Each year in the UK, 65,000 girls are at risk of undergoing Female Genital Mutilation. In Africa that number's more like 3 million. In Somalia, 97% of women over ten are estimated to have had it done. Now, a new documentary fronted by Zawe Ashton that takes place in the UK and Kenya is taking a look at where we are with FGM today.
We spoke to producer Kieran Smith, the producer of the documentary and who was behind last year’s *The Cruel Cut *which, along with the Evening Standard, has been credited with bringing the issue of FGM in the UK to the forefront.
‘I think the message is starting to get home that it happens here and that girls who live here are being taken away to have it done.’ Said Kieran when we spoke to him last week. ‘It’s important to say it’s not just a problem that they’ve got in Africa and Asia. It’s happening here. People need to realise it’s not just Africa’s problem.’
At the beginning of the documentary, Zawe visits a school in East London that’s learning about FGM. When the teacher asks the class who practises it, several children mention the Muslim community until a fellow student corrects them. ‘People assume it’s a Muslim practise,’ Says Kieran. ‘But there’s nowhere in the Koran that it says it and there’s plenty of Coptic Christian communities where they do it too. It does tend to be focussed in West Africa and Central Asia but because of migration it happens everywhere. Somalia is the place where it has most prevalence. I think 95% of women have it done.'
Throughout the course of Zawe's journey she searches for a reason as to why this FGM is still so prevalent. Most answers she gets seem vague, unsure and senseless. ‘To use a broad brush term it’s about control.’ Says Kieran. ‘It’s about marriageability. A woman is not see as pure and clean if she hasn’t had it done. It diminishes the prospects of marriage. Its meant to be a way of controlling female sexuality.’
FGM is broken down into stages – the severity depends on where you live but, as a rough guide Kieran explains that ‘Stage one is a nick of the clitoris, stage two is the complete removal of the clitoris and labia and stage three is the complete removal of everything you see, the vagina is then sewn up with a tiny hole to pee though.’ Stage three is the most dangerous as it can prevent period blood from exiting the body. Zawe meets one such victim in the documentary who, after over twenty operations is just starting to live a vaguely normal life again. Although her and her husband will never be able to have children.
One of the subjects of the documentary, FGM campaigner Leyla Hussein, who was cut at about 7 or 8, told Kieran about her experience. ‘She was saying it’s a really odd thing. You don’t know its going to happen and then you get told you’re going on holiday to celebrate ‘you’, then this awful thing happens but then you get showered with gifts and presents so you don't know how you're meant to feel.’
One of the biggest problems as to why FGM is so hard to tackle is the code of silence, ‘Men don’t talk about it to women – they see it as a thing that women do. Women don’t talk about it because they’ve all had it done and they know how horrific it is.’ What happens if someone does dare to speak out against is made painfully clear in the documentary campaigner when Nimko Ali’s ‘bad back’ turns out to be a result of a man kicking her off a bus. ‘To speak out against it in the way Nimko and Leyla have done brings danger.' Says Kieran. 'Leyla had a police panic button so that she could alert if them if someone was trying to get in her house. There are some pretty hard line individuals in the UK.'
The second half of the documentary sees Zawe visit Kenya during December during ‘cutting season’ when girls are taken from their UK homes and flown over to the country undergo FGM. There’s an increase over the summer holidays too. Once there, Zawe meets an actual ‘cutter’, an old woman who, even though cutting in Kenya is illegal, is well known to parents of prospective victims. Using brown paper and her tools, she recreates the process she goes through on each girl for Zawe. It’s terrifying. ‘It was tricky.’ Says Kieran. ‘People might think “Why the fuck didn’t you had over her details to the authorities?” My rational is there’s a public service remit that’s stronger. It’s more important that people know.’
But how, as a woman, can this cutter possibly live with herself doing this to girls, day in day out? ‘It’s so ingrained in some parts of the world. I mean she would probably say “If I had it done with thorns, (yep you read that right, that happened) these girls have got it easy compared to me.” Also, she’s making money from it.’
Zawe does meet some incredible women in Kenya though. One is Agnes Pareiyo, a Maasai anti-FGM activist who’s set up a rescue centre for girls under threat of FGM and underage marriage. Formidable as hell, half of Agnes’ job involves going to schools and educating communities about FGM and the other half involves tearing into towns where she’s heard girls are at risk and rescuing them from their fate.
‘Yep she’s pretty fearless!’ Says Kieran. ‘She rescues these girls who are at risk. Some of them will stay with her for years. She’ll make sure that they’re educated, that they’re given the opportunity to patch up their lives and rebuild and, if appropriate, she’ll engineer a rehabilitation with her family.’ This seems like it might be dangerous for the girl though? ‘If you prosecute all the time what you’re doing is splitting up families. Obviously you can’t let it go unpunished but if you’ve got families who think they’re just following tradition who end up in prison it makes you realise that the culture is much harder to break from than just us saying ,"Oh don’t do that.”'
So reunifying families is probably a good thing? I mean it’s hard going back to a village where everyone’s till getting cut –there’s a lot of work to be done but eventually, hopefully, you’re going to see only the minority of women getting cut.’
Watch ‘Stopping Cutting Our Girls: A Comic Relief Special’ on Wednesday 11th March at 10pm on BBC Three. Donate to Comic Relief here.
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This article originally appeared on The Debrief.