15 May 2014

Sierra Leone: 'FGM Is Bad, but It's Not Child Abuse,' Says London-Born Victim

When London-born Jay was a teenager her mother suggested she join a secret women's society in Sierra Leone. There would be a big party, new dresses and she would be treated like royalty.

"If they'd told me what the real deal was I would have probably skipped town!" she says. "I wouldn't have got on that plane."

Her humour masks a long struggle to come to terms with what happened during that Easter trip to her parents' birthplace. Jay Kamara-Frederick is a victim of female genital mutilation (FGM).

Jay's story is unusual. Her Catholic father and Muslim mother, who had moved to Britain in the early 1970s, were keen for Jay and her brother to integrate. She recalls a happy if strict childhood growing up in Shepherd's Bush, a mixed neighbourhood in the west of the capital.

As a teenager, Jay attended a Catholic school and loved reading, playing the guitar and writing short stories.

Everything changed when she was 14. Shortly after her father died, Jay confided in her mother that she had been abused by an adult acquaintance.

"I feel that my mum was thinking how can I protect my daughter? Maybe she spoke to my grandma or her sisters, and they probably said, 'We need to do this now because she could potentially become very sexually active. We need to protect her ."

Her father had been buried in Sierra Leone and the family was due to visit the grave during Easter.

"I was told that I was going to be a part of a women's secret society. I remember saying I wasn't interested," recalls Jay, now in her 30s. "They tried to coax me by saying it would be like a 'coming out' for young women, that it would be a great experience and people would hold me in high esteem."

Early one morning she and a cousin were taken to a house in her mother's home town, two hours' drive from the capital Freetown.

"It was a big community affair. All the women were out on the streets celebrating. It was very loud. I thought what the hell is this? It's six o'clock in the morning! You almost felt that you weren't touching the ground because you had all these women singing, clapping and being happy. You just got carried away on the whole vibe.

"Inside the house we removed our clothes, and I thought okay, maybe we're going to bathe in the lake. You know, in my naivety, I just really didn't know. I couldn't foresee that the next step would change my life forever.

"I was asked to lie down on the floor. I remember somebody getting my legs and spreading them apart. I remember lots of hands holding me down. I think because I was fighting, it was probably a lot worse. It happened within seconds, but it almost felt like the longest period of my life. I felt someone cutting me, almost like slicing me, and then I passed out. When I came through I remember opening my eyes, and my mum just looked distraught.

"From what I could piece together, I think my experience was bad and I bled so much they didn't think I was going to make it. About ten days later I was back at school in London."

NIGHTMARES

Jay blocked out the trauma until her 20s. "That's when the nightmares started to kick in, and I started to revisit in my mind and my dreams what happened during that time.

"As you try to understand why something has happened, you have all these questions. You want to talk about it, but there's no one really to talk about it to.

"You speak to your local doctor, they don't understand; you speak to your local nurse, they don't understand. Who do you talk to?"

Jay says her experience shows a need for better support services for British FGM survivors like herself.

FGM, which involves the partial or total removal of the external genitalia, can cause a host of medical and emotional problems. But experts believe that girls growing up in Western cultures, where FGM is not the norm, may face additional psychological issues.

Today Jay is a marketing consultant advising small businesses, charities and community groups. She is married to a teacher and lives in an apartment in southeast London with stunning views of the river Thames. In her free time she is a keen rollerblader.

A private person, she has never told her story before but she hopes it may help other girls who have been through FGM. She also wants to challenge the prevailing view in Britain that FGM is a form of child abuse.

Around 66,000 girls and women in England and Wales are thought to have undergone FGM. Very few have spoken out. Those who have broken the silence are mostly from Somali families.

But FGM affects many other communities in Britain including Sierra Leoneans, Sudanese, Egyptians, Ethiopians, Eritreans, Kenyans, Nigerians, Yemenis and Kurds.

Some believe FGM helps preserve a girl's virginity and curbs sexual desire. Many see it as an important rite of passage and gateway to marriage. Others consider it a religious obligation, even though it is not mentioned in the Koran or Bible.

Britain outlawed FGM in 1985 and made it a crime to take a girl abroad for the procedure in 2003. But the government believes more than 20,000 girls may be at risk.

"FGM ISN'T CHILD ABUSE"

In the last two years there has been an increasingly vocal campaign to stop FGM. Politicians, prosecutors, police and campaigners have all made clear it should be treated as child abuse.

But Jay vehemently disagrees. "I have a problem with that because I don't believe that a child who undergoes FGM comes from a family that is abusing them. When you've been abused yourself you know what abuse looks like," she says.

Jay has not been able to talk to her mother about her FGM, but is neither angry nor bitter.

"People ask me, do I not like my mum. How can I not like my mum? In my opinion she made a very difficult decision which she thought was for my best. Do I wish that it had never happened? Of course. But I have no hard feelings towards my mum, because as far as I'm concerned my mum has done everything for me and I love her immensely."

Although Jay uses the term FGM as an easy shorthand, she hates the word "mutilation" and adjectives like "barbaric" and "heinous" which are often used to describe the practice.

"Those headlines have reduced me to tears," she says. "I don't like the label female genital mutilation. It's a horrid term.

"I think these labels are harmful and will stop girls talking about it because no one wants to believe they're mutilated or have others look at them as freaks."

Jay applauds the new drive to tackle FGM, but says politicians and the media need to "stop sensationalising the ugliness of it". She prefers the more neutral term "female cutting".

"I don't feel that I'm mutilated. I just believe that I'm cut," she says. "We're not aliens. We're women who feel like women."

Britain's education secretary, Michael Gove, has written to every school in the country about FGM. Government guidelines say teachers should be alert if a girl talks about going abroad during the holidays for a special ceremony.

Jay hopes this will spare other girls the trauma she suffered as a teenager and which still haunts her in her dreams.

To see Jay speak about FGM see this multimedia interview

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