t been lucky enough to meet her at that point in my life, I still don’t know for sure if, perhaps, I would have put my own daughter through this hell.
But from the moment I came to associate the psychological problems I was experiencing with FGM, I knew I would do everything in my power to protect my daughter from my fate. This is why the intercollegiate recommendations - launched in 2013 by a coalition of Royal Colleges, trades unions, and Equality Now - are so important; health professionals cannot now look away. Training cannot be optional when the safety of girls depends on it.
Making sure my daughter was uncut is my biggest accomplishment. For my whole family, breaking the cycle demanded great strength. My brother had to stand by us too, despite the stigma. His role as a man is always questioned: "your niece is not cut." All my family has gone on a journey with me.
From the moment I decided I would protect my daughter from FGM, I knew I had no choice but to confront my family. All of us had to break the cycle. I could never ensure my daughter’s safety unless we were all on board. Of course, the most difficult step was confronting my mother about what she had done to me. The Specialist Nurse suggested I attend counselling to find the strength to do what I had to do. However, my first experience with counselling was unsuccessful. I’ve always had a very close relationship with my mother. When I told my counsellor that my mother loved me deeply, he asked me why I thought she had decided to cut me. I was not ready to face that question, so I walked out.
It wasn’t until a few years later, when I decided I wanted to become a counsellor myself, that I realised I could no longer avoid that question. My new therapist suggested I ask my mother about her own experience of FGM. At first, she was reluctant to talk. She said whenever she spoke of that day, her kidneys hurt. I persisted, and eventually, she decided to speak to me. She had gone through the same hell, twice. A neighbour had seen her ride a bicycle some days after her cutting; he said it had not been done properly. Once more, she was pinned down and mutilated.
My mother never thought my sister and I could avoid the knife. She thought the best she could do was to pay the cutter not to perform the most severe type of FGM, and to keep his mouth shut about it. Everybody in the family, including us, thought we had Type 3 FGM, when in fact we had Type 2. My mother thought that would be enough to protect us. I had to explain to her that the violation starts when the people you trust pin you down and maim you. The psychological abuse cannot be avoided.
In the course of counselling, more and more memories from that day started to surface. I now remember in detail the clothes me and my sister wore, the smell of food being prepared, and the presents – gold watches – we were given after the cutting. I also came to understand how that day had affected my relationship with my sister. As the oldest, I'd always felt protective of her - but on that day, I had failed her.
Neither of us was prepared for what was going to come. We had recently moved back to Somalia from Saudi Arabia and had never heard of FGM. I remember being puzzled by the celebrations; it wasn’t my birthday. My neighbour’s daughter was the first to tell me what was going to happen. As she explained, I heard my sister’s scream. It sounded like someone was strangling her.
My relationship with my sister was strained for years. She would always say, "you’re not my mother," whenever I’d feel the need to protect her. I had to come to terms with the guilt I felt for not having saved her, and understand that interfering with her life now, would not change the past. Our relationship only started to improve when I began to campaign against FGM. She told me that I had to accept that I was also a child and unable to help her. I now feel I have gained back my sister.
Making sure my daughter was uncut is my biggest accomplishment. For my whole family, breaking the cycle demanded great strength. My brother had to stand by us too, despite the stigma. His role as a man is always questioned: "your niece is not cut." All my family has gone on a journey with me. We’ve all had counselling because we wanted to set an example and to make sure that we could break the cycle.
My daughter says "you don’t hurt people, Mummy - that’s simple, isn’t it?" It should be, but it’s not. It required all of us to make sure she was protected.
I was lucky to have the right services around me when I became pregnant. No one can go on this journey without specialist support. That is why I continue to offer counselling for women today, even when funding is scarce or non-existent. I can’t turn women away. But such services need to be mainstreamed, and widely available for survivors around the country.
By Leyla Hussein
I admire your strength and watched your documentary and found it very thought provoking. I have also signed the petition. Wishing you lots of luck with your campaign.
Here is the documentary on 4OD. Please try and watch it.
Please please please can everyone make sure they sign the petition. It needs to reach 100,000 and is a long way off.
Signed and shared. This is child abuse.
Put link on facebook and a fair few of my friends have shared too. We'll get there.
You are an inspirational woman! As a health professional myself I am aware of fgm but feel that it is something which not many are aware about as you have identified yourself. I was not aware of fgm untill I did my training a few years ago. As a mother of three children myself I can not imagine what it must have been like for you and to protect your child. You should be so proud of yourself with your campaign. You are such an incredible woman and to speak out and support others like you do (even those that have never shared this with anyone you are making a massive difference) you keep going girl!!!!!!!! YOU ARE AMAZiNG xxx the documentary was so so sad and i sobbed but was a great idea and hopefully 'one day' this shocking abuse will STOP but untill then my heart goes out to you all and I will do everything in my power to support fgm xxx
Just like you Leyla, I too had the same experience as did other countless women. I happen to be a mother of a teenage girl and it never occurred to me to subject her to FGM and from my observations majority of our community especially in the west do not practice this. The only thing I find strange is the motivation of campaigners like you. Is it all about caring for girls or are there other agendas?
What a powerful documentary, especially watching the reaction of those young men when they saw the reality of what young girls endure.
It should not have been shown at such a ridiculously late time of night but it was good to see you on 'This morning'.
Are there any plans to get some sort of information into schools to educate young girls who may be targeted at some stage in their lives of where to go for help? Is there any help for girls?
Petition is signed x
Thank you for this post. Your bravery is commendable.
You can read more about Leyla and Sarian's work with Manor Gardens Health Advocacy project here www.manorgardenscentre.org/health-advocacy
There is also the option to donate if you feel strongly about supporting our work together.
I am watching your programme now and am struck by the honesty and openness expressed by everyone in the film. Truly inspirational and I would like to get involved in any way I can. I was aware of FGM before this but this programme put it in a way which can be easily understood and the reality on every level confronted.
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I watched the documentary last night and I was horrified. I knew a little about FGM but last night's documentary made me angry, upset, choked. These poor little girls without a voice. The issue must be social because I can't believe, with our natural inclination to protect our children, that a parent would inflict this on their child unless they felt they had good reason.
I sincerely hope the documentary is shown in secondary schools around the country to start the debate and education with the young and stop the cycle.
I have passed the petition on and of course signed it - but I want to do more - what more can we do?
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There has been a lot recently in the media about FGM in the last few weeks and months. What was a taboo, even in this country has now become a subject that is openly discussed, at least in the UK. This has only happened as a result of people like you who are strong enough and brave enough to stand up and say that this is wrong. Your daughter is lucky to have you as a mother.
Good comments but nothing has been said about the men in these communities who practice FGM. They are the "demand" side, wanting a virgin bride, a faithful wife and certainty that her children are his own, because she cannot enjoy sex and therefore is unlikely to stray. Where necessary, this can be enforced by extra violence, ie the murder of daughters who lose their virginity before marriage. Let's not loose perspective and exclusively blame the mothers here.
I watched your documentary last night. I was aware of female genital mutilation as I was a midwife and a student of mine did an a study on fmg which she presented to lots of local groups.
However I was shocked that girls are being cut in Britain and that girls from Europe are brought over to be cut. I was also shocked and then angry that Theresa May avoided meeting with you. This is child abuse of the worst kind. If it happened to white girls or, heaven forbid, boys were mutilated in this way, it would be stamped out immediately.
Best wishes for the future
Inspirational - all its takes is a few brave women...
I watched it too.
To be honest, the Theresa May incident-I think that could potentially do the cause more GOOD than harm. It was blatantly ignoring you when she KNEW you were there and now it has been broadcast on live television.
Had she come out, and talked to you all-it may be that the public would be thinking 'Ah TM is taking it seriously!' But she didn't. That will enrage people.
Have just watched this on 4OD and was shocked and moved. I've signed your petition Leyla and emailed the link to my family and friends and told them about last night's programme in case they didn't spot it.
What you are doing is truly impressive and the imaginative ways you have thought of to raise awareness and engage people in your campaign are brilliant.
I watched the programme and was moved by your bravery and courage. It is incredible to think that these barbaric crimes against women and girls are finally being challenged and lets hope and pray they become just a distant memory within a culture and no one has to endure FGM.
Watched, signed and shared the petition.
Is Channel 4, or 4Seven going to repeat it in the next few days?
Leyla your bravery and courage at tackling such a topic is truely inspirational. I can't believe that in 2013 this is still happening to girls, i really hope your campaign raises the awareness it needs to stop this abuse.
4Seven say they will repeat on Sunday night/Monday morning at 11 November, 1.05AM
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