A lawyer who campaigned against female genital mutilation (FGM) in Sudan for several years is about to launch a campaign in Malta.
Hadia Bashir was forced to undergo the practice at five years old but it was the death of her best friend due to FGM that had pushed her to say enough is enough.
FGM has been a crime in Malta since 2014. However, in 2018, a study estimated that about half the girls on the island originating from countries like Somalia, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Egypt, Sudan, Nigeria and Sierra Leone are at risk of FGM.
According to the study by the European Institute for Gender Equality, the population of girls from these countries in Malta stands at just under 500.
Refugee parents are still sending their daughters outside Malta to undergo the practice, even though it is against the law, Ms Bashir explains – and ignorance has a lot to do with it.
“A lot of families actually do not know it is a crime for their girls to undergo genital mutilation, even in another country, and a lot of men are not aware of the serious health consequences it inflicts on their daughters.”
The procedure, which is performed predominantly in African and Arab states, involves the partial or total removal of the external female genitalia or other injury to the female genital organs for non-medical reasons.
In Ms Bashir’s community in Sudan, the custom also involves ‘infibulation’, a practice by which a young girl’s vaginal orifice is narrowed through a process of sewing together the two sides of the vulva.
When the girl eventually gets married, she then needs to undergo the trauma of being cut back open to facilitate sexual intercourse and childbirth, and then being sewed back up.
The complications are numerous: infections, extremely painful menstruation because the blood cannot flow out properly and psychological trauma.
For Ms Bashir’s friend, having to be opened back during delivery caused her to bleed to death. And the loss – the senselessness of it – is something Ms Bashir is still trying to come to terms with today.
Women who have this done to them are disabled
“Imagine giving your child to the midwife knowing she is going to be raised by someone else,” she says, clutching her own four-year old daughter close to her.
“And there are many like my friend who lose their lives each year because of female genital mutilation.”
Her campaign to stop girls having to undergo such a process was cut short in Sudan because it upset the leaders of her tribe.
But this year, Ms Bashir, who lives in Malta, will be continuing her work on the island.
She will be conducting her campaign as outreach officer at TAMA, an organisation being set up to tackle sexual and gender-based violence, human rights and disability rights within the migrant community.
The 2018 European study reported an imbalance between the high number of girls at risk of female genital mutilation and the low prosecution rates in Malta.
But it also found that strong laws and anti-FGM campaigns are powerful deterrent factors.
The campaign will first involve addressing the lack of knowledge regarding FGM among migrant communities, including men.
It will also coordinate with the authorities to better identify girls who have been forced to undergo FGM and to enforce the law protecting girls against it.
This will involve close work with the education department and the training of staff to recognise signs that a girl has recently undergone the procedure, for example, the inability to sit for long periods at a time.
Ms Bashir argues that when families start facing prosecution for putting their daughters through FGM, fewer girls will have this done to them.
And the importance of rooting out this practice cannot be overstated, she says.
“In my opinion, the women who have this done to them are disabled. This is a disability.
“You lose part of your body, and you have to deal with this all your life. Psychologically you begin to hate yourself as a female.”