news

"Every woman we spoke to that day said the same thing..."

Holly Miller

By HOLLY MILLER

When I travelled to Uganda last year with some of the ActionAid team, we met women from a community in the mountains east of Kampala. On the first day there, we spent several hours chatting with the women about their most intimate experiences.

All the women in the group had been ‘cut’ – the term used in many parts of Uganda to refer to the practise of female genital mutilation (FGM). FGM is the removal of the clitoris, and sometimes the inner and outer labia. In some instances, FGM can also involve the vagina being sewn shut.

The stories they shared with us were horrific.

One woman, Beatrice*, spoke of how when she had resisted, the rest of the community had shunned her, saying she had no place gathering water with them or participating in community food preparation because she was “dirty”. She continued to resist, despite being told she was bringing shame on her family. But she woke up one day in her mother-in-law’s house, with blood all over the sheets. She had been drugged and cut against her will.

But resistance like this is not common. Most of the women had willingly undergone FGM—although all their stories were similarly shocking. They were unable to walk immediately after the procedure, in some cases bled for months, and when healed, found sex almost impossible. Their marriages foundered, their husbands slept separately, and in some cases, their families collapsed.

And yet every woman we spoke to that day said the same thing—FGM is part of their culture and it is how women gain respect in their community. Without it, how could the community respect them? Resisting the practice was not in their best interest.

“And yet every woman we spoke to that day said the same thing—FGM is part of their culture and it is how women gain respect in their community.”

The women told us that FGM is not something that is discussed. Before it happens to you, you know it happens, and you know who has and hasn’t been ‘cut’. In this community, those who have carry four small scars on their outer forearms, signifying their respectability. But this is the limit of their knowledge. Of the pain and the consequences, they know nothing.

ADVERTISEMENT

When we asked them if they told their daughters of the pain or their sons of the impact on their relationships, they shook their heads. No, they said. It would not be best.

The women we spoke to on that first day had had little cause to work together and little chance to talk together. They rarely came together as a group of women to discuss issues specifically relevant to women.

We then travelled to another part of the same community—a small village higher in the mountains, where ActionAid has been working with women on an agriculture project, supporting them to develop their farming skills to improve the food security of the community. As part of this project, the women had worked in groups for two years, and with the support of ActionAid, had discussed women’s rights in long ongoing conversations about the various challenges they face.

These women told the same painful stories of FGM, and showed us the same scars on their arms. But they told us, with great strength and determination, that they would no longer stand for it. They told their daughters to resist the procedure, and were actively spreading the message of its damaging effects within the community. They performed a play for us in front of the whole community—men included—to illustrate the practise. They threw a woman to the ground and held a very dirty knife over her to show how the procedure is performed. We watched between fingers with our hands over our eyes.

There were many tears that day. The strength of these women, and their determination to stand together to refuse this centuries-old practise, were overwhelming. The message we took away with us was powerful and clear. When women come together to talk about their rights, they can say “no” to violence and create enormous—and liberating—change.

Holly Miller is the Media Officer at ActionAid Australia, an international organisation that puts women’s rights at the centre of its work. Before working at ActionAid, Holly worked in Laos for two years, supporting people with disabilities to advocate for their rights. She has spent the last three months in the Philippines as part of ActionAid’s emergency response team. Follow her on Twitter: @HollyMiller3

Today is International Day of Zero Tolerance to Female Genital Mutilation – a day used to generate global awareness of FGM, and to promote its eradication. Worldwide, up to 140 million girls and women have been mutilated. Each year, 3 million girls and women in Africa are at risk of FGM.

00:00 / ???