U.K. girls learn about female genital mutilation before danger of 'cutting season'

Educators and activists in London are trying to teach more students about female genital mutilation before the summer holidays, otherwise known as the "cutting season," when some girls are sent out of the country to have the illegal procedure.

British educator says Canada falling behind in advocacy and health care

Nimco Ali, 33, is co-founder and director of Daughters of Eve, a U.K. charity that works to end female genital mutilation and helps women and girls who have undergone the procedure. (Mel Hattie/CBC)

When Nimco Ali was seven years old, she left her home in Manchester to go on holiday in Djibouti, above Somalia on the horn of Africa.

But before returning to the U.K., her family arranged for her to see an older woman she'd never met before.

The terrified little girl had no idea what was happening.

"I tried to run away," Ali, now 33, recalls. "I thought I ran for ages, but then there I was underneath this woman and her scolding me, telling me how hard it was to get anesthetic during a crisis."

When she woke up, her legs were bound together and her clitoris had been cut off and her vagina sewn shut.

Ali’s memory of her FGM is foggy. She remembers having some kind of anesthesia. Many girls are not anesthetized. When she woke up, her legs were bound together and she had been cut. (Mel Hattie/CBC)

Like thousands of girls and women living in the U.K., Ali underwent female genital mutilation, or FGM. The World Health Organization defines FGM as "all procedures involving partial or total removal of the external female genitalia or other injury to the female genital organs for non-medical reasons."

FGM isn't a religious ritual and occurs in countries across Africa, the Middle East and Asia.

The painful procedure has no health benefits and often causes many immediate and long-term health problems.

It's illegal in the U.K. and Canada. Yet a new case of FGM is reported every 109 minutes in the U.K. and 170,000 women and girls there live with the consequences, according to Plan U.K., one of the largest children's charities in the world. 

UNICEF estimates 200 million girls and women in the world have had FGM.

In Somalia, where Ali's family is originally from, it's done to 98 per cent of females.

Despite its prevalence, Ali had never heard of FGM before she was cut.

When she returned to school, she felt ignored by her teachers. She was seven years old and seeking answers.

"A lot of people talk about the actual act of FGM," she says. "I don't think that was the most painful thing. I think it was the whole dismissal of my own experience ... I really wanted some context and information from my teacher and her response was, 'That's what happens to girls like you.'"

But more and more schools in London are beginning to bring FGM educators into their classrooms, even though it's not part of the official British curriculum.

Hibo Wardere in Walthamstow, the London borough where she began teaching secondary school children about FGM. (Mel Hattie/CBC)

One of those educators is Hibo Wardere, 46.

Originally from Somalia, the memory of being cut as a little girl still haunts her. Wardere remembers being woken up in the early morning with no idea what was happening and led to a tent in her garden where three women held her down.

"You go to sleep and you wake up in the middle of the night. Sweating, screaming, thinking that you're six years old again and being ripped apart," she says.

Wardere immigrated to the U.K. when she was 18 after fleeing the Somali civil war. Canada has the same size Somali diaspora as the U.K., about 150,000. Most of Wardere's family now lives in Canada.

According to the Ontario Human Rights Commission, reliable statistics on FGM in Canada are not available, but there is evidence it's practised in Ontario and across the country, including families sending their daughters away for the procedure.

'Cutting season'

Wardere started teaching about FGM a couple years ago. She got involved after one of the students at the school where she worked as a teaching assistant was taken abroad, likely to undergo FGM, and never returned to the U.K.

"I wish I had the courage to speak out then," says Wardere, author of Cut: One Woman's Fight Against FGM in Britain Today.

She began going from school to school in her borough of Walthamstow, but demand for her services has increased dramatically across London in the past year.

But the impending summer holidays bring a heightened sense of urgency.

"I send a mass email to all the schools I've taught at," she says, "reminding them summer is coming."

Summer holidays are the "cutting season," she says. This is when many girls from the U.K. are taken abroad for FGM and recover over the break before rejoining their classmates in the fall.

'I just want to go home'

While Ali was recovering from FGM in Djibouti, she remembers staring at the ceiling and thinking, "'I really hate this place, I really hate this country, I really hate this thing. I just want to go home.' FGM makes you miss Manchester."

British schoolteachers are now legally obliged to report if they suspect a child has undergone FGM. Reporting FGM can be hard for young girls because the perpetrators are their families.

"No girl wants to stand up in court and say, 'Hey, I want my mom jailed,' because you have to remember, at the end of the day, these women are victims too — they just don't realize it," Wardere says.

Ikram Wardere, 9, is the youngest of Wardere’s seven children. An estimated 24,000 girls in the U.K. under the age of 15 are at risk for FGM, according to Britain's National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children. (Mel Hattie/CBC)

In 2014, Britain opened its first FGM clinic in London. The facility deals with the chronic infections, kidney problems, pregnancy risks and other complications from FGM. Canada has no such clinics.

"Canada and America, they're still lagging behind," Wardere says.

Ali's kidneys nearly failed when she was 11, from FGM complications. She had emergency surgery to open where she had been sewn shut.

Then there's the psychological impact. Most girls are told the reason they undergo FGM is to keep them virgins for their wedding night.

"It messes you up. From my experience, it does," Wardere says. "Makes you feel like you are absolutely somebody who doesn't have human worth … It just diminishes who you are."

She hopes that by equipping students with knowledge, they might stand a chance at avoiding what she and Ali were forced to endure.

The students Wardere sees are normally in secondary school, ages 11 to 18. For some, the lesson may come too late.

"Sometimes kids sit in the back and say, 'Actually, I have had FGM.' They just want to know what type," Wardere says.

She's scheduled to speak at Coppermill Primary school in northeast London later this month. The children there are between five and 11. An estimated 24,000 girls in the U.K. under the age of 15 are at risk for FGM, according to Britain's National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children.

It's her first time teaching FGM in a primary school.

"I do have to change the language I use, but it's something I'm really looking forward to."

The talking cure

She teaches the types of FGM, how children can contact international organizations for help, and how to avoid getting on a plane to leave the country if they suspect they're going for FGM.

"There's one trick, called spoon-in-knickers," Wardere says. "You can put something metal in your underwear when you're going to the airport and [the detector] will sound. Everyone working in the airport is trained that if with an underage child, the detector goes off, you need to take them on the side, find out what's going on."

Wardere says what's most important about what she does is making children aware of FGM and then sending them home to discuss it with their parents.

"For the first time," she says, "that conversation is happening."

Ali also teaches about FGM and talks about her experience. She recently returned from the Women of the World festival in Karachi, Pakistan. She says she's received threats for sharing her story, "mostly from men." She says people will come right up and tell her to her face. 

"Just because I was talking about my own experience and something that's happened to me, they were like, 'F---  you' and 'You're selling out to the white people' and I just kept saying: 'No. Actually, I'm talking about feminism and I'm talking about women's rights.'"

Wardere also felt resistance. At first.

"Sometimes communities don't know who is for them and who is against them," she says. "Even if you come from that community itself. They need time to adjust and you know, figure out who you are, and then respect you and then let you in."

Wardere said inter-generational conversation is the key to breaking the cycle of FGM. (Mel Hattie/CBC)