THE risk and cruelty of female genital mutilation (FGM) has been highlighted in the news, but the testimony of Maimuna Jawo brings home the true reality of its horrors.
Her brother Musa is married to Marj, who both live in Winshill, having met through Musa’s work as a charity founder. He is an international co-ordinator.
Marj is a trustee of a charity which provides support in the Gambia.
Maimuna is an immensely brave woman – her sheer determination never to return to her home country shows just how much she has been affected by circumcision, a practise she was forced to train to be able to perform by her mother.
The 43-year-old has spoken to Burton’s Soroptimist group, of which Marj is a member, about her experiences and highlighted this hidden form of child abuse.
In the Jowas’ home in Winshill, it is obvious quite how determined Maimuna is to get her point across. She does not hold back.
“I was going to school, but unfortunately stopped when I was 12 years old because my mother was a ‘cutter’ and she had to start training me to do it, as it goes down through generations.”
The question that had to be asked was: why does it happen?
“They say it is a traditional thing,” said Maimuna. “For me I think it is a way of controlling women and girls, and I know people have disabilities from it and even die.
“When I started it I was not feeling good about it – this was when I was 15. You have the pain of seeing your friends and your family, and you have to hold that person while they are screaming out. I feel so bad.”
It seemed like Maimuna’s hell would never end, but a turning point came when she had her only daughter.
“I hold her like I used to hold other girls, and when my mother was cutting them they used to call out for their mothers, so I can hear my daughter calling me.”
There are no painkillers, no sterilisation, just ‘black medicine’ – basic herbal remedies.
Maimuna was circumcised when she was young, but her worst nightmare was realised when it was her daughter’s turn. She was five years old.
“She bled the whole day and I could not take her to hospital because they don’t allow you.
“Since then I continued helping my mother, but I knew I would not continue it when she died because then I knew it would be my turn.
“I was beaten since I started my training because I would scream with the girls, for the girls. The elders didn’t want me to scream, they wanted me to be normal – so I was beaten.
“When my mother passed away, in Gambia you have a mourning period for a year, so I wasn’t approached. Then the elders started telling me about it and I knew it was my turn.
“But I said to them I could not just do it like that, because I needed the black medicine, and they knew it would take a while to come. I was just biding my time.”
Incredibly, in Maimuna’s Gambian community she was the only one trained to carry out circumcision. Since she has been away, no-one has been circumcised – leaving the girls to be callously called ‘solima’, meaning they are thought of as unclean and will never marry. They are also verbally abused.
If a child dies during circumcision without black medicine, it is hailed as witchcraft – they never blame the act of circumcision.
Maimuna’s brother and Marj were married. Maimuna came to visit in 2009, and never returned to Gambia.
When she went to seek asylum she was locked up in a detention centre for five months, but was later released for reasons which remain unclear.
She is currently appealing for asylum, but at the moment is living on a knife-edge.
She has discovered Movement for Justice, which has provided her with a lawyer and support.
She speaks against FGM and has visited organisations across the UK, as well as the Liberal Democrats’ national conference.
She said: “Leaving your family behind is the worst thing you can experience. I cannot dress them or take them to school.”
She has not seen them for five years. Her husband ‘had to’ divorce her when she refused to perform circumcision and fled the country.
He remarried and his new wife did not want to look after their children. They are now looked after by a friend, after others were punished for caring for them – simply because they were Maimuna’s children.
It remains to be seen if Maimuna manages to win asylum.
Spending time hearing about her past is distressing, but perhaps her story will go some way towards helping to free the world of this unnecessary procedure and saves the lives of girls for generations to come.