There were 5,700 new cases of female genital mutilation recorded in England in 2015-2016, the first annual statistics show.
Female Genital mutilation (FGM) is a procedure where the female genitals are deliberately cut, injured or changed.
It is also known as female circumcision or cutting. Such injuries include piercing, pricking, cutting, sewing together and removal of genital organs.
FGM has been illegal in the UK since 1985 and it is considered child abuse.
It is usually carried out on young girls between infancy and the age of 15, most commonly before puberty starts.
The Royal College of Midwives describe Female Genital Mutilation as having ‘intolerable long-term physical and emotional consequences for the victims and it causes death, disability and physical harm for millions of women every year.’
The also say that the link between FGM and psychiatric disorders has ‘strong evidence’.
Globally, over 200 million women and girls have suffered FGM, and a further three million girls undergo FGM every year in Africa.
The Face of Defiance is a portrait project featuring nine survivors of female genital mutilation (a 10th is awaiting a major court case as a complainant of FGM and sexual violence and therefore not included).
FGM is embedded in many African communities and although the reasons for it are deeply complex, they can be summarised as broadly based on systems of chastity, control and perceptions of womanhood.
In early 2015 Leyla Hussein (international award-winning FGM campaigner and subject of this project), approached photographer Jason Ashwood with a view to promoting an image of survivors who were beautiful, confident and were proud of their remarkable achievements, in spite of what they had suffered through photography.
They are therapists, nurses, public speakers, authors, award winners and tireless campaigners speaking, for the most part, for the first time:
‘I have truly suffered in so many ways from undergoing FGM and there are many, many others like me,’ Hoda says.
‘My pain has inspired me to help others manage what they have suffered and have decided to dedicate my professional life to raising awareness of FGM.’
Hoda Ali is a nurse, a campaigner and commentator on FGM on a variety of levels.
She has spoken at numerous public events and featured, along with other survivors, in the Bafta-nominated documentary The Cruel Cut.
‘I was cut at aged seven in Somalia,’ she says.
‘By age 12 I experienced my first of many acute hospitalisations due to complications from FGM.
‘Stagnant infected menses had caused pelvic inflammatory disease as I had been unable to menstruate as a result of the small hole left after FGM.
‘After many surgical procedures in Somalia, Djibouti and Italy, I first started menstruating age 17.
‘Medical complications from FGM continued to impact on my life through infections, adhesions, sub fertility, IVF and miscarriage.
‘Due my difficulty to conceive caused by the damage inflicted during FGM I underwent IVF.
‘However, I later received medical advice that risks to my internal organs were too great and that IVF could no longer be pursued.
‘My mother was a victim and my grandmother before her. But FGM has now ended within my family and although I cannot have children, I have helped protect my nieces.
‘They are the first generation free from FGM.
‘I tell my nieces, stand up for yourself and those around you and be the voice for the voiceless
‘I truly believe what doesn’t kill you make you stronger. Together we can end FGM in a generation.’
‘I believe strongly that our lives are a sum total of the choices we have made and so first, I chose to live,’ says Jay.
Jay Kamara describes herself as a womanist and a thriver.
‘A day or so after I had been cut, what felt like a few seconds had passed as I closed my eyes and shut my mind away from the noise and the pain was actually a day of uncertainty for those watching over me.
‘My eyes opened slowly and connected with my mother’s eyes which looked worried, her face drawn.
But as our eyes locked she asked the question: “Do you want to live?’’ and then said “If you want to live you’d better fight”.
‘As I closed my eyes, my mind drifting not completely understanding the events. I woke still as a 15-year-old girl but, with a new normal.
‘Several years later as the flashbacks started, I had decided I had to survive.
‘Pain changes us that cannot be helped. It doesn’t leave anyone the same. One has the power to decide how they want the pain to change and influence their life.
‘Pain is a part of life but I have chosen to grow through my pain, learning to love myself as a whole being rather than as the labelled ‘mutilated’ being that many women and girls who have been through this experience choose to adopt.
‘This part of my journey has given me the strength and a gift to speak and influence change so others don’t have to go through this unjustifiable torment.
‘Sexual violence, forced body alternation, cutting, mutilation, circumcision is abuse and a crime against the mind, spirit, heart, womb and soul of a woman.
‘It is a “culture” which is meant to nurture, love and guide, not afflict pain and disempower the women of the world.’
‘There is nothing I can do about what has already been done, but ‘now’ is in my hands,’ says Fatoumata.
‘There is always a way to empower myself and make the most of what I have.’
Fatoumata Jatta, as part of professional life, works with teachers and schools on prevention and safeguarding procedures to prevent harm of FGM to children in affected communities.
‘If I’m strong it’s because of my parents and what they have taught me about being a woman,’ she says.
‘As the eldest of six children, five of which are girls, I really felt a sense from them that a woman’s place in the world is the same place as a man’s, different but equals.
‘They gave me all the opportunities they could, which were plenty, instilled confidence in me, and pushed me to think of myself as capable, and valuable, as someone worthy of respect and love.
‘This sense of security doesn’t only come from my parents, but also from the rest of my family, a large and loving group of smart, beautiful, and passionate Gambians.
‘Which is why my story of being cut, surviving the practice and living with the consequences, has often felt so removed from my understanding of my own identity, and I’ve had to learn to integrate this part of me so that I can accept myself fully.
‘Intellectually I have always understood that if my grandmother had me cut as a baby, it was because she absolutely thought it was the best thing for me, that for her it was the right thing to do.
‘But emotionally I’ve had to understand and make sense of the feelings I was left with: confusion, anger, shame, powerlessness, loss, and grief.
‘For me it’ has been a process of accepting many things; that being cut doesn’t make me any more of a woman as my grandmother believed, but neither does it make me any less of one as I believed.
‘I’m proud that I pushed through my fears to take a stand for the end of FGM. Girls and women should not be cut, it hurts both physically and emotionally, it’s dangerous, and it’s unnecessary.
‘Organising a fundraising event with great speakers and media coverage made me feel empowered and strong in a way that was new to me, because I also felt extremely vulnerable and exposed.
‘Now part of my work consists of FGM prevention and safeguarding in schools for teachers and girls, and that too makes me feel stronger.’
Hawa Daboh Sesay
‘The thought of the “operation”, in which I nearly bled to death at aged 13, still traumatises me and left me with lifelong physical problems and psychological trauma,’ says Hawa.
Hawa Daboh Sesay is the founder and executive director of Hawa Trust Ltd and mother of two children.
She is originally from Sierra Leone but has lived in London for 24 years.
She is a qualified and registered social worker with a degree in Social Policy and a masters in social work, now working in London as a social worker in a family support team.
Hawa campaigns on many levels, speaking at everything from the Africa Summit on African Children and Families in London to the UN Women’s Conference.
‘I became a victim of FGM at 13 years old in Sierra Leone,’ she says.
;My memory is that of my old aunty who came and took me to the Northern Province.
‘In the morning they took me to the stream where I saw lots of women dancing and singing.
‘Before I knew it, I was thrown on the floor. I then felt a sharp pain and started bleeding. That memory cannot be erased from my mind.
‘It was not until when I came to have my own children that I realised it was because of the FGM that childbirth was difficult for me. I also experienced acute health and psychological problems.
‘The procedure is usually carried out in a bush in secret. This has left me in agony.
‘The thought of the “operation”, in which I nearly bled to death at aged 13, still traumatises me.
‘I therefore determined to make sure my daughter does not experience the same trauma I went through. I explained to her the danger of the practice and that following our traditions does not mean we must follow FGM practices.
‘I have gone with my daughter to Sierra Leone many times but I ensure that she is protected and does not go near the old women.
‘She has realised the suffering I have experienced and joins me in the anti-FGM campaigns.
‘I will always condemn FGM and send a challenge to those who use religion as an excuse to mutilate girls.
‘The trauma and devastating impact it had on me has led me to form the Hawa Trust in order to address issues of FGM related to HIV/Aids.’
Sarian Karim Kamara
The portraits also include the subjects with their children (where they have them) who have not been cut, thereby demonstrating the break in the community cycle between mothers who speak out and refuse to continue the community practice into the next generation.
The children’s future children will also be spared FGM with the cycle broken, and thus the project represents generations of change.
‘I’ve had five children and the pain I went through on that day cannot begin to compare to any of my labour pains. It’s indescribable,’ says Sarian.
Sarian Karim Kamara is a community development worker, community facilitator, an activist, and a lead anti FGM campaigner with a specialist interest in safeguarding activities.
Sarian works as a community advocate and change agent for Forward UK and Manor Gardens Health Advocacy Project.
She is also the founder of Keep the Drums Lose the Knife, a project aimed to end FGM in Sierra Leone alongside working with the police to train officers.
‘I was cut through the Bondo Society in Freetown Sierra Leone at age 11 together with my sisters,’ she says.
‘Some people think that FGM is just a cultural practice, that it is normal or acceptable for some communities.
‘But it is not acceptable because it causes so much physical and psychological harm and has no benefit at all. It also damages relationships, but I feel that people do not discuss this.
‘I have broken that cycle in my family and for generations to come, none of my girls will be cut.
‘I have dedicated my future to campaigning to end FGM and help those who have been through it, as well as protect young girls who are at risk of it.’
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