Asha Ismail is the director of the ONGD Save a Girl Save a Generation. She was born in a town in Kenya called Garissa, which is near the border of Somalia. She’s been living in Spain since 2001. Asha has been advocating against female genital mutilation, or FGM, and other practices like forced marriages for the past 30 years.
She has worked at a grassroots level in Kenya, Somalia, and Tanzania, where she raises awareness and promotes education. She continues her work to eradicate these practices in Spain through the organization she co-founded. Save a Girl Save a Generation helps women who have been affected in one way or another by abuse and violence.
I sat down with Asha to discuss FGM: what it is, why it happens, how it affects the women who have been subjugated to it, and what it will take to eradicate it for good.
What is FGM?
Female genital mutilation is the practice of cutting or removing some or all of the external female genitalia. Although FGM affects millions of women around the world, it remains unknown to many in countries where it rarely happens. The World Health Organization (WHO) affirms that there are no health benefits to FGM and considers the practice a violation of human rights. The WHO has classified four different types of FGM:
Type 1: Partial or total removal of the clitoris
Type 2: Partial or total removal of the clitoris and labia
Type 3: Also known as infibulation, the narrowing of the vaginal opening through the use of stitches — this can also include partial or total removal of the clitoris and labia
Type 4: Other harmful practices performed on the external female genitalia
Not only can FGM cause extreme health problems in relation to urinating, menstruating, and sexual intercourse, but it can also cause mental health issues.
Many cultures consider FGM to be a purifying practice — it is one way to ensure that girls remain virgins until they are married. Once they are married, they are often re-cut by their husbands to make sex and childbirth possible. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that up to 200 million women and girls across the world have experienced some kind of FGM.
FGM isn’t directly correlated to any one region or culture and the practice has existed for at least 2,000 years. In most cases, the procedures are performed by women. In fact, typically, there aren’t any men present when it happens. Again, this is due to the fact that FGM is associated with purification. Mothers and grandmothers perform it on their own daughters and granddaughters as they believe that it is necessary for them to one day get married. Because of this, many women feel obligated to execute FGM on their children: Asha says that it’s a way to help the community accept them, so in a way, it’s a sort of protection.
How FGM negatively affects women and girls
Asha was just 5 years old when she underwent FGM. The age differs from country to country and community to community. For some, it can be between the ages of 10-15, as they believe it must be done before a girl gets her period or starts to go through puberty. For others, infants are cut. For others beyond that, it is all part of a “right of passage” ceremony that signifies when a girl becomes a woman in the eyes of the community.
There’s no denying that no matter what age it happens FGM severely damages women: physically, emotionally, and mentally. It’s a way of keeping women “in their place” and a way of taking away their power. Asha says that it can cause total and permanent damage, physically and mentally. It makes going to the bathroom extremely uncomfortable and infection is very common.
Additionally, women go through what could be considered a second trauma once they do get married. Many have arranged marriages and are then raped on their wedding night. Some can’t deal with the pain and end up taking their own lives before they can be married and then raped. It may sound extreme, but the mental anguish becomes too much for several women.
Those who don’t commit suicide experience depression, anxiety, and a host of other mental health issues. Some don’t even associate their difficulties with FGM until they get in contact with organizations like Save a Girl Save a Generation. They’ve never thought about it before because the practice is so ingrained in their communities. But once their eyes have been proverbially opened, they realize just how damaging FGM is.
Possible solutions for eradicating FGM
As an activist, Asha believes that conversation and education are both very important when it comes to eradicating FGM for good. She says that it will take more than simply going to school to learn how to read or write — girls need to know that they are worthy, and every part of their bodies is worthy.
Today there are many countries that have laws against FGM in Europe and Africa alike. This is mostly due to pressure from organizations like Asha’s. They are pushing for FGM to be talked about and put on the agenda.
She also talks about the importance of raising awareness within communities where FGM is normalized. She compares the eradication of the practice to building a house: you need to start with a solid foundation, and that foundation is education.
When women begin to realize the damage that FGM can cause — to themselves as well as their daughters — only then will the practice disappear.
As a truth seeker and woman who is fascinated by all things taboo, as soon as I came across this topic I knew I had to explore it. I wanted and needed to deeply understand how the girls who fell victim to FGM suffered internally and externally.
There are many horrific ramifications of this procedure. Shame stood out most for me. Most of the victims suffered silently and hearing the stories that Asha discovered (and experienced herself) broke my heart. When I did this interview I was actively working on the suicide crisis line, and therefore I knew shame is one of the root causes that can fuel thoughts of suicide if not dragged into the light.
To hear that women still don’t have a voice and the right to stand for their individuality brought me to tears. I felt anger and a deep sense of unfairness when I learned how many girls still undergo FGM to this day. My hope from this podcast is that it will invoke a desire in others to be part of a solution and not just an understanding of the horrific things that are happening in other parts of the world.
If you feel compelled, you can listen to Asha and I’s full conversation over on the podcast.