Everybody has a story

Khadija gbla is a human rights activist and fgm survivor.


A heads-up: this story contains graphic imagery and might be a bit tricky for some to read.

I was three when war broke out in Sierra Leone. That’s when I became a refugee. We were internally displaced until I was about nine or 10. You can’t get out of your own country, so you’re stuck inside, trying to seek safety. All those years we were stuck, until we were able to get out and make it to Gambia, to an unofficial refugee camp. It wasn’t sanctioned by the UN – there was no support – but you sort of band together with all these other Sierra Leoneans who ended up in Gambia.

I remember insecurity and unsafety and every day not knowing what was going to happen. No sense of a future. No forward planning. My childhood is also fraught with memories that are locked away for my own safety. It’s called trauma-informed amnesia. That’s allowed me to have some semblance of normalcy. But every now and then, even though I live in Australia, I’ll smell something or hear a sound and all of a sudden I get triggered. I might not even have the memories connected to that smell or sound, but it’s just my brain going, “We’ve heard this before, we’ve smelled this before, and we don’t like it.”

I am a survivor of female genital mutilation (FGM). I will never forget how it happened. My mum came home and said we were going on a holiday. Even at that age, I remember thinking, “Holiday? What do you mean?” It made no sense. But in my culture, the hierarchy is God then parents – or mums, specifical­ly. There’s not really any room for questionin­g.

All my life up until that time I had never heard of female genital mutilation. It’s like that in a lot of places – it’s a secret society. In Sierra Leone it’s called bundo, and you’re not meant to know about it until you’re about to be subjected to it. It’s well protected in those communitie­s. People who want to expose the secret society are hurt and threatened.

But we were now in Gambia, outside a lot of that cultural context. People were focused on getting food and water and basics. Really, it made no difference where we were – culture was going to be enacted. Especially a gender-specific one like FGM, because the patriarchy doesn’t care if there’s war; it will still do what it needs to do to subjugate girls and women.

My mum had internalis­ed this message. She was raised in a context where this was also done to her. She’s both a victim and a perpetrato­r of the same crime. She grew up being told girls with clitorises were dirty. They have no self-control; they would be promiscuou­s. And girls with cut clitorises would be more marriageab­le. Men seek women who’ve had FGM; we’re more prized because there’s a sense of cleanlines­s and purity and sexual control. If you have a cut clitoris, you get a better dowry, so there’s a financial incentive for the family. The norm was cut women; the abnormal woman was one who wasn’t cut. After Mum told me we were going on holiday, we drove for hours to a remote village. There’s no conversati­on, no foundation­al knowledge. We walk up a pathway until we get to this hut. An old lady comes out and starts speaking with my mum. I remember her as very scary. She goes back into her hut and comes out with a really rusty, orange-y knife. I’ll never forget that.

The old lady goes towards a second hut with her knife. My mum drags me along, taking me to this hut, and that’s when things sort of speed up in my head. My mum takes my clothes off and pins me down on the floor so I stay put – because I’m struggling. The old lady comes towards me and slides right down my body to

my private parts. She grabs hold of my clitoris and starts cutting away with her dull, rusty blade. I’m crying, I’m bleeding, I’m begging my mum to make it stop. What she ends up cutting is my clitoris and my labia minora. I don’t know how long it takes. All I know is I pass out, wake up, it’s still going, I scream, pass out, wake up again. At some point she stops. And she throws away the flesh, like it’s disgusting. I’m left there bleeding, wondering what the fuck just happened.

I had no language for this. I had no understand­ing, no processing. One of the most brutal forms of child abuse took place that day. And weeks later, there still was no conversati­on with my mum. She just said I’d become a woman. And she made me sit in a bathtub full of Dettol. To this day, I can’t stand that smell. But the physical scars heal faster than the emotional ones – I ended up blocking out that memory until we got to Australia.

I had some English before I arrived here, but it was like my eighth language. So, when we came to Adelaide, I could understand some things, but not everything made sense. Before high school they sent me to an English school for refugee kids. I was 13. I was hyper-vigilant, jumpy, I had flashbacks of terrible things, I couldn’t sleep. People think that you come to Australia and everything’s all dandy, but you can’t leave your past behind. Also, for the first time in my life, I was experienci­ng racism. I was the only black kid in school. My skin colour was so hyper-visible, so important all of a sudden! It was a confusing time for me.

I found out about FGM by accident. I was volunteeri­ng at an organisati­on that helps migrants and refugees, Women’s Health Statewide, on their FGM education program. The phrase FGM meant nothing to me. I had no memories at this point of what had happened, because they were locked away in trauma-informed amnesia. I thought, “Yeah, OK, I’ll volunteer for this organisati­on.” I put together info packs for their sessions, and one day I saw this sheet of paper showing the types: Type 1 FGM, Type 2 FGM, Type 3 FGM. It showed diagrams. I’m sitting there, looking at this diagram, and I see Type 1 – that’s where the hood of the clitoris is chopped off – and then I look at Type 2, and it was actually the first time I’d seen something that looked like mine. I had no memory to explain why my vagina looked that way. Type 2 is when the clitoris is cut off and one set of lips is missing. And then it clicked. Memories came flooding back. I remembered every detail. It felt like I was there again. I felt hot. I felt that woman cutting away. I felt the pain. I felt the scream. I felt everything. I had the dots connected. What happened to me that day is called female genital mutilation. That’s what this program was for. It’s child abuse. It’s illegal in Australia. It has lifelong health consequenc­es. And I am a victim of it.

It’s an interestin­g thing – FGM is like the gift that keeps giving. Every time I think I’ve worked out the side effects, a new one pops up. The first one was my period. I would bleed for a whole seven days. Heavy period; extreme pain. I would go to Emergency and have to be given morphine drips; I wanted somebody to dig a hole and shove me in. Then I would have sharp, shooting pains even when I didn’t have my period. It ended up that I had nerve pain. By the time I got to uni, I had to change the way I lived my life. I wore loose skirts so they wouldn’t be tight around my tummy, and flat shoes to stabilise me on the floor in case I had the shooting pain. I’d be at the back of my law and internatio­nal studies lectures so I could go to the bathroom in pain at any given time.

I had constant UTIS. They found cysts and fibroids years later, and they told me I was infertile. I did eventually have a baby, but my pregnancy was considered high-risk because of the FGM. So, I spent most of the nine months scared I was going to lose that child. And then there’s the trauma. It impacts every area of your life.

My activism came from realising what had happened to me, and how I was one of 200 million survivors all over the world. I made a decision that it ended with me. To start with, I just shared my story. I did survivor advocate work. Now I’m a human rights activist, a cross-cultural facilitato­r, a mentor. And I’m a mum to my precious five-year-old! I never set out to be a leader – I just realised I have something to say. There was a gap, my voice was important, and I didn’t want somebody to tell my story and speak for me, so I started to speak for myself.

My advocacy is very inclusive, because FGM comes in many different forms in Australia. It’s more than black or Asian women. Whether it’s forced cosmetic labiaplast­y on girls under 18, the medically unnecessar­y ‘husband stitch’ post-birth, FGM due to homophobia, or in Christiani­ty there’s FGM too, because girls were touching themselves. The other group impacted by this is intersex people, who may have surgeries as babies. Those kids don’t actually get to choose what happens to them and their genitals. So, this isn’t about culture; it’s about human rights and gender discrimina­tion. Eleven girls a day are at risk of FGM in Australia. We have 200,000 survivors. We must protect them.

Those survivors, and the challenges we all face, inspired the Desert Flower Centre Australia, which provides holistic gynaecolog­ical and trauma-informed treatment for health consequenc­es relating to FGM. It’s all free of charge. Women can come for gynaecolog­ical issues, they can come for trauma counsellin­g, they can have surgical and non-surgical treatment options. It’s based here in Adelaide, but women come from across Australia and the Asia-pacific region. So much was stolen from us as young girls; so much power was taken away. I just want to give some dignity and power back to my sisters who have survived this form of abuse, so they can try to live healthy lives.

I come under attack a lot because of my work. I get death threats. I get threats to my safety and my family. What keeps me going is when I hear stories about the lives I’ve impacted. My TED Talk, “My Mother’s Strange Definition of Empowermen­t”, has close to three million views, and I think of all the people who’ve watched that over the years. The other day I got a message from a teenage boy in Malta. He said, “I watched your TED Talk. I cried and laughed and empathised with you, and I need you to know that you inspire me.” I’ve got messages from Mexico, from Turkey, from India – women and survivors who feel validated. Women who want to make change in their own communitie­s. Mums who tell me, “I’ve made the decision to not have my daughters cut.”

They keep me going, because I don’t want any more Khadijas! Because I wish someone had made my mum stop. I wish someone had intercepte­d my mum and talked to her – things could have been different. Now I can do that for someone else.

Khadija would love anyone whose work intersects with FGM – teachers, health profession­als, social workers – to get in contact for training and support. Survivors, and anyone who thinks they might be at risk of FGM, can contact her through khadijagbl­ or on socials. Donations are welcome.

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