Khadija Gbla was born in Sierra Leone, but when war broke out in 1991, her family moved to Gambia. At only 9 years old, Gbla was told that she’d be going on “holiday” with her mother. They went for a drive — and that’s when everything changed.
She remembers it like an ambush: Helpless, Gbla was pinned down while an old woman cut away at her clitoris with a rusty knife. In an instant, she became one of the millions of girls and women who experience female genital mutilation.
“She then threw the piece of flesh across the room like it was the most disgusting thing she’d ever seen,” Gbla said in a 2014 TED Talk.
The trauma caused Gbla to bury the memory of that terrifying day. It was years later — while living as a refugee in Australia — that Gbla saw a diagram of the three types of FGM performed on women and children. Then, the memories came rushing back.
Today, Gbla is the director of the Khadija Gbla Cultural Consultancy and executive director of No FGM Australia, where she works to bring awareness about FGM.
More than 125 million girls and women alive today have been cut in the 29 countries in Africa and the Middle East, where the practice is most prevalent, according to the World Health Organization. While some countries have banned FGM, including many with communities where FGM is widespread, including Gambia, some organizations working to end the practice warn that it is spreading. Many countries where FGM is rampant are experiencing high population growth, the United Nations Population Fund notes. In some cases, people from cultures where FGM is the norm have continue the practice in the United States and other western nations.
FGM holds no medical benefits. And for survivors, living with the aftereffects can be harrowing. FGM can lead to severe bleeding, cysts, infections, infertility, and complications in childbirth, according to the United Nations Population Fund.
Refinery29 spoke to Gbla via Skype from her home in Adelaide, Australia, about the effects of FGM, pregnancy and childbirth as an FGM survivor, and inspiring young women around the world.
You shared your story in a recent TED Talk, saying that you were only 9 or 10 years old when you were abused. How did you cope with that at such a young age?
“You don’t really cope with it. The shock that your system goes through and then the fact that I couldn’t comprehend what was happening — there had been no previous explanation before we went in there that this was going to happen. In that moment, I was just trying to survive and stay alive.
“Even to this day, there’s still a lot of shock, confusion, a sense of hurt, and betrayal. To be lured away and then instead of going on a holiday, you end up having the most horrific act done to you. I don’t know how one processes that. To this day, I go to therapy.
“I don’t think people can comprehend the brutality of the act itself. It’s quite a horrific practice. It’s brutal. No anesthetic. No calming, loving words. Nothing to dull the pain. No painkillers. Just you and a razor blade, or a knife, or a scissors — whatever they can get a hold of — and then they start chopping away.
“I don’t know how one gets over that. I don’t think anyone does. I’m really frank in saying, I don’t think I’ve unpacked a quarter of the issues surrounding FGM.”
IT’S LIKE A CONSTANT REMINDER, EVERY DAY. I CAN’T TAKE A SHOWER WITHOUT SOMEHOW GETTING A HINT OF SADNESS AND PAIN.
Can you talk about how FGM changes your relationship with your body and how it affects your relationship with sex in your adult life?
“I still have the scars. That’s a constant reminder that something was taken away from me, something that I now know was actually very important and has a purpose. But because I was born a girl and because I am considered inferior, a decision was made that I don’t deserve to be a sexual being and it needed to go. It’s like a constant reminder, every day. I can’t take a shower without somehow getting a hint of sadness and pain. I can’t escape it.
“I consider myself disabled, sexually. I don’t feel like a complete woman in that I don’t feel like I’m getting the range of sensations that I should be getting. I get only limited amounts — probably five to 10% of sensation.
“It’s sad. To me, that was probably the biggest hit. I can live with the scars being there. But what’s hurt me the most is not being able to be as sexual as I would want to be or not to feel like a sexual being.”
Last year, you had a son, who you call your “miracle baby.” People don’t often discuss the birthing process for women who’ve suffered FGM. Could you talk about your experience and being a mother?
“I was actually told that it would be very hard for me to conceive, that I was practically infertile. Like most women who are told that they can’t have a child, it’s a pain you carry around with you and it’s hard to talk about. I wouldn’t tell people.
“I would cry at night with my husband and he would wake up asking, ‘Why are you crying?’ I’m like, ‘Because I want a child.’ The idea that the choice was taken away from me — I didn’t become infertile because an accident happened and made me that way. I became infertile because my mother chose to do an act that caused that.
“In fact, in my community, I got ridiculed for being the woman who couldn’t have a child. I was judged. When I tried to pick up people’s kids, they would take the child away from me like I was a leper. It was quite a painful experience.”
Was it a tough pregnancy?
“From the get-go, I was told I was high-risk, because of the FGM. Going through the system, I didn’t get the care that I deserved, because most of the health professionals are not very well versed in FGM. I felt like I couldn’t just be a patient. I had to be an educator. There were times when I literally felt like the lives of my child and myself were at risk.
“A vaginal birth was out of the question for me, because of the scarring I have internally. So cesarean was the only option for me to have a healthy baby.
“It became quite a trigger: the idea to have a vaginal birth and to have so much cutting down there. And my midwife said to me that my scar could open up, which would, for me, destroy the five to 10% of sensation I have. With all of that, I became quite depressed during my pregnancy, because I didn’t know what a delivery would look like for me.
“It was a very traumatic experience. The only joy was when my baby was given to me. He was healthy; I looked at him and I have never felt a love like that.”
Can you talk about battling the perception that FGM only happens in Africa or the Middle East?
“People always think it’s an issue that’s happening somewhere across the world. Not in Australia. Not in the U.K. Not in the U.S. It’s happening in Africa, in Asia, or somewhere in the Middle East. They don’t want to think of the fact that actually, because of migration, the communities that practice FGM are moving. They’re now in Australia, they’re in the U.K., they’re in the U.S.
“People want to hide behind their culture. Yeah, people do have a right to practice their culture — when it doesn’t harm a child. When it doesn’t hurt a woman. When it doesn’t put somebody at risk. But when it does, we have to question the practice.
“It’s not judging the people. It’s questioning the practice, the act that’s been done. I don’t think culture should ever be a defense against FGM. It should never be: it’s child abuse. It’s violence against women. It’s a symptom of the patriarchy, which is universal across the world.”
What kind of advice do you have for young women around the world who want to create social change in the world?
“I think the first thing is finding something you’re passionate about. And when you find something that you’re passionate about, be confident in your convictions in fighting — whether advocating for something or advocating against something.
“For me, I always just start with my story, my experience. The personal is political. If it’s happened to you, there’s a chance that it’s happened to someone else. So when you speak up, you are validating another woman’s experience. When you speak up, you’re giving someone else a voice.”