FGM Survivor & Activist Alimatu Dimonekene Will Not Be Silent Again

Illustrated By Anna Sudit.
When Alimatu Dimonekene showed up at the House of Commons to give a speech there on the 5th of November, 2013, she had no idea of how much her life was about to change. Alimatu had been working with Efua Dorkenou, the late campaigner against female genital mutilation (FGM), to develop recommendations for the U.K. government on how to provide FGM survivors with better care, and the process was going well: They and their team felt that they were close to convincing the government to act on their proposals. Alimatu had never before spoken about her own experience of undergoing FGM at age 16 — or the ripple effects the procedure had on every part of her life since — but was prepared that day to talk about it for the first time in a meeting with other campaigners. "When I showed up, I didn’t know who was going to be in the room," she tells Refinery29. "I thought it was going to be just the campaigners — I didn’t realise that ministers were going to be there. How wrong I was." Alimatu told the crowd of campaigners, ministers, politicians, and reporters her story, that of a young woman who had grown up in a well-off family in Sierra Leone; her father was an engineer, her mother a teacher. She was preparing to attend university in the U.K. when her grandmother insisted that she undergo FGM, the partial or total removal of the external genitalia.
It's a procedure that nine out of 10 women and girls in Sierra Leone experience and some 200 million women and girls have undergone in the countries in Africa, the Middle East, and Asia where the practice is common; just last week, the death of 19-year-old Fatmata Turay in Sierra Leone due to FGM intensified calls to end the practice. Alimatu's procedure was performed against her will, in her grandmother's house, by a local practitioner. "My grandmother’s bedroom had been a place full of happiness for me, and it became a place of terror after that," she said. "I never went back to that room.” Silence about the experience on the part of survivors is culturally important, and Alimatu was told that if she ever spoke about it, she would die. As Alimatu broke her silence, she inspired in her listeners a sense of the urgency of cracking down on FGM in-country, and supporting survivors. "Everybody was in tears. I think that changed everything, as far as I’ve been told," Alimatu says. "I got a call from the private secretary of the prime minister, who said to me, 'We’re almost to a point where we really would like to do something.' That was all I needed to hear, that someone had listened and wanted to do something not just for me, but for other women who were like me and needed help but couldn’t say it." Alimatu, who is now 46 and lives in the U.K. with her husband and three children, has become a face of the movement against FGM, leading support groups and trainings for survivors, travelling the world for speaking engagements, and running an anti-FGM nonprofit, Project ACEi. The organisation both fights to end FGM and helps survivors — of whom there are an estimated 137,000 in England and Wales, and half a million in the U.S. — reach their fullest potential, in their health, professional lives, relationships, and sexualities. We spoke with Alimatu about her organisation, her activism, and her own process of healing.
What is the mission of Project ACEi?
"Women tend to be seen as having to be a certain way, and we can’t all be that. We’re all different people, we’re made differently, we have different anatomy, different everything. For myself and the other survivors in our group, [the important thing] is to let our families know: No two women are the same. I cannot be the woman you want me to be just because my mother was like that or my grandmother was like that. Times are changing. We would like you to know that we have the potential to become anything, and not just an object. "Project ACEI stands for act, commit, empower, and inspire — or initiative, because we are always trying to initiate something from our sort of depth, from whatever our experiences have been. We come together as a union of women... We look and see to the future and what our lives would be, because we’re a powerful force. As women, we have strength and energy and I think in some of the communities where FGM is practiced, this is [what they’re trying to destroy], is that inner strength that women have — it’s that sort of power that we have as women, it’s that sort of standing for oneself."
What frustrates you about the discussion of FGM today?
"[When I first spoke out about FGM, people in Africa] were being offended because the stories being told [in the West] were of a woman sitting in a hut, flies on her face, children on the floor. It was about poverty, about the 'dark continent.' My FGM didn’t happen that way. I came from a privileged background. In fact the cutter came to our house, and we were in a loving home, and everything was really nice, and my parents were educated. The image of FGM in Africa is so distant. It does not connect with women like ourselves who are now in the U.K. and have grown up here. We need something that would make the women here connect and in that way we can influence our families back home and say, You’ve got to stop this.

"We don’t like our stories to be told in a demeaning, wrong way. Most people tend to talk about FGM in a really negative way. We still have to tell the story, but inspire women to come out of that rut and become something else other than what that experience wanted them to be. "A lot of the times [people want to know specifics] and [survivors] say, 'Why do you want to know what has happened? Just know that it has happened, help me deal with it, help me stop it.' It’s like going to a rape victim and saying, ‘What type of rape did you have, anal or vaginal?’ We’ve been doing that for years now. Just know that someone took a knife or a blade and cut someone’s vagina. It’s the most violent act that can ever happen to a woman."

Tell me about the events that led up to your speech at the House of Commons in 2013.
"An incredible woman called Efuu Dorkenou is someone who’s known as the mother of FGM campaigning, and she had worked on these issues for over 40 years... I had emailed her because I had read her book Cutting the Rose, and it just captured my life and what I was, and so we began this sort of friendship and she was like a mentor. "She said, 'I would like you to come with me to the Houses of Parliament and meet with these ministers, because we are at the verge of now getting this deal done, and it could be what would change the discourse around FGM and maybe for once save lives...' "We met several ministers at the time — It was a programme of trying to [educate] health institutions like the Royal College of Midwives, the Royal College of Gynecologists, the Royal College of Nurses, these integral organisations that would actually make a difference. In bringing this collective together, I then saw that there was a need for me to express myself. I went through the National Health Service with incredible support and with help from day one... but this isn’t something that a lot of health practitioners have heard of. My midwife was Comfort Momoh, she’s now a renowned specialist in this area — she was just a student at the time when I met her, and she sat me down and gave me the most encouraging words: 'You have undergone FGM but don’t worry, when you’re about to deliver your baby, we’ll support you and nothing will happen'... I didn’t know my depression was linked to FGM. Once that happened to me, it shut me down completely. I couldn’t connect with anything. I didn’t want to be in the world, I didn’t want to have friends, I didn’t care about anything. I just thought, If this can happen to me, it’s destroyed me, why should I even exist? Meeting Comfort, she gave me this reassurance that someone cared for me, someone really was with me. It began a change in my life. "What I said that day [at the House of Commons] left a lot of people emotional, and I don’t like to leave people emotional, because I always want to leave people feeling, 'Don’t feel sorry for me. What I want you to do is join hands with me and let’s make a change, so no one else would go through that' — because nearly the entire room was in tears, literally in tears. That was not my intention, honestly. I thought everybody in the room knew what FGM was, which is why I went into so much detail. I went really graphic because I thought everybody knew. But only a handful of people knew the real details of what FGM was and that was the first time that the politicians have had a firsthand experience of hearing a survivor tell their story."

How do you respond to the 'cultural relativism' argument that fighting against FGM is culturally insensitive? One line of thinking holds that we should respect societies' traditions, no matter what.
"I don’t entertain that conversation. It’s usually people who are trying to be very clever. The reason we are talking about FGM today is [because] African women [have started the conversation]. Why is it always when things are so horrible to our women, it’s acceptable? Why should our vaginas be carved and shaped and molded? I’m not an academic on the issue of FGM — it was just something that’s happened to me and I decided to learn and understand it so I can challenge people who want to continue with this... It’s abuse. It demeans women’s right to their bodies. When people bring that conversation up, I look at them with disgust."
What are other misconceptions you encounter around the practice?
"People usually think it happens in one country in Africa, but Africa has 54 countries, and of those 54, about 30 to 40 practice FGM. Some people are surprised when we say to them wherever FGM occurs, there is always a prerequisite for other forms of violence, like forced marriage or child marriage. People think there are drums, that you go into the bush — I never went into the bush. Look in the communities where this is happening, and speak to the women. No one used to speak to survivors or victims, about how they felt, what it meant for them." What kind of care is important for survivors?
"It’s to deal with the psychological impact... People talk a lot about the physical, but for some people, it’s the psychological. The smells, the screams, even colours can bring people to be at that place where they remember their FGM. We don’t have a lot of those provisions at the moment — psychological support, a trauma centre — because it’s abuse that happened to someone when they were little. A lot of people don’t know the extent. Every single day, there are girls as young as a year old whose genitalia are being cut off. It’s gone forever. Biologically the clitoris, there’s parts of it still embedded underneath the skin, but an operation cannot give you [back] the same sort of design that God gave us. When you tamper with that, you destroy the spirit of a human being, and if it’s done to many women at such an early age, their self and their worth and their well-being are gone. "In most communities where FGM is practiced, the girl-child is a possession. The only person who is not involved in that decision is the girl-child or the woman. Communities come together and say, ‘Let’s correct this child, because she maybe is promiscuous or unclean — we need her to be married off.’ "If they’ve cut your body to a point where it’s scarred and someone is trying to penetrate, say, your vagina, and you’ve got all these scar tissues, scar tissues tend to itch and even hurt sometimes... The skin around our vagina is the most sensitive part of a woman’s body... Sometimes someone just mentions something to you, they just mention something and you feel traumatised. We want to create a safe space for the women to talk about this so that they can then identify other issues that could be happening with them, whether identifying mental illness — most women with that sort of abuse suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder or depression, and if they go through labour they’re most likely to suffer from postpartum depression. There’s also the risk of infection and tearing — whether through intercourse or babies. It’s a thin covering between the vagina and anus, and sometimes depending on how women are cut, that part of their body can be destroyed, which is why you hear of fistula." How do sex and pleasure factor into this conversation?
"[Women who undergo FGM] are deprived of our pleasure. We didn’t ask for that. We don’t want that. We want to have pleasure. You can still have pleasure, don’t get me wrong, even without [the external part of] your clitoris, because the body’s an entire pleasure machine. Because we’ve been told now that we’ve undergone FGM so that we won’t feel pleasure, though, we receive that message and it just doesn’t go away. When pleasure does come, you don’t connect. It’s embedded in our head that we shouldn’t feel pleasure. But women do feel pleasure, with or without FGM. "I was told from an early age, the word pleasure is haram, is forbidden — Don’t say it, shut your mouth, don’t say it, keep quiet, why are you saying that? Do you know it’s not accepted? Even if women have pleasure, they’re not going to say it. Pleasure is marred and tainted and it’s seen as something so bad when it’s not — it’s natural for us to feel pleasure, having sex or not having sex." What is your approach to initiating the conversation about FGM in community trainings?
"I try to bring a bit of humour. We really don’t want to upset women, because it’s hard, so we look at sort of a holistic approach when we’re talking with women. I don’t go into communities and say, ‘Can we just talk about FGM?’ They will tell you, ‘Well, I’m not ready to talk to you.’ But I go in and say, ‘What is your issue?’ Some people, maybe it’s immigration. It may be housing. Some people may want to move houses because they live in social housing that’s just not in good shape... I’ve worked in challenging environments for most of my life in the U.K., so I can tell the women that are like me and where they’re likely to be found, and I know exactly what they need. People go in without cultural understanding. If you’re going to go talk to African women, you’ve got to know where they’re coming from. It’s a lived experience. It’s good that people are talking FGM, or forced marriage, or rape, but until you have been raped, you cannot feel the emotions that come with rape. You cannot feel the emotions that come with FGM. I sit in the middle of women and say, ‘I’m just like you.’ They get it. And I put them through to services that would be of help."
What is one message you would like to convey to those who want to help?
"We want to be understood. Help us to stop this thing so that we can have girls in our community thriving and becoming whatever they want to become, without any limitation, without any restriction, and just be themselves." Find out more about Project ACEi here. This reporting was made possible by in part by a press fellowship to Women Deliver 2016 granted to the author by Women Deliver via Global Health Strategies.

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