Fiery Khadija fights the horror of genital mutilation
“A-lo!” She shouted down the line. (A mutual friend had warned me that the Sierra Leone-born Australian was “full-on”, “fiery”.)
I took the phone away from my ear and placed it on speaker so I could better hear the electric mix of loud, bouncing West African intonations and subtle Australian inflexions bubbling from the phone.
At once I understood how 26-year-old Khadija Gbla had accomplished so much in such a short time.
Khadija’s social work has won her many awards – the Australia Day Young Citizen Award (2008), Young Achiever of the Year Award (2009), Young African Australian of the Year (2011), named among Australia’s top 100 Inspiring Women by Madison magazine (2013)- and in 2013 Amnesty International declared Khadija a Human Rights Activist to watch.
In 2001, when only 13, Khadija’s family became the first Sierra Leoneans to be resettled in South Australia after being granted refugee status through the United Nation’s Refugee Program.
“I was not always so outspoken,” she began, “As a child I would run behind my mother’s back when people came to visit.”
However, things are little different now: “My family probably wishes I would just shut up,” she laughed.
Khadija’s outspoken and relentless campaigning against domestic violence and female genital mutilation (FGM) has put some noses out of joint within her community.
FGM is “patriarchy at its very best,” she said.
“If men said they would not marry a woman who has been circumcised, then the numbers would drop, people would stop FGM in an instant.
“Most of our community leaders pretend that there aren’t any problems with FGM… They don’t make the connection between FGM and the health complications women suffer from.”
Women, who have been “butchered,” as Khadija puts it frankly, can suffer from things like terrible period pain, infection, infertility and death. Not to mention mental trauma and child marriage.
In 1991, long before Khadija stood up and decided to do something about her situation, her family fled the brutal violence that claimed 200,000 lives in the Sierra Leonean civil war.
Khadija’s grandfather had been part of the traditional political system in Sierra Leone and as a result, she said “we had a red mark on our forehead”.
Just as the RUF rebel forces came out of the bush and started to maim and slaughter civilians, Khadija’s mother packed up what she and her two daughters could carry and fled on foot – “a lot of running and hiding” – to an unofficial refugee camp in neighbouring Gambia where they lived for several years before “they [the Australian Government] chose us”.
“You see,” she said, “when you’re a refugee it’s not about picking or choosing where you want to go. We were at the mercy of the refugee system and all we could do was apply and wait.”
However, life in Australia wasn’t quite the “heaven” Khadija had hoped for.
“I was constantly sick. I was constantly bullied at school and I was constantly abused at home,” she said.
“In 2001 they were unprepared for us, you couldn’t get on a bus without people moving away because you were black or you smelt or looked funny.
“I still get people telling me to go back to where I came from,” she said.
Just before Khadija arrived in Australia her mother had told her that they were going on a holiday. But, when she was taken to an obscure hut in the bush and “a lady came out with a rusty knife”. Khadija remembered thinking, “This lady is going to kill me.”
“I thought: she’s coming for my neck… But that’s not what she did, my mother had me pinned down on the ground and the next thing I knew she was cutting and cutting and cutting until she was finished.”
It wasn’t until Khadija had been in Australia she finally realised what had happened to her.
“I was at a female circumcision information program when I saw the pictures and thought: Oh, God, that’s me, I’m one of those people they’re talking about, I’ve been mutilated,” she said in a way that poked fun at her initial ignorance about FGM.
Right now Khadija is running a campaign (www.change.org) to make FGM a mainstream topic. The campaign is calling on prime minister Tony Abbott to fund a taskforce that will address FGM in Australia.
“As we speak little girls are bleeding to death because of FGM,” she said.
“FGM is not just a nick, or a cut, or a scratch. FGM means what it says, it’s a mutilation, it’s a worthless, evil act.”
Khadija Gbla is also filming a documentary about FGM for the ABC.