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Friday, January 8, 2010

Ending the culture of FGM

January 8, 2010 By Bint al-Sultan - The Guardian Like many girls in Sudan, I suffered genital mutilation – but with education, attitudes are beginning to change.

When I was "circumcised" I was five or six, but it happens to girls as young as four. It starts as a ceremony – the girl is bought clothes, gold earrings and bangles. She has henna put on her hands and feet: the preliminaries are regarded as a celebration where she is the centre of attention.

But later they take her and put her in a gadha, which is shaped like a deep dish. They lay her across it and hold her legs open; there are often three people holding her very tight when she's on the gadha, two holding her legs and hands, and one holding her chest and head.

The equipment is handmade: a sharp curved knife which is not sterilised. And the girl is given no anaesthetic. It is usually mostly women in attendance. They leave a little hole for urination. There are no stitches; they treat the wound with herbs, salt and water. It bleeds a lot and the victim is in great pain. I was horribly frightened and crying. The "ceremony" takes as little as 20 minutes or as long as an hour, depending on how much the girl struggles.

In Sudan and in neighbouring countries, female genital mutilation (FGM) is a cultural issue. If you don't undergo "circumcision", people think you are dirty and no man will marry you. You could say it is about ownership or protection – if someone tries to rape you, they cannot do it easily.

I came to the UK to study and about the same time suffered a great deal of bleeding and pain, so I went to hospital. The nurses and doctors didn't know about FGM. They looked at me as though I was a freak and I had to explain I was "circumcised". It turned out that when they carried out the procedure they left part of one of my labia inside me, so the UK doctors operated to get rid of it.

I am ashamed to say that I attended a ceremony at a private hospital in Harley Street in London while a student here. The girl, who was about eight, was anaesthetised. I feel so guilty about it now and today, with the education I have had about FGM, I would report them to the police – but at the time it didn't cross my mind. Many families in Britain take girls to their country of origin to have it done. It is a holiday, they see family and the countryside and are then "circumcised". When they return, they tell the girl not to talk about it. They say the government will take her away from her family, and that she will lose all she has in the UK.

We need education that is respectful and sensitive. It can't be a cultural confrontation, a judgment. People have been practising this for centuries and see it as embedded in their culture. You cannot approach them aggressively – you have to invite them to talk, to show them the consequences of FGM later on, during menstruation, childbirth and so on. We must educate grandmothers and mothers and young children, and campaign against it.

Many in my generation are fighting it. These days people are more aware, and I know many educated women who will not practise it. People see it as a form of murder, paralysing a part of your body. They say: "We have had enough!"

City Parochial Foundation, Esmée Fairbairn Foundation and Rosa (the UK Fund for Women and Girls), three independent charitable organisations, have collaborated to establish a new UK-wide Special Initiative to fund community-based, preventive work to safeguard children from the practice of Female Genital Mutilation (FGM).