Vocal FGM Advocate Khadija Gbla shares her story in this month's issue of marie claire, on sale now. Photo: TedX
Khadija Gbla, 27, migrated to Adelaide with her family in 2001 after fleeing the civil war in their homeland of Sierra Leone and spending three years in a refugee camp.
Before they left Africa, Gbla’s mother wanted to ensure the traditional procedure was done on her daughter. Gbla remembers being pinned down as an older woman came towards her with a rusty knife.
She had tucked the traumatic memories away until she saw diagrams of the different degrees of FGM while working for a woman’s health service in Adelaide. Everything came flooding back.
In her acclaimed TEDx talk, Adelaide’s Khadija Gbla refers to her health problems – caused by female genital mutilation (FGM) at age nine – as "the gift that keeps giving". Photo: Supplied
"Words cannot express the pain I felt – the confusion," she recalls. "I lost it at my mother. I asked her, 'Why did you do this to me?' But she was not apologetic at all. She told me she did it for my own good."
In a powerful 2014 TEDx talk, which has been viewed 3.4 million times, Gbla dryly refers to her FGM as "the gift that keeps on giving". She has heavy periods with excruciating pain. Then there is the emotional damage and the confusion.
Gbla was raised to think her clitoris was a dirty thing. But, as a teenager in Australia reading Girlfriend magazine and watching romcoms, she was told sexual pleasure was something every girl should want – and be entitled to.
The last straw for Gbla was being told she couldn’t have children due to internal scarring caused by FGM.
She channelled all her emotions into advocacy work and founded No FGM Australia with Paula Ferrari to ensure no other girls endured the same thing.
Khadija Gbla went on to defy the odds to give birth to a baby boy in 2015. Photo: Supplied
However, Gbla says not enough is being done to eradicate the practice in Australia. "The lack of knowledge is mind-blowing," she states. "We’re often fighting an uphill battle just to get police officers or social workers to understand what FGM is, let alone how to protect a little girl from it."
Currently, there is no dedicated task force for FGM.
No FGM Australia set up a hotline last September for people to obtain confidential advice or leave anonymous tip-offs. To date, they have had about a dozen calls about girls at risk of FGM.
One call came from a women’s group member who heard a mother saying her daughter was being taken to Africa the next day for FGM. Ferrari called police in an urgent attempt to have the family’s passports flagged, but instead had to explain what FGM was.
"I spent hours on the phone being passed between state police, federal police and Australian Border Force. I had people saying, 'We can’t just take people off the plane,' or, 'Well, it’s not a crime to think about doing FGM,' when it clearly is. It was incredibly stressful."
In the end, police weren’t able to track down the girl (the informer only had a nickname for her and few other details) and the matter hit an impasse. Ferrari says she has since received grave news from her source: the little girl hasn’t returned and is believed to have died.
Police and child protection workers do have powers to implement urgent protection orders, instructing that a child be monitored if they believe there is an imminent risk of FGM, but Ferrari maintains most officials don’t know.
FGM: THE NUMBERS
The UN says 140 million girls and women worldwide have endured female circumcision or female genital mutilation (FGM). The deep-rooted cultural practice is widespread in 29 countries across Africa, the Middle East and Asia.
A recent survey found 1 in 10 Australian paediatricians had seen girls who had endured FGM and some doctors had even been asked outright if they would perform it. It’s estimated Australia is home to 83,000 women who are survivors of FGM.
About 3 girls born in Australia every day are at high risk of the practice because their mother had it done.
WHAT YOU CAN DO