Khadija Gbla, Director of No FGM Australia, is a 26 year old Australian campaigning against female genital mutilation. Born in Sierra Leone. Her family sought refuge in Australia in 2001 after enduring a thirteen-year civil war within her homeland.
After initially studying at the Adelaide Secondary School of English, for only two months, Khadija went on to study at Mitcham Girls’ High School. Since then she has won multiple awards and has represented Australia in the international arena at the Harvard National Model United Nations, Commonwealth Youth Forum and Australian and Africa Dialogue.
Khadija has supported many multicultural initiatives and in most recent times, has been a vocal advocate against female genital mutilation (FGM).
This is a topic of much discussion both nationally and internationally. Khadija wants everyone to learn more about this important and damaging issue for many women and girls.
If you visit Khadija’s web page http://khadija-gbla.squarespace.com/ you can read her full story.
For now, here’s Khadija’s describing why she started fighting against FGM and how you can help her campaign.
You do a lot of work campaigning against FGM in Australia. Why?
I am a survivor of Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) and I have been advocating against FGM for the past 13 years.
Why do I do the work I do? I do it because it needs to be done. Because I want FGM to end with my generation.
I work to educate people about FGM because FGM is a threat to Australian girls. Only the other day I was in Melbourne for a conference and I was talking to a lady about my FGM petition (http://www.change.org/en-AU/petitions/tony-abbott-and-michaelia-cash-protect-australian-girls-from-female-genital-mutilation) and she told me about a white Australian friend who was married to a Malaysian man – and, of course, FGM is practiced in Malaysia. And when they had a daughter, the husband wanted her “circumcised”. She didn’t understand – this was the first time they’d had this conversation! It was only when they had a huge argument that she convinced her husband that it wasn’t necessary – after all, he had married her – did he think she was unclean?
And it made me think – what if they hadn’t had that conversation? He could have easily taken his daughter back home for a “holiday”. And she wouldn’t have come back the same as she left. And even now, his mother may not be on board with this change of heart, and she may decide to ‘spend some time with her grand-daughter’ and take her out to have FGM.
I’ve other examples from my community. I run education programs on women’s studies and feminism and activism. One girl from one of my classes told me her story. Her mother started talking about taking her back to Sierra Leone for a “holiday”. Because she’d been in my classes, she knew that although I had been subjected to FGM before I came to Australia, for some girls it remains a very real threat. She felt that something wasn’t right about this holiday. She said “it was the way mum said it and how she made it sound like something important was going to happen once we got to Sierra Leone.”
So she told her father. Luckily, he wasn’t on board at all. He didn’t say anything to his wife but he called back to Sierra Leone and spoke to his family and neighbours. He made sure she was never left alone with her mother.
This girl, this Australian girl, Australian citizen, got onto a plane with her mum and went to Sierra Leone. And while she was there, her mother attempted to kidnap her to get her mutilated. It was by sheer education and the knowledge that this girl was able to protect herself.
I’m happy to say that she came back with her clitoris intact. But many girls aren’t that lucky.
Right there, that is the reality of what is happening in our own backyard. Those two stories. FGM was a real threat to those little Australian girls.
But surely FGM is illegal in Australia?
Yes, in Australia, FGM is a criminal offence in all states and territories. It has been illegal since 1996. However there have been no successful prosecutions, although there are 2 cases in the courts at the moment in NSW. But here’s the thing – these girls, they think that they have come all the way to Australia thinking – “I’m safe here. Australia will protect me.” But there is a big gap between the legal position and protecting girls. For example, this year a girl who was potentially at risk was reported to the Child Safety Office but there was little they could do because the level of evidence is difficult to obtain when a girl is suspected as at risk of FGM. There are no systems in place to ensure that girls at risk of FGM are protected.
Although FGM is a very difficult crime to detect and to prevent, the first step to prevention is awareness, and all frontline staff need to have FGM in their radar as a possible form of child abuse. At the moment many girls are at risk simply because many people do not even know it exists in Australia. Increasing child protection through awareness of FGM is what our campaign is aiming to achieve. This will take a multi-agency approach, with education, health, immigration and the law all working together to get to the point that this brutal practice actually stops.
It’s our problem. Every single person in Australia. It’s not just my problem. I carry it, yes. I live with it. But every single person needs to take responsibility for what’s happening in our own back yard. In our own cities.
It won’t end if we don’t all work together. It takes collaboration.
This is not about culture. I think that has been a big misconception. This is not about race. It transcends that. This is about human rights. This is about the human rights abuse of little girls. Little girls who go to school with your daughters, your nieces, your cousins. They just want to be happy. They deserve to be happy. They deserve to feel pleasure. Damn it, they deserve to one day have an orgasm if they want one. Nobody has the right to take that away from them. And nobody has the right to mess with their bodies.
Why do you think the practice continues?
Well I think the shame, stigma and silence that surrounds female genital mutilation is what has allowed it to survive to this day.
I want to break the silence. Silence has done nothing for us. Silence hasn’t done anything for the little girls who have been put through this horrible practice. Silence hasn’t protected them – in fact silence has ensured that to this day, as we speak, there is a girl somewhere in the world who is crying, bleeding and asking for somebody to stop what is happening to her. Silence did that.
When we as a people are silent, in the face of such a profound abuse of human rights, the practice continues.
We’re silent in the face of such a profound abuse of a woman’s right to her body. Her right to safety. But most of all her right to a goddamn clitoris.
As a survivor, how has FGM impacted you personally?
Female Genital Mutilation changes your whole life. The trauma doesn’t stop when you are held down by your mother or your sister or your auntie or your grandmother while some lady comes towards you with a rusty knife or whatever tool she may use to cut off what she considers to be dirty. What she considers to be useless. It doesn’t stop there. It continues throughout your life. When you are single, you think “why don’t I feel horny, like a normal teenager?”. Then it moves on to “Now I am married, why don’t I feel desire for my partner?”, then “Why can’t I enjoy sex?”. Then you get pregnant and you will be told there will be complications because you have had FGM. Then you are having a baby and there are more problems.
It is the gift that keeps giving. It doesn’t stop.
But let me say, although FGM is a part of who I am, it doesn’t define me. I am not just FGM. I am Khadija. I am a woman. I am a powerful, strong woman. FGM was done to me but it is not me. It doesn’t control my life. It doesn’t control who I am. It just has implications for how I may live my life, that’s all.
What has affected me more is the reaction in my community to my speaking about FGM. We don’t talk about FGM – and I’ve been advocating for 13 years. At home with my mum, it’s not an acceptable subject.
Just recently a documentary maker went to my mother’s house to discuss FGM, and asked her about her stance on FGM. She said “Oh, you know, it’s terrible, very terrible. But you know what – that third type of FGM, that’s so terrible compared to what we do in Sierra Leone. There are no side effects with the one we do in Sierra Leone.”
And I thought – hold on. This same woman was the one who held me down while an old lady mutilated me with a rusty knife. This same woman who has seen me since I started having my period – how painful they constantly are. This is the same woman who has seen me swollen with infections. This is the same woman who has seen me go through so much pain because of her actions. But there she was, saying that what she did had no consequences whatsoever – in the same breath as saying that FGM was terrible.
It’s that silence – in one breath she opposed FGM because she thought that’s what the lady wanted her to say. But in the same breath she proved that she didn’t think it was so bad because she was able to defend her actions and what was done to me and my sister.
So we don’t talk about it in my house, because when we bring it up, I get angry, because of what she did. And she gets angry because she feels like I’m telling her she’s a bad person. So then nobody talks about it. So that we can all live in peace in my house.
That’s the real sad thing about FGM. It’s the silence that happens.
We don’t talk about it. Because it’s too shameful to talk about your ‘down there’. Your ‘hoo-haa’. There you go – even in a modern society we’re uncomfortable calling our body parts what they are meant to be called. Let alone talk about what was done to it. Let alone talk about how someone invaded you in such a personal way. And my mother has tried many times over the years to stop me talking about it. And she’s not the only one in my community who has tried to make me shut up. But I’m not going to stop.
To be honest the hardest part of my FGM journey has been breaking the silence. And the fact, that, for me, it wasn’t easy to find someone to talk to.
I recently participated in an FGM spokesperson program, and as part of it we recorded our digital stories. I have always told my story. It’s part of who I am. I love telling my story. But I realised that there are parts of that story I have always felt ashamed to share because I was made to feel that it was shameful to talk about those things. And I have carried this pain around for a long time.
Things like the frustration in not feeling sexual desire. The frustration in not feeling like women should feel. The frustration that I might not have children because of FGM. And I hadn’t shared that with anybody. It wasn’t ok to say that. Other women who have had FGM pretend that it’s all good in their marriages. Other women pretend that we can all have babies. But that’s not true. It’s not the reality.
But I wanted my story to be real. I wanted to share something that for me was part of the healing. To share the darkest part of what FGM meant to me – my deepest pain.
And the shame was taken away. And you know what else was taken away? The silence. It was broken, because someone decided they would share.
So what should we be doing to eradicate this practice in Australia?
I’ve always said that the fight against FGM has two parts. It’s stopping little girls from having that act done to them. And the second part is supporting survivors like me.
Sometimes we focus on one and not so much on the other. These little girls are between the ages of 6 and 13. We sometimes focus on the mothers and forget those precious little girls. How innocent they are. And what has been taken away from them.
The funny thing is, we’re all united by the same thing: the silence.
So we need to be talking about it. And sometimes we have to be horrified because we get desensitised by things too easily. Because it’s not happening to us. Let’s not let that happen. These girls can’t protect themselves. They can’t defend themselves. But we can.
We can talk about it. We can talk to our family, our friends, our work colleagues and our politicians. Enough people talk about it and action will start to happen. Break the silence for these little girls.
Together we can take a stand and ensure that FGM ends with my generation. Because when I have my daughter, it’s not happening. And nobody in my family is forcing their daughter to be mutilated if I have my way.
So let’s be united in our fight against something that’s happening here in Australia but doesn’t have to be. We can say no.
What are you going to?
We have the resources, we have all the tools. We have social media. We need to get to the PM. He’s the Minister for the Status of Women, he needs to support us. Together we can end FGM in Australia in our generation. No one organisation can end FGM. It’s not possible, and no one person can. It’s only all of us, working together remembering that this is about little girls. Who deserve to be safe.
I have launched a petition with No FGM Australia to ask Tony Abbott , as Minister for the Status of Women, to convene a cross-ministerial meeting to plan and align strategies to prevent FGM in Australia. If you do nothing else, please sign it. (http://www.change.org/en-AU/petitions/tony-abbott-and-michaelia-cash-protect-australian-girls-from-female-genital-mutilation)