"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
(55 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 bravery as this cannot be easy to write this and place in the public domain.
Considering in the UK alone there are 20000 girls a year who are vulnerable to FGM it is important we shine a spotlight on this.
My concern is that grass-root activists must be supported so that the message is heard in all the community centres, villages, churches and mosques. I hope that this does not drop from the news and that people and healthcare professionals are educated in what to watch for and how to approach it.
I hugely admire you for standing up against a very complex issue.
It shouldn't be in today's society that as a parent you must fight like this to prevent your child being tortured and causing her years of physical and mental pain.
I work as a Health Visitor and have had no training on FGM, I only know what I have researched myself.
I think if the UK wants to take its laws seriously and really make a difference then this issue needs to be highlighted. I've worked with midwifes and school nurses who also are not trained up in what signs to look for or what children are most at risk.
It is painful, as a woman, to even read and think about experiences such as yours Leyla.
Your bravery and the reasons for it are sobering. Words cannot express my sympathy and admiration. You go sister x
Message withdrawn at poster's request.
Your daughter is lucky to have such a strong mother.
It's important for those in communities that practice FGM to speak out and campaign, otherwise it can be taken as interference and preaching. Great job you're doing
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
Looking in from the outside, I think this is one of the things that is hardest to understand - why do mothers allow or encourage this to happen to their daughters. But it also highlights how much the training of mainstream midwives / healthcare professionals could help to make a difference.
I have the utmost admiration for your bravery - not only for breaking the cycle in your own family, but sharing your story in order to help others.
It is humbling.
As Beach says - Go sister!
I admire you courage, and want to tell you, you have my support. This is a ritual that should be in the past and not in any young girls future.
Really inspiring to read. Your family have been through so much and breaking this cycle is SUCH an achievement. I only wish all women everywhere could be forever spared this.
I admire you and the strength to put this in the public arena. You have my support.
FGM is something I only learnt about recently. I was incredibly moved by your essay, and I wish you the best I luck.
I researched fgm when I was working with teenage runaways (I'm a SW now) and it was something that our service were trying to maintain an awareness of as a possible reason for young people going missing.
I spent a day reading up on a subject they as a white British woman, hadn't yet meant much to me. I was quite traumatised by what I read online so I cannot imagine how painful and terrifying experiencing this procedure must be. I also do not pretend to understand how complicated it is and tied up inside maternal relationships - it's very complex and difficult.
I will be bracing myself to watch the doc tonight as I find it deeply upsetting.
Layla I think you are incredibly brave and strong x
Message withdrawn at poster's request.
Bravo. You sound like a brave and sensitive woman. You protected your DD and I admire you enormously.
Leyla, you and your family are strong and brave. Thank you for posting with such honesty.
I will be watching the documentary tonight.
Look after your daughter -
Thank you for such a brave and insightful post. I've had some involvement in support services for women who've been forced to undergo fgm so am aware of the huge battle you will have had to face and the courage you have had to find.
It's a shame that channel 4 are airing your film so late - what is their rationale for this?
What great post, thank you for sharing
Your daughter and family are lucky to have you. Your community and the women you help are lucky to have you. You are lucky to have you. Moving and powerful writing made more poignant as I rock my baby daughter. I hope the campaign builds momentum and reaches where it needs to.
You go sister.
I have just watched your programme on Channel 5. Truly shocking stuff.
You are an inspiration Leyla, your daughter is blessed - as are all the future girls you will help. Good luck with your campaign.
Congratulations Leyla on the documentary and on your campaign. I found the part with the young men incredibly powerful.
I signed your petition and from the time I went on to sign to the time I revisited having confirmed my email address I think around 3000 signatures had been added. Let's hope there's lots more.
All power to you and thank you for shining a light on FGM in the UK.
You are an inspiration Leyla.
An incredibly powerful programe, why it has to be shown so late is beyond understanding.We are allowed to watch meaningless rubbish all night and have to stay up late to watch something that should have been shown before the school holidays at peak viewing times. As we cannot trust the MPs to do anything maybe we should target their wives and get them to force their husbands to watch this programe and think about how they would feel if it happened to their daughters.Culture and racism should not be an issue it is plain and simple CHILD ABUSE. How parents can allow their daughters to go through this is beyond my comprehension.But that aside we need to get this programe repeated as many times as possible. You need funding, is there any where we can donate money or help in a hands on way.
You have my admiration and full backing in your campaign
I watched your documentary this evening and was educated as I knew that there was FGM but what was done I did not really know. One thing that has struck me is that you say children are being brought into the UK from other EU countries because we are not policing these laws as other countries are, this must stop NOW and as for the Home Secretary refusing to meet you she should be ashamed of herself. I see in the short time since the program you petition has increased by 10,000 so I think she may be able to find some time very soon to see you. Good luck with your campaign but be aware some politician will steal you petition as you lose control of it when you reach the Back Bench Committee stage and I know this because I started the Return VAT on Air Ambulance fuel bills.
I agree with chris about the timing of the programme-almost as if it was hidden. Definitely need to repeat it. Lots.