LONDON (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - When Alimatu Dimonekene underwent female genital mutilation (FGM) as a teenager in Sierra Leone, she was told she would die if she ever spoke about it. For more than 20 years she struggled with terrible flashbacks, depression and pain.
Then last year she broke her silence to tell her story at an event at Britain’s parliament. Her speech was so raw and powerful that even long-time campaigners against FGM were in tears.
Alimatu’s life hasn’t been the same since. On Tuesday she will speak at an international summit on ending FGM and child marriage, hosted by the British government in London.
Tens of thousands of girls and women in Britain have undergone FGM, but only a few have spoken out. Alimatu, a 44-year-old mother of three, is probably the first to talk so frankly about its devastating psychological impact.
Growing up in a privileged family in Sierra Leone, Alimatu was a confident teenager who loved pop music and current affairs. Her father, a Muslim turned atheist, was an engineer. Her mother, a Catholic, was a teacher who had been cut herself and wanted to spare her daughter the same ordeal.
However, when Alimatu’s parents decided to send her to university in Britain, her grandmother insisted she be cut before she left. Nothing was said to Alimatu.
“Getting me cut was my grandmother’s gift to me,” Alimatu says. “She saw it as a preparation for marriage, and she didn’t want me to forget my culture. She thought I would be ostracised if I wasn’t cut.”
FGM, an ancient ritual involving the partial or total removal of the external genitalia, is practised across a swathe of African countries. In Sierra Leone, it is carried out by traditional cutters during initiation ceremonies overseen by a powerful secret society called the Bondo.
At 16, Alimatu was taken to her grandmother’s house where her female relatives were gathered. She had no inkling what was about to happen.
“These were people I loved and trusted,” she says. “I was thrown to the floor and my legs were opened wide. I was stripped.
“My aunts were holding me down. My mother was screaming and being held back. I could hear the woman - the cutter - coming down the corridor. She was making a loud chanting sound, and I knew, because I’d heard that sound so many times, that it was just a matter of time for me.
“The woman was so drunk and had no medical expertise. I don’t think I was ever cleaned up afterwards because I lay in my own blood, dripping, bleeding. I just lay there thinking this is the end of my world.
“My grandmother’s bedroom had been a place full of happiness for me, and it became a place of terror after that. Even now I can smell the blood. I never went back to that room.”
After Alimatu was cut, her legs were bound together to stop the bleeding, but her injuries did not heal well.
Bondo initiations are steeped in mysticism and girls are sworn to secrecy, Alimatu says. “I was told if you ever talk about it, you will die.”
Alimatu was 22 before she heard the term female genital mutilation. By then she was living in London, married and about to give birth. The scarring from her FGM was so bad that doctors had to cut her in three places to get her baby out.
Childbirth also brought flashbacks. “They happened every time I gave birth. I was so scared. I couldn’t see I was going to have a baby, all I could see was that they were cutting me again.
“After my third child I was really down. I was all over the place, and I felt if I spoke up something bad would happen. My mind has been messed up by this.”
The effects of FGM have damaged her marriage, and her depression got so bad that she sometimes stood on London Bridge and considered ending her life.
Last year she began counselling and has been diagnosed with post traumatic stress disorder. “I still have flashbacks - the screams, the sounds and the smell of blood. These things do not go away,” she says.
Although Britain outlawed FGM in 1985, a recent study estimated 65,000 girls are at risk. Some girls are taken abroad for FGM, but Alimatu says others are cut in Britain - if no one hears the screams, it’s probably because pillows are stuffed over their faces.
In the last two years there has been an increasingly vocal campaign to stop FGM, which politicians, prosecutors and police say must be treated as child abuse.
Alimatu describes the evening she spoke at the House of Commons last November as “a massive turning point” in her life. “I realised my voice could reach people and was powerful and that I did not have to stay silent.”
She has since spoken at the European Parliament in Brussels and started working as an FGM prevention trainer in east London. She is also helping police with an initiative at airports aimed at preventing girls being cut abroad during the school holidays.
“We’ve reached a tipping point in Britain,” Alimatu says. “If we keep up this momentum on FGM, I think we can end it in our generation.”