ByAlicia CurryTrainee Reporter
Tuesday February 7, 2023
Shamsa Araweelo, 29, is a survivor of FGM and is now campaigning for better support for other women and girls
A woman whose family forced her to undergo female genital mutilation (FGM) at the age of six has said the UK is failing survivors. When Shamsa Araweelo moved to North London from Somalia in 2000 she had internal injuries which have caused a lifetime of ongoing pain."I had to watch another family member have the procedure done first which terrified the hell out of me," Shamsa told MyLondon. "People were holding this little child down and I just knew that it was about to happen to me."
Despite her family's involvement in her cutting, she says she 'harbours no ill-feelings' towards them and instead blames an education deficiency for the ancient practice. But Shamsa grew up in a world of shame and hid her mental and physical suffering, an anguish which has inspired her powerful campaign for survivors.
She added: "I knew I couldn't escape it but I tried and was pulled back. Without any anaesthetics I was cut and sewn together and from that day onwards, I've lived with medical complications." Throughout her childhood and into her adult life Shamsa has experienced horrific difficulties as a result of the cutting, including problems urinating, extreme period pain, vaginal tearing and cysts.
Shamsa is stern in her opposition to the practice but she doesn't blame the people inflicting the procedure on children, instead she explains that it has been engrained into a cultural norm which stems from a lack of education. She said: "It has been accepted by each and every member of that society and if everybody accepts it, then it's not seen as bad.
"Nobody questions it, you just have to endure it. Domestic abuse wasn't considered a crime in the UK until 1976, that didn't mean it wasn't awful for the victims before that point. With FGM it's this social acceptance, a lack of education and perhaps ignorance to the complications that it can cause that has made the practice so long-lasting."
Drawing on her own experiences seeking medical help in the UK, Shamsa also outlined a dichotomy between the fact FGM is considered a crime in the UK and the lack of specialised care for survivors. She said: "I've been to numerous different healthcare professionals both in London and Lancaster where I live now but I've always been met with the same response; that there's nothing that can be done.
"It's been incredibly invasive at times, one doctor even inspected me because they had never seen FGM before. These encounters make women feel alienated when all they need is a space to feel seen. I like to view people as flowers, we all have different needs to flourish but some of us just aren't getting the extra care we need."
Now, alongside raising her eight-year-old daughter and her university studies, Shamsa is actively fighting for better access to support services for survivors. The activist said: "I personally hate the word mutilation so I've rebranded FGM to 'Females' Greatest Mission' because that's really what this is."
Her campaigns range from social media posts to working with Metropolitan Police recruits on how to handle cases with sensitivity. She added: "FGM is often seen as this horrific practice with a gruesome description and there's no face to it so people find it easy to look at us as if we're barbaric and it takes the humanity out of the trauma.
"When you look someone in the eyes and understand what they've been through then you can truly see what needs to be done." Shamsa's latest venture saw her attend a roundtable event at City Hall on Thursday (February 2) as part of the 'FGM Stops Here’ campaign which is set to launch to aid the protection of women and girls against harmful practices.
Prevalence of FGM in London is difficult to estimate because of the hidden nature of the crime but according to Trust for London it's estimated there are 2.1 per cent of women affected by the practice, the highest rate in any UK city.
Mayor Sadiq Khan said: “The safety of women and girls is a top priority and I am clear that there cannot be any place whatsoever in London for FGM, which is a life threatening, illegal and devastating practice.
“That’s why I am joining forces with grassroots campaigners to give a voice to survivors, frontline professionals and activists. A new series of online short films will talk directly to communities on the dangers and impact that FGM has on women, girls and their loved ones.
“It is vital we have a public health approach to end the epidemic of violence against women and girls in London, to ensure it is treated with the utmost urgency – not just by the police but by society as a whole so together we can build a safer London for everyone.”
If you are a survivor of FGM and need support, a free London-wide telephone line is available. For more information on the hotline, please click here.