A new film is breaking the culture of silence around female genital mutilation by showing women who have gone through it discussing everything from sex toys to clitoral reconstruction surgery.
Speaking on Zoom from Canada, the creators of Koromousso: Big Sister, Habibata Ouarme and Jim Donovan, say they particularly wanted to create more awareness about the number of women living with the consequences of FGM who reside in western countries and may be in need of specialised medical care.
The UN children’s agency, Unicef, says that at least 200 million women and girls have undergone FGM – which involves removing some or all of the external female genitalia. The practice is present in 31 countries over three continents.
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Koromousso: Big Sister follows Ouarme, an activist originally from Ivory Coast, who was subjected to FGM as a child. In the film, she explains that she was told by her mother that if she didn’t undergo the procedure she would be excluded from society and prevented from marrying or living a good life. Other women featured in the film come from Burkina Faso and Guinea, and have similar stories.
Ouarme speaks openly about the clitoral reconstructive surgery she later underwent, which she also guides a friend through. She says making the film was a “process of healing completely” for her. “Telling my story, hoping that it can help other women … to be open about it so we can fight FGM … It’s hard to fight something when there’s no discussion about it.”
In Canada it’s not easy, so imagine living in the Ivory Coast where it’s taboo; you can’t talk about sex like that and after the cutting, nobody talks about it any more— Habibata Ouarme, filmmaker
Canadian gynaecologist Angela Deane says clitoral reconstruction can have a significant impact in improving women’s lives, but Canada is lacking trained personnel and funding, leading to uncertainties about where women in need of surgery or other assistance can be referred to. Deane says FGM is “deeply rooted in gender inequality” and the medical community needs to first recognise, and then address, its impact.
Koromousso: Big Sister shows how difficult accessing reconstructive surgery is. It is not available in many countries, meaning expenses are high and the quality of the initial assessments and post-surgery follow ups can be affected. Despite the challenges, many women who go through surgery speak about becoming more confident and assertive afterwards.
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“Usually women who have FGM don’t talk about it, because you don’t feel like you’re a whole person, a whole woman,” says Ouarme. “There’s something missing, and you don’t want people to laugh because you feel that way … You’re scared also that people can judge you because you come from a culture [considered] a ‘bad’ culture because they did that to you. People don’t consider the pain they can create just by saying those words.”
In order to open up, Ouarme says, women need to feel secure. “Is there a safe place where those women can go to talk about it without feeling that they will be judged?”
The film argues that there is a link between stopping FGM and speaking openly about sex more generally. Ouarme notes there can be reservations about this in all countries. “In Canada it’s not easy, so imagine living in the Ivory Coast where it’s taboo; you can’t talk about sex like that and after the cutting [FGM], nobody talks about it any more. Because it’s taboo and you grew up not knowing what really happened to you. Even when you travel, you come here in Canada, it’s still hard for you to open [up] and talk about it. So this taboo kind of adds to the handicap of FGM. When you start speaking freely about sex, in some countries it’s also going to be easy also to talk about FGM.”
There can be a lot of shame, she says. The psychological impact of FGM particularly can lead women to shut down and not explore their own bodies, while it also results in trauma being provoked at different moments. “If you decide that you want to know what happened to you, you have to accept that you are going to go through some pain. Some memories are going to come back.”
If we are serious about tackling the scourge of FGM and supporting survivors then we need to ensure the proper services are provided— Frances Fitzgerald MEP
One of the messages of the film, Ouarme says, is that women have power. “They don’t want to stay victimised. It is also a story about hope, she adds. “We talk about our story and how painful it is, but at the end it is a hope, we want change; it’s hope that we can change something.”
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Koromousso: Big Sister screened as part of the Human Rights Watch film festival in London last week. Donovan says they believe that reaching African diaspora with the film might influence the situation more broadly, given the contacts between those in the West and their families in Africa. They plan to have community screenings in Canada, organised in tandem with that country’s National Film Board, which they hope will enable discussions around FGM. They also hope to sell the film internationally, and are hoping to hold screenings in Africa too.
Last year, MEP Frances Fitzgerald said while an estimated 5,730 girls in Ireland were victims of FGM, reconstructive surgery was not available for them.
“Currently victims who need this surgery are forced to travel abroad. This is not acceptable. Reconstructive surgery can help reduce the chronic pain associated with FGM. It also allows survivors regain a normal life,” she said. “I am calling on the Department of Health to make these supports available publicly for those who need it. If we are serious about tackling the scourge of FGM and supporting survivors then we need to ensure the proper services are provided.”
In response to a query, the Health Service Executive said its social inclusion office funds the Irish Family Planning Association (IFPA) FGM treatment service and Akina Dada wa Africa, a national network of migrant women in Ireland.
The IFPA provides free specialised medical care and counselling to women who have undergone FGM, which includes referral pathways to secondary care. “The revised and updated third edition of the Female Genital Mutilation handbook for healthcare professionals working in Ireland was published in 2021 and produced by AkiDwA with support from the HSE National Social Inclusion Office. It is envisaged that this resource will be of help to a range of healthcare professionals,” the HSE said.