DAY THIRTEEN: Female genital mutilation, migration and displacement 

In this interview with Juliana Nkrumah, issues of female genital mutilation and how different meanings are affixed to it through migration and displacement are discussed.

An interview with Juliana Nkrumah 

Featured Iimage reproduced from Shutterstock 

What does this year’s blogathon theme mean to you?  

A lot of us think of gender-based violence (GBV) as violence against women – but GBV is wider than violence against women. I see it as societally instituted where social control and social isolation are powerful strategies used to entrench GBV. 

The wars that took place in West Africa in the late 90s and early 2000s in Liberia, Ivory Coast and Sierra Leone forced people to leave their countries and go to places like Guinea and Ghana, and then sometimes resettle in Western countries. These West African countries practisce female genital mutilation (FGM) as a traditional practice, a normal social practice that nobody questions. FGM is seen as a way of strengthening women’s status and position in society, not as GBV.  

It is important to recognise that GBV does not only occur when populations are in conflict, but also in communities where there is a sense of stability. However, where conflict or war displaces people, after social upheaval new understandings of GBV emerge.  

How does the movement of people shape access to communities of care after enduring gender-based violence? 

FGM is a form of gender-based violence. The interesting thing about this type of GBV is that it only affects people who identify as biological females, as the site of violence is the external genitalia of a person born female. When people live in a country, village or community where FGM is not seen as GBV, because the society has forced people to accept this is a way of life -, this is who we are, this is what defines us and sets us apart from other biologically born women -, then there is no question about seeking care because it happens to everybody – 99% in Somalia, 94% in Djibouti, 94% in Guinea. How are you going to seek help if it is not seen as an issue?  

If we focus on the movement of people into diaspora, to a country like Australia where FGM is not an acceptable practice, we see FGM as a human rights violation, and we accept and respond to the health impacts. We create the care and build an environment where women are comfortable to seek help. For example, in maternity care it becomes an issue of life and death, particularly for the most serious types of FGM, where health professionals have no knowledge and skill to deal with it. Gynaecologists and women’s health workers need to be able to respond and make the community feel comfortable approaching communities of care within our health care services.  

But we are currently lacking psychological care in our community. Women who were circumcised before they came to Australia in a sense have learned to deal with it. But the young people are savvy, their culture is not only their parent’s culture, but the global culture. And as a result of that, they are dealing with some deep psychological impacts. We need to grow a community of care for these young women as some of them are really angry and frustrated. Their anger is fuelled by the fact that they feel that beliefs like religion was used to entrench and enforce the practice. They are looking for skilled professionals who they can relate to and who they don’t have to educate about FGM before they can get support. There’s a movement against this type of GBV, driven by the community themselves. The young people are on a trajectory to stop the practice in their community, to say it’s not going to happen to our children, and we are taking control of our community now.  

How might migrant communities practice healing and seek accountability in the absence of legal personhood and formal citizenship? 

In relation to making a change around this form of GBV, I think you need several things to work side by side. The law as a tool of change is powerful in the hands of those who understand community and can use the law to reach community and change a situation. When the laws around female circumcision were introduced in Australia, they were harsh, and the community saw this as a racist response. But the interesting thing is that we took the law and went to the community and said to them, it’s not because they don’t like you or because they’re being racist, we have laws in Australia that protect a human being’s body, just like bicycle helmet and seatbelt laws. This made the penny drop for some communities, they said ‘whoa, the government cares about me and the protection of my body and my children’s body’. The law became a tool for education, leading to change.  

I see changes in understanding of GBV and female circumcision because people are living in a place where outside information can reach them. If there’s no information in community the practice is allowed to continue. There’s evidence to show that when people receive external information, they use that to make an informed decision. In Australia, the law has been a tool of education and what people reverted to for protection when they are under pressure from families overseas to ensure the perpetration of the practice.  

Author’s Bio 

Juliana Nkrumah AM has worked in both State and Commonwealth Government agencies for over 20 years. Her voluntary work in the community sector has gained her much acclaim including the award of Membership of the Order of Australia. She currently works as the Program Manager, Domestic and Family Violence at Settlement Services International (SSI).  

Juliana has been an active advocate on the women’s issues in Australia since 1989; she is especially passionate about Women’s Human Rights issues. Juliana played a leadership role on issues of FGM across Australia whilst working as the Coordinator of the NSW Education Program on FGM in Western Sydney Area Health Services from 1996 to 2005. She continues to be a spokesperson on FGM; and has provided access to training on FGM for a number of women as spokespersons on FGM. 

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