Articles on Shifting Sands
We need a zero tolerance approach to racist FGM campaigns
Interview with Kebe. Despite having been circumcised, I think the anti-FGM campaigns are as damaging as the practice is.
I was born to Nigerian parents, in the UK, in 1978. Because Nigeria had been a British colony until 1960, my dad was awarded a scholarship to train here as a doctor. He went on to become a surgeon. My mother was one of two daughters of a wealthy cocoa farmer. He held progressive views about women and made sure his girls got a good education. Mum also came to the UK to study, paid for by her family. She got a PhD. They had two daughters.
I returned to Nigeria with my Mum when I was 4.5 years old. My older sister stayed here with my Dad. We saw each other frequently because they visited Nigeria regularly. But my Dad died when my sister was 10 years old. She then joined us in Nigeria.
Because it was customary then that single women did not raise children alone in Nigeria, we were brought up by the extended family. My mother’s youngest sister ‘adopted’ me, and I became the fifth child in a household of four cousins; two girls and two boys. My sister went to boarding school and my Grandmother’s sister became her ‘guardian’.
After school, I attended an accountancy college. But aged 19, and still a student, I got pregnant. My son was born in 1996. Although an unplanned pregnancy and a life changing event, I was determined that in addition to being a good mother, I would continue my studies and have a career. My family and partner were supportive.
I graduated as an Accountant in 1998. I did well at work, became a regional Bank Manager and worked until 2002.
But political instability and a banking crisis forced me to rethink both my career and my future in Nigeria. I’d also noticed that Nigerians with western experience had an advantage over those of us without it. Because I had a British passport, I decided to return to the UK to gain that experience. I’d planned to return home to Nigeria after a few years.
Return to the UK
So when my son was seven, I made a difficult decision and left him with my family in Nigeria. Although my partner had a very good job there, because his qualifications wouldn’t have been recognised in Britain, he decided not to come with me.
My older sister and her husband were back in the UK by then. But they couldn’t accommodate me in their small London flat, so I moved to Scotland to live with a friend. My son joined me when he was 16 and he’s now in University.
What do you remember about being circumcised?
When I was 13 years old and in high-school, my aunt decided that all of the girls in her household should be circumcised. The boys had been circumcised soon after birth. My female cousins were then six months and seven years old. In Nigeria, children unquestioningly accept the authority of their elders. So when my auntie said we needed to be circumcised, we accepted this.
I was the eldest girl in my auntie’s household and was expected to set a good example to my cousins. She loved and wanted to protect me, and hoped being circumcised would prevent me becoming a promiscuous teenager. This was despite that neither my auntie nor my mother had been circumcised. Nor was my sister.
A Nurse known to the family came to the house to carry out the procedures. I hadn’t had advance warning of it but did as I was told. My auntie held my hand as I felt myself being cut, maybe with a scissors. I felt sharp pain and bled a little. Afterwards I wore a pad to absorb the blood. The first time I urinated afterwards was very painful and stung a lot. I still remember that vividly. But the pain soon lessened.
The Nurse returned to check on us some days later. I became scared, fearing that I’d be cut again. Fortunately all was OK.
Because circumcision was such a routine, normal thing for boys and girls, nobody dwelled on it, and I too quickly forgot about it. But I developed a bit of a phobia about nurses in uniform which I still have to fight.
It was only much later that I learnt what FGM was. When I had a routine smear test, a Nurse told me that I’d had a ‘Type I’ (WHO definition).
My son’s birth
When my son was born I had a normal delivery, and like many women, needed an episiotomy. But when it came to having it sutured afterwards, I became upset and resisted because it brought back memories of being circumcised. My mother (who’d not undergone the practice) couldn’t really understand why I was so upset. But I also haemorrhaged and needed a blood transfusion. I wasn’t really aware of being sutured then.
But I developed a urinary infection. I wouldn’t allow myself to urinate because the memory of the pain after being circumcised was so vivid. So I was catheterised while the infection was treated. Then I was able to urinate normally again.
In addition to the psychological effects, that teenage experience also affected my sex life. I’ve had some problems. And it has put me off having another child. But it’s not something I dwell on, or feel I need help with. I’ve more important things to worry about.
So why, despite the pain and problems that you describe, are you so opposed to the anti-FGM campaigns?
Of course I don’t agree with girls being cut. But because the practice is such a sensitive topic, I think the way that campaigns are being conducted, and the language used is really problematic.
Words like ‘barbaric’ and ‘mutilation’ are insulting and unhelpful. For example, when Britain made same sex marriage legal, who would’ve been so insensitive as to insult gay people by publicly disagreeing with it, even though you might not, privately. You don’t publicly denounce gay marriage out of respect for gay people. However, it seems OK to insult people’s cultural practices when it comes to FGM.
When discussing the issue in public, surely the views of people who’s opinions matter and maybe need changing, needs to be the priority? Language is very important. As are symbols. So using cup cakes that look like female genitals are really inappropriate. But campaigners seem to love the shock factor that this tactic generates.
While it might make them feel good, if people do not talk about their genitals in public and are embarrassed by the conversations and cakes, who really is benefiting? Statutory bodies also seem to like this approach, but for many at the receiving end it’s inappropriate.
I also think the emphasis of the practice not having health benefits misses the point. Female circumcision is mostly not practiced for health reasons. Even if benefits were identified, would that mean it would be officially tolerated and made legal? I doubt it.
How is ‘FGM’ viewed in Nigeria?
Nigeria is almost like two countries when it comes to how it operates and how female genital cutting is practiced.
The country has Christian and Muslim populations. Most Muslims are Sunni and live in the northern parts. The Christian population is mainly in the central and southern parts. Those were also more influenced by colonialism and its legacy.
FGM was outlawed in Nigeria in 2015. But it continues as part of a celebratory ritual. It’s also been medicalised and in wealthy areas is often done in hospitals.
The Muslim north is a more conservative part of the country and ‘Type 3’ is commonly practiced there, even among educated people. Child marriage is also common and many young girls develop vaginal fistulae in labour.
Reasons for supporting genital cutting can be complex. I think the emphasis on it being done to, and practiced predominantly by uneducated people is also inaccurate. My auntie who arranged for us girls to have it, was educated to PhD level and is well read.
Adult women want to be circumcised
I know that some educated women, working abroad, regularly return to Nigeria to undergo the procedure they didn’t have as children, because it has come to mean so much to them. Maybe that’s their response to the anti-FGM campaigns?
A practising Doctor in Kenya is also trying to have the FGM law there revoked. She rightly believes that adult women should be able to choose to be circumcised. But can’t.
It’s hard for outsiders to understand this, but it’s crucial if the practice is to end for children. Obviously what adults do with their bodies is their business.
Look for example at tattoos. They are increasingly fashionable in the West but Nigerians had had them for ions, and for many reasons.
When my great-grandmother was born for example, there was no such thing as a birth certificate. So to mark her birth, a tree was planted in her name and the type of tree tattooed on her mid-back. When she died, the age of the tree was gauged to estimate her age.
Many people also have important tribal marks on their faces, hands or shoulders. I have a not very pronounced facial mark. I deliberately had this done in Nigeria because I wanted one similar to my much loved Grandmother’s.
Times and views change
How problems are viewed change with time and circumstances. Consider domestic abuse. Until recently it was automatically assumed that men were solely to blame for it. They were thought to need anger management training to help them overcome violence directed at their female partners.
And women were considered fragile victims, in need of protection. But we now know that many factors are at play and a number of drivers are important; social, political economic and psychological.
Similar applies to genital cutting.
How ‘awareness raising’ is done in regard to female circumcision is very important. Targeted audiences may have many problems e.g. housing, financial, educational or childcare. ‘FGM’ may also be a problem but it may be well down their list of concerns. Or it may not be a concern. But campaigners seem determined to make it a problem and seem interested in one thing only: women’s ‘FGM’ status.
Awareness raising in Nigeria
NGO’s are also very active around FGM in Nigeria and even employ health professionals as campaigners. Many will publicly wear ‘Say No To FGM’ badges, but continue to carry out the practice privately. They also regularly circumcise women prior to weddings.
Similar occurs in regard to abortion. That’s also illegal in Nigeria but Doctors can be bribed into conducting them.
Despite that it’s against their employment contract? Yes. Health professionals are not immune to financial inducements.
Experienced NGO’s and charities understand that double standards apply. In the UK, they will have sophisticated policies, procedures and guidance that employees and agencies they work with anywhere in the world must sign up to.
But when working overseas, they have to turn a blind eye to the corruption inherent in dealing with local systems. What’s said and campaigned for in public can be very different to what actually said and done in private. So signing anti-corruption forms is commonplace but meaningless. They know full well that some of their employees will be paid cutters.
On the ground, grant applicants quickly learn what to say and how to pitch their funding bids in order to meet funding criteria. They also know that organisations like DfID has money to spend. Corruption like this is rife.
What do you think should happen?
Communities need to be encouraged, and allowed to take the lead on an issue as complex as this. It matters to them, and they understand it better than anybody. Top down campaigns, those loved and approved by governments, NGO’s, charities and development agencies just don’t work. They nevertheless manage to gather enough ‘evidence’ for grant applications and provide the positive feedback necessary to secure ongoing funding.
But look at what’s happened in Bristol.
There, Somali Parents Against Stigma (SPAS) was formed in response to an allegation of ‘FGM’, followed a court hearing.
A Somali father was falsely accused of arranging to have his daughter’s genitals cut. The Bristol Safeguarding Partnership Model, one that the Somali community was purported to have helped develop, but in reality hadn’t, has been celebrated internationally for promoting a city-wide, zero tolerance approach to FGM. But supporters of the Model have helped discriminate against and stigmatise that community. Through SPAS, the community successfully and publicly challenged the Model. They say they don’t practice ‘FGM’ but because the Model presupposes they do, its supporters operate as though particular people are guilty until proven innocent.
It also seems that FGM funding is going to campaigns, charities and agencies that predominantly further their own interest and continuance. And they cause untold damage. Look at an example of what ‘awareness raising’ has done. Specific people in the UK are being racially profiled at airports during the so called ‘cutting season’. Black women travellers are particularly viewed with suspicion. As though FGM is tattooed on our foreheads.
And why is it that some British girls are allowed to have legal genital modifications, while others can’t? Labiaplasty is legal here for some. That double standard needs to be exposed.
We need a zero tolerance approach to these racist campaigns.
About the Author - Bríd Hehir
Bríd is a retired health professional. She started her career as a nurse and midwife in Africa where she worked for almost four years. She encountered FGM/C in Ethiopia. She then moved to London where she worked in the National Health Service as a midwife, community nurse, health visitor, reproductive and sexual health nurse and manager over a period of 30 years. She did not encounter FGM/C during that time despite working with immigrant communities who are reported to practice it still. She is puzzled by the current reported prevalence of the practice, the official response and associated activism. And is worried that they might cause more harm than good.