Trainee FGM cutter who fled Gambia fights renewed risk to girls

A woman who stood up to her community and refused to be a ‘female genital mutilator’ is launching a campaign to protect tens of thousands of girls at risk of female genital mutilation again in her home country, Gambia.

Maimouna Jawo, 50, who was circumcised herself, was recently cleared by the Home Office to remain in Britain after more than a decade of waiting.

From her attic room in Hounslow, she is launching a new campaign on Facebook in Mandinka, the most spoken language in her country, to reach a new generation of girls and raise the alarm about the dangers of FGM.

She is also keen to reach their fathers and mothers and says many Gambian men enthusiastically support the practice. The UN Population Fund and UNICEF are jointly leading a global program to accelerate the eradication of FGM, to which an estimated 230 million girls and women worldwide are subjected.

Supporters of FGM in Gambia gather outside the national assembly in Banjul on March 18 as the government debated lifting the ban. Photo: Muhamadou Bittaye/AFP/Getty Images

The serious damage that female genital mutilation causes to psychological and physical health has been extensively documented.

While an asylum seeker in Britain, Jawo appeared in a BBC documentarymade more than ten years ago by the late journalist Sue Lloyd Roberts, in which the journalist protested to an imam in Gambia against false claims he made about women’s clitoris.

The Gambia passed laws banning FGM in 2015, at least partly thanks to the documentary and Jawo’s courageous decision, as a victim and someone who refused to be cutter, to speak out on camera.

Jawo comes from generations of cutters and was told from the age of 12 that it was her destiny to continue the work of her grandmother and her mother. She started her training at the age of 15 and was expected to miss school if she had to hold girls while the adult cutters performed FGM.

While passing the laws did not eliminate this practice, it was a step in the right direction. In Gambia, an estimated 73% of women between the ages of 15 and 49 have been circumcised.

But as Jawo sends an SOS via social media to people at risk in her home country, the Gambian government is considering overturning the ban on FGM.

Gambia: FGM supporters march to overturn ban – video

When Jawo was forced to help cut her own five-year-old daughter, she silently vowed never to perform FGM, even if her refusal would endanger her life.

“My daughter screamed for mommy as she was being cut, but it was mommy who held her legs down,” Jawo said.

She fled to Great Britain and applied for asylum. When her asylum application was recently processed, the BBC documentary with Jawo was shown in court.

“I have been fighting against FGM for so long and now that there is a chance of the ban on FGM being overturned in my country, I feel like my fight is going back to the beginning,” she said.

Jawo is working covertly with a group of women in some villages in Gambia to raise awareness about the dangers of FGM and the damage it can cause, and hopes to build a powerful force on the ground to stand up and say no to the practice.

“Now that I have my refugee status in Britain, it is very important for me to stand up and do something about what is happening in terms of FGM in my country. What is happening now in Gambia is very frightening. Whatever the government does about FGM, I will stand where I stood yesterday and where I stand today and where I will always stand on this issue. My message remains: ‘say no to FGM’.”