Khadija Gbla has experienced the horror of civil war, the danger and uncertainty of fleeing her homeland as a refugee, and the pain and trauma of female genital mutilation. But for this remarkable young woman her pain is now her purpose as she works towards helping and protecting others. This article includes a description of female genital mutilation (FGM).
Interview by Belinda Taylor. Article by Wendy Rush.
Khadija Gbla was born in Sierra Leone in West Africa. When she was 10 years old she and her family fled civil war, heading north to Gambia where they lived for three years. It was here that the family applied for refugee status and began their long journey to Adelaide, South Australia.
“Most people don’t understand the process you have to go through to become a refugee” says Khadija. “You have to apply for refugee status, which we did. We had to share our stories of the war and explain what happened to us. My grandfather was a chief and he was politically involved so we were targeted.
“We were called for an interview, then called back for a second interview. We had a medical to make sure we were healthy and I guess to make sure we didn’t bring anything contagious with us. One day we were told ‘you are going to Australia’. We didn’t choose where we were going – it could have been Canada or the US. Australia chose us essentially.
“We didn’t know where Australia was in the world, we’d never heard of it. A few people said that it was at the other end of the world, there was nowhere else to go after that. That was quite a scary way to look at it, but we were just so grateful to have been chosen.”
After three days of travelling Khadija and her family finally arrived in their new country.
“There was no feeling like it when we got off that plane. There are no words to describe the joy. This was going to be our new home. We were coming to a better life. We had been through hell and now we were going to heaven. That’s how it felt.
“At that time kids my age – I had just turned 13 – were getting married to men who already had two or three wives. Kids my age were dying – getting shot and killed, getting raped, getting sold into slavery. And here I was – safe.”
Journey through hell
While they were going through the refugee assessment process in Gambia, Khadija’s mother came home one day and told the children they were going on a little holiday. It sounded strange to Khadija but she knew not to question her mother. They drove for hours until they reached a village, where they stopped near a hut. A lady came out of the hut, had a conversation with Khadija’s mother, then went back into the hut and came out again with what Khadija describes as a ’rusty orange, yellow looking knife’.
“That scared me, but what scared me most was the lack of understanding about why we were there. The lady was old and dressed very traditionally which in our culture always symbolises something. She went into a second hut and my Mum dragged me along.”
Khadija’s clothes were removed and she was held down on the floor.
“This old lady came towards me with the knife and I thought she was going to kill me. The next thing I knew she was holding what I now know to be my clitoris. She started cutting away and it seemed to take forever. It felt like a lifetime to me lying there – fighting my Mum off, screaming, passing out, waking up, passing out. Then she stopped and she threw the flesh away as if it was the most disgusting thing she had ever seen.”
The old woman with the rusty knife had performed female genital mutilation (FGM) by cutting off Khadija’s clitoris and labia majora, the outer lips of her vulva.
“I just lay there, bleeding, confused and thinking ‘what the hell just happened’?”
Khadija spent weeks recuperating. There was no explanation, just pain, trauma and confusion. Not long after that, she and her family arrived in Australia.
The threat of FGM in Australia
Khadija points out that many people from communities that practice FGM – mainly Africa, the Middle East and Asia – now live in Australia. It’s natural for people to bring their own culture and beliefs to a new country, says Khadija, and this includes many healthy and positive things.
“And then there is the negative, which is what FGM is. They are continuing to practice it because to them it’s part of their culture. We have kids that are being taken back to their country of origin to have FGM done to them. Malaysia and Indonesia, our neighbours, have legalised FGM so you just have to walk into a clinic. Or you can get a woman (called cutters) to come to Australia and do it to our girls here. We even know of women in Australia who are doing it.
“For years people thought the war against FGM was something that was far away in a remote place across the other side of the world. We felt sorry for everybody there, but it wasn’t something we had to deal with. The reality is that the fight against FGM is actually right here now, in our own backyard and it’s happening to girls at any age from birth. They are in our schools, they are your neighbours, they are in the playground.”
According to Khadija those who support the practice hide behind cultural relativity. “People have a right to practice their culture until they are committing a criminal act, which FGM is. It is illegal in every State in Australia. Your culture should not be a defence to a crime.
“Culture is good when it is positive. Culture is not good when it’s breaking the law. Culturally I’m African, I am as African as you can get – I’m loud, I’m vibrant, I’m colourful! But I refuse to accept a certain aspect of my culture that I think is terrible. My fight against FGM is not about attacking my own culture or my own people. This is about human lives. Every child, no matter their religious background or ethnicity, should be afforded the exact same protection.”
Khadija established the not for profit organisation No FGM Australia out of concern that enough wasn’t being done to deal with the issue in this country. Most of the work that has been done is around women’s health and community education, but, according to Khadija, there was a huge gap in the area of child protection.
“FGM is child abuse. That’s how it should be spoken about, that’s how it should be treated. Those who are notifiers should be advised that this is child abuse, how to recognise it and who to call if they’re worried about it.”
In addition to child protection, No FGM Australia also aims to support and empower survivors. “There are a huge number of women who come to Australia and, like me, have survived FGM already and then we go through health side effects.”
Those side effects include very heavy and painful periods, fibroids and infertility. “Every time I have a period I have to be admitted to hospital to have morphine shots because that’s how bad the level of pain is. And I was told I wouldn’t be able to have kids.
“So we are supporting women with these side effects, advocating for them in the health system which is not well adapted to deal with FGM survivors and the consequences of FGM. We give the women the skills to do whatever they want to do with their experience, and we support them in speaking to their community and starting those conversations.”
Another vitally important aspect of No FGM Australia’s work is professional development – educating teachers, doctors, nurses and others in the community. Their comprehensive website includes information specific to each of the occupations or professions who are most likely to come into contact with survivors or those at risk.
Little girls at risk of FGM
Khadija explains how to recognise a child who is at risk of FGM. “If they come from a community that practices FGM, if their mother has had FGM, if their siblings have had FGM, then they are at high risk. If they tell you they are going back home for a special event, they are going to be a woman, that female family members are coming from overseas for a visit and something wonderful is going to happen, then that can give you a sense that something’s about to go down.
“We want people to make those notifications. It’s not about taking the children away – that’s the last resort. It’s about explaining to the family that the practice is harmful and illegal. The next possible step is a child protection order which stops the family taking the child interstate or overseas. It could also include a regular check-up of that child in a safe way, which is one of the biggest deterrents. What we believe in Australia is that protection of a child is paramount to any other consideration. It is not about demonising those cultures. We have seen three girls a day at risk of FGM. This is about those kids.
“Imagine a 4 or 5 year old being held down and having their private parts mutilated. We need to focus on protecting those little girls, who deserve to grow up to be healthy. And we can go about this in a very culturally appropriate way.”
Khadija makes it clear that female genital mutilation – FGM – is everybody’s responsibility and all Australians should know about it. “Just like we all know about child abuse, rape, sexual assault, paedophilia and domestic violence. We need people in the community to stand up. We need the fathers to say ‘no’ to FGM, we need the mothers to say ‘no’ to FGM, we need all the siblings to say ‘no’. And all of us need to be protectors of those little girls in the same way we say no to other forms of child abuse.”
No FGM Australia has set up the first FGM hotline in Australia for workers, professionals and community members who want to talk about a situation and seek advice.
“Is there a child at risk? A chance this is going to happen? Let’s take action before it’s too late. Because one chance is all we get!”
Love changes everything
Khadija has been advocating against FGM since her own experience at 13 years old. She was born into a Muslim family. “I spent most of my life being a Muslim, praying five times a day, fasting, being told everything I am is because of Allah.”
But about three years ago Khadija’s life began to take a different turn. A new member of their community, a pastor who had started the first African Christian church in Adelaide, invited her family along to a church service.
“My mother is very liberal in that we don’t see religion as a source of conflict or point of difference. We believed that Christianity and Islam were the same, they just have different names for the same god. So Fridays we went to the mosque and Sundays we went to church and we became what I call ‘Chris-Mus’ (Christian-Muslims).
“I will never forget my first visit to church, it was really weird. We didn’t have to fully cover up, we did a lot of singing – I love that because I love singing and dancing – there was a scripture reading, then the pastor started preaching. What I got from the message was that Christianity is about love. And the head of Christianity was this man Jesus, the son of God. This Supreme Being loved us so much he thought ‘how can I reach my children? How can I show them the essence of who I am, because I’m too big for them to even comprehend?’ So he sent his son Jesus, who is God, to relate to us.
“And it was this unconditional love, that no matter what I do I’m loved; and the grace – when I fail or do the wrong thing I’ll be forgiven. As a Muslim what I understood was Allah’s love wasn’t unconditional. If I did something wrong I would have to repent but, for me, there was no sense of grace or forgiveness, no sense that it’s finished. I became disconnected with my Muslim faith and I felt that it was based on fear, not love.
“As a Muslim I prayed five times a day in another language. But as a Christian I can pray in any language I want in any way I want. Sitting in that church and hearing this man preaching about this unconditional love, I just thought ‘wow – sign me up!’”
Khadija and her family still went to the mosque, still fasted when it was Ramadan but slowly, as time went on, she carried the Bible in her handbag instead of the Koran. She continued being a ‘Chris-Mus’ but, she explains, she was leaning towards Christianity.
Khadija married but found herself in an abusive relationship which lasted seven years. “Due to my lack of self-worth and my low self-esteem I thought I was going to get love from this person who was just as equally broken as me. He assaulted me numerous times and after the last assault I was lying in hospital thinking ‘I’m gonna die next time’. There were numerous times over my lifetime where I tried to kill myself. I had been depressed and had had post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). But lying there, realising somebody was going to take my life, it made no sense.”
It was at that moment she knew she had to leave. Not long after she left the hospital a friend asked her to go to church. Khadija was homeless and life was not going well.
“So I went to church. That feeling came back – I’m home, I’m feeling at peace. I kept going back. Some of my physical symptoms of pain started healing slowly and the pain I felt inside my heart started easing the more I learned of God’s love again, of his forgiveness, of who I am in Christ – I’m a queen, a child of God, I am precious, I am beautiful.
“I am happy to tell you that that man who was the pastor at the first church I went to became my husband.” And happily Khadija and her husband now have a child she thought she would never be able to conceive.
“I am still a new Christian and I don’t go around shouting my Christianity. I always come back to what Christianity is to me – it is about love. The Bible says that this is above all else. When I gave birth to my son what was so amazing for me was that it actually made me see my relationship with God. My son depends on me for absolutely everything. God requires that I have the same dependency on him. When my son holds me he doesn’t clutch in fear, he’s always relaxed in my arms. Absolute trust and faith. It reminds me that this is something God needs from me. My son in a way has simplified something that I struggled with as a Christian.
“Jesus loves me in all my imperfection, every single second of the day. It’s that love that helps me want to fight the battles that I fight – racism, FGM, violence against women. There is no other word for my Christian faith – it’s love. When I have a difference of opinion with someone it doesn’t mean I don’t love them. If someone is living contrary to what the Bible says, it doesn’t matter, I love them. It was love that connected me to Jesus. And it was his love that I felt consume me. It’s the same love that I hope, by my very existence, in my own way, I’m giving back – I’m giving love.
“When I became a Christian one of the things that was very profound was that I recognised God’s grace and God’s calling through those times when I wasn’t a Christian. Everything I have done – speaking out, standing up – that was a calling that I was answering without being conscious that I was doing it. Jesus had called me to share my experience, to share my pain, to share my gift. Then when I became a Christian I was consciously doing it, not unconsciously. “
Khadija’s favourite Bible verse is Romans 8:28 (NIV) And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.
“Nothing gives me more hope. Do you not need to know all things will work out? No matter what your challenges are, even though they’re meant to break you or crack you or destroy you, it will work out. My FGM was meant to make me not feel like a woman, to take my sexuality away. My domestic violence was meant to make me feel worthless, powerless. But how wonderful that I’m able to stand up every single day in front of people – and when I do there is always a man or woman who connects with me, there is always somebody that it brings hope to.
“All of that pain has become my purpose. Everything was meant to break me, everything was meant to make me infertile but here I am, my baby’s just turned one and I’m able to share that story.
“I look at my son every single day. He represents God’s love, God’s mercy, God’s grace and God’s fulfilment of his promises. God says our lives should be testimonies. I would say my life is a testimony because of God’s grace. “
Khadija was the opening speaker at Uniting Women Conference 28 April-1 May 2016 unitingwomen.org.au
Read about Khadija and the work that No FGM Australia does at nofgmoz.com
Khadija Gbla has been recognised for her ability to influence community change and raise awareness, particularly around multicultural and gender issues. She is especially noted for her honest and passionate 2014 TED Talk addressing female genital mutilation. Her impressive list of awards includes Young South Australian of the Year 2011 and The Advertiser South Australia’s 50 most Influential Women 2014.