Beyond Mutilation

Efforts are underway to educate the public and clinicians about female genital mutilation/cutting, which Olayide Ogunsiji has helped calculate affects roughly 53,000 girls and women in Australia today.

Olayide Ogunsiji is a senior lecturer at Western’s School of Nursing and Midwifery.

Fatu Sillah will never forget what happened to her when she was six years old. Her mother’s friend came to their house near Freetown in Sierra Leone and invited her to a party next door. Excited by the thought of food and friends, Sillah quickly headed over, but her anticipation soon turned to alarm.

“There were young girls sitting in a line crying and I could sense straight away what was going on,” recalls the 30-year-old, who now lives in Sydney. “But it was too late for me to escape.”

Sillah is one of an estimated 53,000 women and girls in Australia who suffered female genital mutilation, also known as female genital cutting, or FGM/C, and one of 200 million women and girls globally. The World Health Organization defines FGM/C as “all procedures involving partial or total removal of the external female genitalia, or other injury to female genital organs for non-medical reasons.” 

Even estimating the number of survivors in Australia was a challenge involving careful collation of reliable international prevalence figures and analysis of ongoing immigration from countries where FGM/C takes place. Indeed, it was not until a 2017 report, that an official number was available in Australia. 

The report, co-edited by Dr Olayide Ogunsiji, a senior lecturer at Western’s School of Nursing and Midwifery, has enabled a better understanding of the effects on Australian communities and helps drive funding for concerted efforts to help survivors in the community and in hospital settings. 

THE SPECIALISED HEALTH IMPACTS

Healthcare services equipped to provide FGM/C survivors with the help they need are important, explains Ogunsiji. 

Aside from the cruelty of cutting, survivors often struggle with lifelong complications. “FGM/C has multifaceted impacts on a woman’s life — physically, emotionally, psychologically, and socially,” explains Ogunsiji, who is also a registered nurse. 

Short-term impacts include pain, bleeding, swelling in the genital area, and urinary tract infections. In the long term, survivors may face menstrual problems, sexual health and childbirth complications, and mental health issues.

Yet, Ogunsiji’s research has shown knowledge in this area is severely lacking. As a result, she is now working with women’s health clinics to raise awareness of the issue with pamphlets and training a select group of midwives to provide specialised care to survivors. She is also exploring how to make awareness of the dangers of FGM/C part of the school curriculum. 

“We need to work in partnership with the community, healthcare providers, and the government to get the job done,” she says. Earning the trust of immigrant communities where the culture of cutting is prevalent is also key, says Ogunsiji. “The aim is to connect them with services to support them, rather than to judge or attack them.”

 

“FGM/C has multifaceted impacts on a woman’s life.” Survivors face menstrual, sexual, mental and childbirth health problems.

 

Need to know

  • In Australia, there are an estimated 53,000 female genital mutilation/cutting (FGM/C) survivors.
  • The United Nations hopes to eradicate the practice by 2030.
  • Education about support systems for healthcare providers and survivors is key.

A LACK OF AWARENESS HAMPERS SUPPORT

The reasons for FGM/C are complex and involve a mix of social and cultural factors, such as the belief that it preserves a woman’s modesty or helps prepare her for marriage. In Sillah’s case, she and all her friends were cut because “mutilated girls were thought to be more humble, less promiscuous, or dirty,” she says.

Today, FGM/C is practised in more than 30 countries across Africa, Asia and the Middle East. But there are survivors worldwide. Awareness of the issue in Australia, however, is low. “When I speak about FGM/C, it’s jaw-dropping for many people,” says Sillah. “They say, ‘Wow, I didn’t know this happened to people who live in Australia or that it happened to women in general.’”

For example, in a 2019 survey of almost 20 Sydney-based primary healthcare providers (GPs, nurses, social workers, etc.), Ogunsiji and her team found while most respondents were aware that FGM/C is illegal in Australia, none knew the actual penalties. Many were also unsure of how to engage those affected who might need legal or crisis care support, with some saying they had only watched a 15-minute documentary on the topic during their training.

The key to tackling FGM/C prevention — and to help meet the United Nations’ goal of stamping out the practice by 2030 — is to do more than just criminalise the act, Ogunsiji says. Education and awareness must come into play too. 

OPENING UP TO OTHERS

Ogunsiji first began researching FGM/C more than 15 years ago, as a young PhD student at Western Sydney University. Before starting out, she, too, was unaware of the problem. In Nigeria where she grew up, they had “been taught it was no longer acceptable to circumcise girls,” says Ogunsiji. 

“But then I came to Australia and it caught my attention as an important issue that impacts women and girls, and it needs to be known about,’” she says.

For the first six months after she was mutilated, Sillah could barely walk. “Urinating was hard for me, urine equaled pain,” she recalls. Until today, she still suffers from long, painful periods with heavy bleeding, and nerve damage that causes her to sweat a lot, even in freezing temperatures. “It kind of screwed up my whole body system,” she says.

She also has to deal with talking about her past to potential sexual partners. “I answer questions truthfully so that they understand,” says Sillah. “But at the same time, it’s always a debate: ‘Should I? Shouldn’t I? Am I just wasting all my time and energy telling you when two months later, you don’t want to be in my life?’”

“The short-term and long-term trauma of FGM/C is always going to be there,” she says.

Since early this year, Sillah has joined forces with Ogunsiji to help raise awareness of the issue. “I share my story not because I want you to feel sad for me, but because I want you to learn about FGM/C,” says Sillah. “I’m praying for the day when I can have regular conversations in which people already know what FGM/C is,” she says. “That is my goal.”

Olayide Ogunsiji (standing) works with spokesperson Fatu Sillah (seated) to increase the resources available to those living with the impacts of female genital mutilation/cutting in Australia.

Meet the Academic | Dr Olayide Ogunsiji

Dr Olayide Ogunsiji is a Registered Nurse and Senior Lecturer at the School of Nursing and Midwifery, Western Sydney University. Originally from Nigeria, Dr Ogunsiji completed her Bachelor of Science (Sociology) and Master of Science (Sociology) and was a lecturer in one of the Nigerian Universities prior her migration to Australia in 1999. She joined the academic staff of Western Sydney University in 2008, and is currently the Director of Academic Workforce, School of Nursing and Midwifery, Liverpool Campus, Sydney.   

Dr Ogunsiji’s research focuses on women’s health with specific focus on violence against women, migrant and refugee women’s health and health of people of African descent. Her research topics are female genital mutilation, intimate partner violence, breast and cervical cancer screening and parenting practices. Dr Ogunsiji conducts her research in partnership with industry partners, community organisations and local, national and international collaborators. She supervises Bachelor of Nursing (Honours) and Higher Degree Research students. Dr Ogunsiji has featured in ABC Radio interviews, published in high impact journals and presented in conferences. Dr Ogunsiji is a multi-award winner. She was a finalist at the 2020 Western Sydney University Research Impact Competition, was the 2020 Blacktown Woman of the Year at the New South Wales Women of the Year Award and won the Dorothy Garrigus Adams 2021 Award for Excellence in Service at the Sigma Theta Tau International Honor Society International Awards. 

Credit

© Cybele Malinowski © Ponomariova_Maria/iStock/Getty Images Plus © Leighann Blackwood/unsplash
Future-Makers is published for Western Sydney University by Nature Research Custom Media, part of Springer Nature.