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During the summer months, while many families take vacations or usher their children off to camp, thousands of girls here in the U.S. are being sent overseas for what’s sold to them as a “rite of passage.” According to the AHA Foundation, up to 228,000 girls and women in the U.S. are vulnerable to what’s called “vacation cutting,” when parents send their daughters to stay with their families abroad and to endure female genital mutilation (FGM). Even more women living here have been victims as children. Before immigrating to the U.S., they were subjected to the abuse that affects 125 million females worldwide.
But there’s no way to know how many women are victims of this practice because they make themselves invisible.
“We have a culture of silence,” says Jaha Dukureh, who is leading a campaign to pressure Washington to create legislation that would mandate FGM education and allow for safe places for survivors to seek help. “Most women won’t share their stories because they are afraid of what will happen to them, what will happen to their parents.”
The shame runs so deep that girls are taught to never look at or touch their genitals, and most of them have never been to a gynecologist. In many cases, women who were cut very young — and it is common practice to circumcise infants — don’t even know they have been mutilated until they attempt to have sex, at which time they often need to be cut open again to consummate a marriage.
Until now, Dukureh has been the only U.S.-based survivor to speak up so publicly against FGM. Largely influenced by her crusade, the following women found the courage to share their stories. In these exclusive interviews, Aisha, Yaam and Lesha* share their memories in an effort to encourage other women to come forward and join in the chorus of FGM survivors who are demanding an end to the brutal practice.
*Some names have been changed
What I vividly remember is my sister and I were playing, and a woman came and took us. This was in The Gambia, and I was 6 and my sister was 3 at the time. This woman was known in the village, and she told us she was taking us somewhere to see something. Like little kids do, we tagged along. We went into a home, and immediately women grabbed and blindfolded us and tied us to some thick bushes.
I could smell the leaves, the dirt, everything around us. I knew we were no longer in a home setting, but outside somewhere. There was loud drumming and older women were singing songs, which I was too young to understand. I could hear other kids crying out in pain, but I didn’t know why.
I was dragged to a fence covered in leaves, and they took the blindfold off. I could see the other girls bleeding and sobbing in pain. I saw an old woman holding a knife so sharp I could see the drops of blood sliding down the edge. It was the blood of the other girls.
Three other women were holding down my arms and legs, and another was sitting right on my chest, covering my mouth. They try to put pressure on you, so you don’t cry for the next girl to hear. I can still feel the weight of her today. I can still visualize all their faces as I talk about this. I can see what each one of them looks like and the emotions that they had — so empty, like they didn’t see me as a human being.
The cutting happens very fast. What the cutter does is hold on to your clitoris to make sure she gets that and scrapes everything else that comes along with it — all of the labia, if they can. I fought the whole time, and as a result, only my clitoris and part of my left labia are cut. The other side is still intact. My mother told me recently that when this happens they will often wait until the girl has a child. Then they will finish the job, cutting everything off they didn’t get the first time.
After all the girls in my group were cut, we were left to bleed into little dirt holes for hours. Finally, when it became dark, we were taken to the home of the woman who did the cutting and crowded into one room to heal. We were there three months. We ate out of one shared bowl.
In the morning, we would wake up, line up, and receive our “treatment.” They took dried leaves and placed them on the wound and that would stay on for two to three days. Then they would rip it off and put another one on until the tissue began to scar. Every morning a woman came in to teach us songs, and if we didn’t memorize the words, she would beat us. We were also taught, every day, that if we ever talked about this, if we even mentioned it, they would kill us.
I became friends with these girls. We bonded and ended up going to school together. I learned two of them later died in childbirth, which was too difficult for them because of FGM. They bled to death.
At the end of the three months, there was a ceremony to celebrate that we had gone through the rite of passage. My mother came to pick us up, and I kept asking, “Why did they do this to me? Where were you?”
She just responded, “They told you not to say anything, right? Then don’t talk about it.” I never got an explanation until years later. I work in health care now, and I have so many questions about my health that has to do with something so significant regarding my genitalia. So I pressed my mother again. She finally said she did it to protect me. She said, “If I were to take you out of that equation, you would be regarded as an outcast, an unclean person. You would not be a part of us. And I don’t want anyone to be an outcast of our society. This is who we are.”
She also admitted that she couldn’t be there when they took us — even though she arranged for it — because it was too painful for her.
I know 100 women who I am related to, all of them will be cut. My uncle’s wife now took over in our village, and she’s the one who has the knife. All my nieces and any girl born in my family will be cut.
My sister came to the U.S. for her education, and she was the one who helped me come here as well. She cannot have kids as a result of her FGM. I have two daughters now and had to be cut open again to have each one. But I had them here, with a doctor. Back in Gambia, I could have died. My girls will be the only ones in my family who will not have to go through FGM. I know if I ever have my daughters in Gambia, they will do to them what they did to me. My mother assured me of this. I will never take them back. My family will never see them.
My dad is an OB/GYN. He is the first person who taught me about the dangers and complications of FGM, but that was before I knew I had been mutilated.
It happened to me when I was an infant, and I didn’t know I was a victim until the day I saw them do it to my sister. We were spending the summer holiday with my aunt in The Gambia. I was 10, and my sister was only 4.My aunt came to pick us up, which seemed normal. But when they took us to a house away from the village, I knew what they were going to do. I begged and pleaded with them to stop. I threatened to tell my father. I kicked and hit them. But the women, including my aunt, just laughed at me and called me a “silly child.”
I couldn’t see my sister’s face because my view of her was blocked by one of the women, but I remember her blood-curdling scream and her calling out my name to help her. I felt so helpless because I couldn’t do anything for her because the women were holding me down.
It felt like it was happening to me. That was the first time I knew that’s what I had been through. No one ever told me. It was like experiencing the trauma for myself as well as for my sister. I was devastated.
She was taken back to my aunt’s house while she was still bleeding, and all I could do then was just hold her hand and cry with her and pray in my heart that she would not bleed to death.
My sisters and I don’t ever commiserate about what happened to us because I guess we are all trying to repress the horrible memories of it. My father never wanted this for us, which is why they would always wait for him to be out of town for work before they’d take us. I heard from a relative that when my older sister and I were taken, my dad and uncle tried to press charges against the family members who did it. But instead, they had a community meeting and settled on, “What’s done is done.” I hope that some day soon, I will be able to talk to my dad about what happened to me without causing any trouble.
I only once talked to my mother about it, but that was when my younger sister was “stolen” by my aunt. At first, my mother was not aware of my aunt’s plans, but once I told her what had happened, she hushed me up because she was scared of what my dad would do if he found out. So she spoke to my aunt about it and they buried it. There’s a term in Gambian, “maslaha,” which roughly translates to “too compromising or too lenient.” My mother didn’t want this for my younger sister, but it’s like she threw her hands up, defenseless. She’s the youngest in her family, and in our culture, you listen to your elders, no questions asked.
At first I was really angry that they dared brutalize us like that without even so much as consulting us on the matter. But later, I realized in their own ways and thinking, they truly believed they were doing us good and making us “proud custodians of our culture,” and it was their version of doling out some tough love. So it is a much deeper problem than most people think.
I called my sister a few days ago to tell her I was sharing our stories. At first she was shocked and I think a bit embarrassed, but after explaining to her why I was doing it, she agreed with me that it was a necessary evil, so to speak. Talking about it every time is like reliving the trauma. But if it will save just two girls, it’s worth it.
I was born in the U.S. and was living here, so I was sent to Guinea for summer vacation. I didn’t know it was going to happen, and I was never warned. It felt like the biggest betrayal and deceit. But I remember the physical pain better.
I went to Africa to learn about my identity just to end up being scarred for life. I didn’t realize FGM was a part of my identity, and to this day that’s what hurts the most.
I was mutilated along with my baby sister. She was 9, and I was 11. After the circumcision, I don’t know what happened exactly, but she died. What I remember is she was blamed for not taking their herbs and everything they were doing to help her, which never included taking her to a doctor. She was blamed for not surviving, and I was praised for taking it well. She was my best friend. We shared a room. We used to play with our dolls and have tea parties together. She was gone, and they blamed her for it. When we came back, no one asked about what happened to her. No one asked why she was just no longer there. I was told to forget it, like it never happened.
After the ritual, I was placed in a room with other girls, and men were not allowed to see us. I remember not seeing my family for days — I can’t remember exactly how long. When I finally returned to the U.S. and saw my family, they were happy and proud. I was finally a woman. Pure.
Sex is painful, and I hate, hate, hate it. I hate being touched. It feels like rape every time. I cry inside, I cry out loud, and my husband does not care. It does not hurt him. I had Type-3 FGM, and I was reopened after we were married.
My husband will kill me if he ever finds out that I spoke out against FGM and my parents will back him up. But I know that my story needs to be heard. When someone speaks out about FGM, the whole community turns against them. Plus, we have no protection. No one understands what I go through or what it means.
My hope is for survivors of FGM to have a safe place to go to without being judged. I also want a reconstructive surgery not just for me but for everyone like me. To the doctors reading this, please consider offering free surgeries for women like me. It would change our lives. And I hope the government takes action and raises awareness like they should. I don’t think I can talk about this again, but I hope others speak up.