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"I was robbed of my life" - survivor of genital cutting

Source: Thomson Reuters Foundation - Mon, 24 Sep 2012 09:00 AM
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LONDON (TrustLaw) - Several million girls are subjected to female genital mutilation (FGM) every year. Here Rehana Omer, an Eritrean woman who lives in London, describes how FGM left her in agonising pain for 20 years and turned her marriage into a “living hell”. 

The most extreme form of FGM, infibulation, involves the removal of the clitoris and closing of the vaginal opening. Infibulation is widely practised in Eritrea. 

“FGM scars you for life – physically, mentally and emotionally. It doesn’t go away after a year or so. It stays with you forever.

“I was three when my grandmothers and mother arranged the ceremony and brought in a traditional woman to do the cutting. FGM is a cultural tradition. It’s meant to prevent women going to men or seeking sexual pleasure. It’s meant to keep a girl pure before marriage.

“They tried to spoil me a lot before. They gave me sweets and made a fuss of me. Lots of people came to the house and I had henna painted on my hands and legs. I don’t remember much, but I do remember the terrible pain when I tried to go to the toilet. It was always difficult and painful to go to the toilet after that. 

“I can remember more about my younger sister’s ceremony. There was a family gathering. I tried to comfort her. I remember her crying. I remember her legs being tied together afterwards with string for a very long time. I remember the blood on her legs. Unlike me, she was not stitched closed. Instead she was pinned together with thorns and her legs were tied together until the tissue healed over.

“It was very traumatic for me, but because it happens everywhere – at your neighbours’ and your cousins’ – it’s just normal. But when I remember, yes, it was really traumatic. 

“When my periods started it was very, very painful. I was in bed for several days every month and often had to miss school. No one took me to the doctor – they just thought the pain was part of life. 

“The worst time psychologically, was after I got married. It was a living hell with my husband because of the pain. Whatever we tried, it was painful.  

“You feel everyone around you is happy because you are a new bride and you don’t feel the happiness. Whenever the sun sets you feel, ‘Oh my god.’ . My husband was very understanding, but you feel guilty because you are not making him happy.  

“After I arrived in Britain in 1996 I heard about a hospital which could de-infibulate women. By this time it was affecting my life very badly and creating a distance between me and my husband. I felt like I was reborn when I had it done. But I never spoke about it. It’s like a sin to have it opened. 

“We have an 11-year-old daughter and we won’t let her have FGM, but it has caused problems with my mother and mother-in-law. I don’t trust my mother around my daughter in case she takes her away and does it behind my back. She did that with my nieces - I was so upset. 

“My mother doesn’t understand. She says, ‘We had it done, everyone had it done, so why is it different now? You’re just trying to be Westernised.’. My mother-in-law recently came to stay with us from Eritrea. She knows it is illegal here but she said, ‘The girl is growing up and it’s wrong for her not to have it.’. She says no one here ever checks so just break the law.

“It’s hard for me to talk about this. I cry when I think about what has happened, but I want to speak out to help prevent other girls going through what I did. 

“Even if I spoke for a month I can’t emphasise enough how hard and painful FGM is. And it has to be stopped.

“It is just like someone taking a life from you.” 

This article is part of a Thomson Reuters Foundation multimedia package on FGM

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