Fatou Baldeh, FGM survivor and DARF campaigner

Fatou bbcGambian-born Fatou Baldeh experienced female genital mutilation (FGM) at the age of 7. She became involved in the campaign to end FGM while studying at Queen Margaret University. Now working in a voluntary capacity with DARF, she has used her story to raise public awareness, train frontline public sector staff and engage with communities which practice FGM. Her campaigning activities include a groundbreaking presentation at The Scottish Parliament and participating in interviews with the BBC, the Guardian and the Herald.

Breaking the Mould is an important publication because you never know who could read a story that will inspire them to think ‘I can do this too’. Sometimes other people’s stories are the only place to get momentum. At university, I had a lecture on FGM and I remember wondering what they were talking about, because FGM is called cutting or circumcision within practising communities and is rarely discussed. By the end of the lecture, I realised they were talking about what had happened to me. I started reading about it but even when I decided that FGM would be my dissertation topic, I said I wouldn’t use the term mutilation because I didn’t feel mutilated. However, the more I researched, the more I thought ‘this is wrong’.

My dissertation research was very emotional as the first interview I performed was my first time speaking about FGM to someone else who had been through it. She talked a lot about things I was experiencing as well but didn’t know it had anything to do with FGM. It was a big, reflective learning curve for me and motivated me to campaign even more.

Whilst I was at university I got involved with DARF through volunteering and the help they gave me during my dissertation. DARF was founded by Dr Monica Magoke-Mhoja, after writing her PHD dissertation on early marriage and FGM. She set up DARF to support women and provide training on these issues for frontline officers around Scotland. I am still a volunteer campaigning against FGM, raising awareness, lobbying the government to change the laws surrounding FGM and early marriage and providing funding for projects that support women across Scotland and in Africa as well.

Presently, we’re doing a research project called ‘My Voice, in which we teach young people from practising communities how to do research so that they can speak to other members of their communities about FGM. They find out for themselves about people’s opinions and beliefs and report back to us. We want to continue working with young people because we feel that it’s the way forward – if we can change the mind of all the young people then we hope that in a generation we can abolish FGM.

When I started campaigning, if I said ‘FGM’ people wouldn’t know what it meant but four years later I hardly ever need to define it. Through my campaign, the work of a lot of other activists and media exposure we’ve increased awareness in Scotland, which is a huge step because people cannot protect others from something that they don’t know is happening, or understand.

We’ve trained hundreds of police, healthcare, social workers, lawyers and other frontline workers, on how to talk about FGM and the issues around it. With the NHS, for example, there were a lot of issues with women feeling uncomfortable speaking about FGM, due to fear that their culture would be seen as barbaric or uncivilised, and problems with the way questions were worded, which meant cases of FGM were missed. Although there is still more to be done to protect girls, greater awareness and understanding has been a big achievement.

Collective efforts from activists across the UK have removed legal loopholes from the ban on FGM to protect all women who reside here. Before, women who lived in the UK on visas or with children born here were excluded from the ban but now all residents are included. Performing FGM on children here, or taking them outside the UK for it, has been banned as well due to our lobbying. Midwives in Scotland are also starting to ask pregnant women from FGM-practising communities if they have experienced it and are recording these cases. We are also campaigning for the government to include FGM in sexual health lessons in schools to increase awareness.

I am so passionate about seeing an end to FGM that I’m happy to do whatever I can even if I don’t get paid for it, but I also have to live and the sustainability of the project and my work is a concern. We’re hoping to get more funding soon but finding money to do everything we want is a huge challenge in supporting women across Scotland. In London, there are specialised clinics to treat those affected by FGM but we don’t have that space here. Women don’t want to be examined and need someone to speak to them first, give them emotional support and encouragement before they can face such a big issue. Counselling and mental health support is limited here and even when it’s available there can be a long wait. It would be great to have the money to change this and be paid myself but I will volunteer to do whatever I can to see that girls are protected and affected women get the services they need.

When I first got involved, the most difficult part was acknowledging what I had been through, acknowledging that we may call it culture but it’s still child abuse. Growing up, everyone around me had experienced FGM but we were taught not to talk about it, to bury it and get on with things. So, it was tough to talk about, especially with my family as, at the beginning, they were not very happy with the work I was doing and felt it was wrong to speak up against my culture. I’ve also had a lot of nasty emails and social media messages, that at one point were so bad I de-activated all my accounts. People’s negative reactions have been a challenge; it feels good when someone says ‘well done you, you’re doing a great job and making a difference’ but it hurts when it turns the other way.

People like Kara Brown have been a great support and got me through times when I have almost given up. When pressures from my family and others to stop campaigning have got to me, Kara has always been there to encourage me and say ‘look, don’t worry about that, you’re doing a great job’. She’s been my rock; she’s always pushing me and motivating me. Another important person is Oonagh O’Brien, one of my lecturers at Queen Margaret University. She has been so supportive in my campaign and is the lead researcher on the My Voice Project. Every time I get upset I turn to them.  People at DARF have also been really supportive whenever issues arise.

My personal experience, although bringing many challenges, has also been a resource for training and accessing women affected by FGM. There’s a lot of information around FGM but when I do a presentation, the feedback I get from people is that they’ve read a lot of things and been to the training but the personal experience that I bring in makes a huge difference of their whole understanding and perspective towards female genital mutilation. It also facilitated discussions during my dissertation, as most of the women that I interviewed told me ‘I’m only speaking to you because I know that you know what I’m talking about. If it was anyone else, then I wouldn’t’.

There are women that I look up to because they started the wave for people like me. During my research I read a lot about Comfort Momoh and Efua Dorkenoo, both researchers and campaigners against FGM. Efua sadly died almost two years ago, but they are brilliant women, pioneers against female genital mutilation and, alongside Kara, have been like a rock to me. Another woman who has supported me is Alimatu Dimonekene. She runs a charity in London and because she has experienced FGM, I have a lot in common with her. When I feel down I phone her because she always gives me good advice and can encourage me by saying ‘I’ve been there as well’. She’s been amazing.

One of the main things on my list for the future is working with communities and young people because just working with professionals is not going to make any difference. At the end of the day, communities need to understand that FGM is wrong, they need to understand the implications of FGM and we cannot achieve that if we do not work with them. Part of the ‘My Voice’ project is also to work with men, because I believe that we cannot bring about this change without men’s involvement, as the ultimate reason for FGM practices is to please them. In a lot of communities, men won’t marry a woman who hasn’t had FGM, which is a big driving force for women cutting their daughters, despite knowing how it has affected them. If your daughter’s future depends on having a good husband, you do whatever possible to get them that, so we need men to accept marriages to women without FGM and we need fathers to say ‘I don’t want my daughter cut’. At DARF we are starting to work at these grassroots levels, and provided we find the funding, this is something we would love to continue.

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