To mark International Day of Zero Tolerance to Female Genital Mutilation, FGM survivor and campaigner Leyla Hussein explores the practice’s motivation and consequences, and what action can be taken to end it.
Female genital mutilation (FGM) comprises all procedures that involve altering or injuring the female genitalia for non-medical reasons and is recognized internationally as a violation of the human rights of girls and women.
FGM affects girls and women, not only immediately after they have been mutilated, but for the rest of their lives; the physical wounds may heal but psychological trauma may go on to haunt the individual for a lifetime.
Millions of women and girls affected
Globally FGM now affects over 200 million women, 70 million more than before, according to statistics published by UNFPA, jointly with UNICEF. In Africa alone about 92 million girls over the age of 10 are estimated to have undergone FGM. In Indonesia 80 million girls have undergone this practice and 30 million are affected in Nigeria.
The Home Office has estimated that in England and Wales there are over 137,000 girls and women living with FGM and 66,000 girls under the age of 15 are at risk every year. The European Parliament estimates that 500,000girls and women in Europe are living with the consequences of FGM. Every minute five girls globally will undergo FGM. If it takes you 10 minutes to read this blog, by the time you finish 50 girls will have undergone FGM.
The psychological impact
Over the past 15 years, I have met women of all ages and from a wide demographic through my work as a campaigner and psychotherapist for women affected by FGM and other forms of violence. Most FGM survivors were told - and it is has been engraved into their psyche - that FGM was done out of love and that it was for their own benefit. They are left with severe physical scars, but we must not forget the psychological affects that they suffer on a daily basis from post-traumatic stress.
Sexual dysfunction affects many FGM victims. One woman I worked with said, “Leyla the vagina doesn’t belong to me - it’s my husband’s. Sex isn’t for women.” Many might be baffled by this statement but it reminds us of the fundamental reason why FGM is practiced. Affected communities give many reasons for the practice, such as religion or culture; it’s clean; or that it keeps women and girls beautiful. However, FGM is fundamentally practiced to control women and girls’ sexuality. This practice stems from a patriarchal system; the sad truth is the whole concept of patriarchy was built on fear of the vulva and its power.
Establishing a counselling service
I founded a counselling service, the Dahlia Project, in 2013 to help FGM survivors unpack the abuse and injustice they had endured as children in a safe space. As a survivor of FGM myself, I was training as a therapist and, during one-to-one therapy, my tutor suggested that I join a support group. However, there wasn’t a group for FGM survivors and so instead I joined a survivors’ group for women who had experienced many different forms of violence. In these sessions I found myself explaining and teaching FGM to my therapist and fellow group members; this wasn’t a useful approach in terms of my healing. Dahlia is a place where the women can talk and never have to explain FGM – only tell their stories and be supported through that process.
FGM’s wider significance
FGM is everyone’s business. Why? That’s very simple - it is child abuse and a form of sexual abuse. Yes, it is sexual abuse - touching anyone’s genitals by force and without consent is sexual abuse. When tackling FGM, it is critical that we use the correct language, so we need stop the political correctness of calling it cultural or religious practice.
This is abuse. Full stop. We need to deal with it accordingly. FGM is simply an act that oppresses women and controls their sexuality. The control of women’s sexuality is a global issue, whether is through domestic violence, early or forced marriage, or slut shaming.
The question I’m most often asked is, ‘will FGM ever end?’ It absolutely can, but only if we end the patriarchal systems that control women and their sexuality. We still live in world where women are taxed for having periods. We have a big battle ahead of us, but I urge you all to think about using your own platforms to educate others not just on FGM but ending oppression of women and girls globally.
I recently created a photo project with photographer Jason Aswhood called The Face Of Defiance, which stems from my clinical work. Many of the women including myself were tired of being portrayed as sad victims, which we are not. This project seeks to raise global awareness of FGM and to encourage survivors globally to support change initiatives. This includes breaking the cycle of FGM for their daughters. The women are portrayed in their chosen voices; they are strong, beautiful, and sensual. You, in your own networks, can create different platforms to highlight this issue.
My dream is to see a society where girls are not judged or violated based on their gender. Sadly that’s what I was subjected to; I was simply a 7 year old girl, and my family and community felt I needed to be controlled.