'I survived genital mutilation, now I'm helping end it'

Khadija Gbla. Photo by Nick Cibbin/ BlackBox
Khadija Gbla. Photo by Nick Cibbin/ BlackBox
  • When Khadija Gbla was just nine years old, she was a victim of female genital mutilation (FGM).
  • Now 29, she's made it her mission to ensure no other girl has to endure the same fate.
  • This is her story as told to Shari Nementzik.

I knew I was different during sexual health class at school. The teacher spoke about the clitoris and I didn't have one - all I had was a big scar.

When I started volunteering for the Women's Health Statewide organisation at age 13, I came across a pamphlet about female genital mutilation (FGM) and there was an image that looked like my genitals.

That's when my memories came flooding back and I remembered what had happened.

READ MORE: WATCH: Meet the Maasai woman trying to stop female genital mutilation

I was born in Sierra Leone but when a civil war broke out, my mum, sister and I sought refuge in Gambia. When I was 9 or 10, my mum told me we were going on holiday. We had never gone on a holiday because we were refugees, so it sounded strange to me, but part of our culture is to respect your elders, so I didn't question it.

We got in a car and drove for a very long time and ended up in a village outside a hut. There was an old lady, dressed in tribal wear, there to greet us, but she was scary looking. She went back into the hut and came out with a rusty, dirty, dull knife in her hand.

She then walked away into a second hut and my mum dragged me into it behind her. As soon as I stepped inside, she pulled my clothes off and held me down on the floor, naked. She was so much stronger than me, so I didn't stand a chance.

READ MORE: WATCH: Meet the Maasai woman trying to stop female genital mutilation

The old lady came towards me with the rusty knife and I thought she was going to kill me. She slid down my body to my vagina and then she grabbed hold of my flesh down there (my clitoris and labia majora) and with the rusty knife, she started cutting away.

I started screaming and crying out in agony, begging my mum to let me go, to make it stop, but this woman just kept on sawing. It was unbearable. She took my flesh and threw it across the room like it was the most disgusting thing she had ever touched. They left me bleeding on the floor, thinking, What the just happened to me?

My mum took me to one of my aunt's homes, where she sat me in a bath of Dettol and they put some herbs on my vulva to help it heal. I couldn't comprehend what happened. My mum had lied to me.

It was so traumatic that I boxed it away deep inside my mind and never opened it. We didn't talk about it; my mum never explained what happened or why.

READ MORE: Sexual abuse will remain the ‘safest’ crime to commit because people know that it is most likely going to go unreported

It wasn't long after that Australia took us in as refugees .After I found the booklet on FGM, I confronted my mother. I asked her why she let that old lady cut me. She said she did it because it was her responsibility as my mum, and then explained that my great-grandma had it done, my grandma had it done and she had it done.

But I said it makes no sense, it's so brutal and painful, and she said it's meant to help me. 'If you have a clitoris you ... won't have control of yourself, you will have sex with everybody,' she said. She told me she'd empowered me, but I didn't feel empowered. She took something away from me - something that I've learnt has a purpose. She decided that I don't need to have sexual pleasure. I said to my mum that this is going to end with my generation.

I made it my mission to ensure it doesn't happen to any other girl. I didn't have sex until I was married at 22. I had no desire for sex - I didn't get aroused. When I did have sex, it was very painful. Every time feels just as painful as the first.

READ MORE: AT A GLANCE: Gauteng has the highest number of reported rape cases in SA

I'm also vulnerable down there, and I get constant urinary tract infections. Worst of all, my periods are excruciating. My mum used to have to call the ambulance to take me to hospital because I'd be screaming in agony - the only thing that could help me deal with it was morphine. Every single month, I go through this hell.

Despite being told that I may never be able to have children, I have had a beautiful baby boy (delivered via C-section), who is the light of my life.It's been really tough, but I've had to learn to accept that getting aroused and attaining pleasure takes more work for me and that my vulva doesn't look like others. I have limitations, but I won't let them define me.

I felt so powerless when this happened to me - I couldn't protect myself and nobody protected me. Now I am taking back my power by redefining what pleasure looks like for me and what my body is capable of offering me, as well as being a voice for so many women who have also had to endure this type of abuse.

READ MORE: “One child too many” - #TheTotalShutdown protests to support the alleged Dros child rape victim

Statistics surrounding FGM are hard to get because it is a secret crime and very difficult to detect, and no government data is collected. The most accurate data we have is a report from No FGM Australia [of which Gbla is the executive director], which estimates that there are 83,000 FGM survivors in Australia.

While not all women who have experienced FGM themselves will continue the practice, stats show that their daughters are most at risk. It is estimated that survivors of FGM give birth to 1100 girls every year. That means three girls a day are at risk of FGM in Australia alone. Now, I'm doing everything I can to protect those three girls a day, because no other little girl should have to endure my fate. I'm a survivor.

READ MORE: This woman uploading footage of her stalker proves that women still have a long way to go before they’re believed

Khadija Gbla is the executive director of No FGM Australia. This not-for-profit organisation aims to protect Australian girls from FGM and to support and empower survivors of FGM. "We need people to raise awareness," says Gbla.

"All of us need to make sure that this form of child abuse and gender violence stops. Talk about it in your workplace, to your family and your friends. We need to have this conversation because all girls have the right to protection from abuse regardless of their colour, religion or ethnicity."


Follow us on social media: FacebookTwitterInstagram

Sign up to W24’s newsletters so you don't miss out on any of our stories and giveaways.

We live in a world where facts and fiction get blurred
In times of uncertainty you need journalism you can trust. For 14 free days, you can have access to a world of in-depth analyses, investigative journalism, top opinions and a range of features. Journalism strengthens democracy. Invest in the future today. Thereafter you will be billed R75 per month. You can cancel anytime and if you cancel within 14 days you won't be billed. 
Subscribe to News24
Voting Booth
Do you think it's important to get married in this day and age?
Please select an option Oops! Something went wrong, please try again later.
Yes, it's important in order to create a family unit and for companionship
22% - 662 votes
Not at all. Being single is far more liberating
9% - 274 votes
There is no general answer to this, it's each to their own
50% - 1514 votes
Yes, society still frowns on unmarried people, especially women
1% - 40 votes
It depends on whether you are able to find a compatible partner
18% - 545 votes